Seven months ago I pushed a painful truth down as far as it would go. I got busy and ignored its quiet but persistent knocking at my subconscious. I believed that I could go about my business and let it lie in the murky depths indefinitely. The events of the past week have shown me otherwise.
My agonizing truth is this; Michael was physically assaulted by his teacher on the 10th of February last year and I was not there to protect him.
I had a feeling that the situation in Michael’s classroom was building to a dangerous pitch and yet, day after day, I sent him off to school, heels dragging. I allowed him to inhabit a toxic classroom environment in which he was verbally and emotionally abused day after day. I listened to Max tell me that he was tired of hearing Michael’s teacher yell his name as he sat in his own classroom across the hall. I listened, every time I walked by Michael’s classroom, to his teacher singling Michael out for something he had done (or not done). And I observed sadly from the hall as Michael was cruelly berated during a music activity even though he was doing exactly what he had been asked to do. I watched as confusion and pain flickered across Michael’s face and my heart shattered like glass.
I wanted to go into that classroom, bundle Michael up and tell him that he would never, ever have to face that kind of abuse again. I wanted to walk right up to Michael’s teacher and tell her that she was hurting my child with her constant cruelty. Instead, I turned away and cried in the bathroom. Then I went to the principal to launch yet another complaint to add to the large file.
I felt powerless. I felt like I had no choices. I felt like my voice would not be heard. I felt like I was stuck in a system that made no sense to me. I was afraid of rocking the boat. I was afraid that people would think I was a pest. I didn’t do my job. No matter which way I slice it, I did not do my job and I am suffering the painful truth of that reality. When he needed me the most, I did not protect my child.
Those of you reading this might quickly jump to my defence and say; “don’t be so hard on yourself Katie, you did your best, you had no control over that teacher’s actions and you had no idea that she would snap like that.” I agree with all of you and thank you for jumping in to protect me. However, it doesn’t change the fact that my child suffered at the hands of someone else and I knew about it. There is a loud voice that, today, is drowning out your loving and empathetic voices. Even though it is exquisitely painful I must give it audience or its yelling will just keep getting louder; “Bad, bad mother! How could you send Michael to school to a teacher that was damaging his already delicate self-esteem? Even if she had not pulled him down the stairs you knew she was emotionally abusing Michael. Why didn’t you stop it sooner? Why didn’t you do something? Anything? How could you have let this happen?”
I have been able to successfully push this painful voice down until last week when school started again. We had the summer to recover and heal from the trauma of last year. We had a chance to have fun and be off the treadmill of school and have-to(s). Michael had the chance to build some tenuous self-esteem and I had the chance to feel like a good mom again. As August was winding down I could feel panic start to set in. In my naïveté, I assumed it was just concern for Michael and the school year ahead. Never did it occur to me that it was paralyzing fear for his safety.
The tight seal on my painful truth was ruptured innocently last Wednesday morning as I approached Michael’s new teacher in the schoolyard. As the mother of three boys I am well aware that the first day of school means filling out reams of paperwork after they have all been tucked safely into their beds. Max and Zachary both brought home their packages to be completed for the following day but Michael did not. I asked him about it when he awakened Wednesday morning and saw panic flit across his face. He assured me it was there, went to his backpack and vainly searched through every pocket. He was sure he had brought the forms home and became quite agitated that they were not there. I was able to calm him down by assuring him that I would talk to his teacher before school and we would get the forms together.
As we walked to school Michael worried the whole way. I kept reassuring him that we would work it out together and I would help him find the forms. I approached Michael’s teacher to let her know that the package had not come home the night before and asked if I could come into the school to get it. She was quite firm in her response that Michael was told clearly to take the forms home the night before. She told me I did not need to come into the school and that it was Michael’s responsibility to track them down and get them into his bag. The bell rang and his class was whisked into the school. I didn’t even get a chance to kiss him goodbye. I had assured him that I would help him and yet there I stood in the schoolyard as he went into school feeling like I had let him down and abandoned him. I suddenly felt as if I were sending him into the lion’s den yet again and as the schoolyard emptied I felt blind panic wash over me.
Here we go again was all I could think and my body felt like it had been filled with lead. I dragged myself home and spent the entire day crying on and off.
I couldn’t figure out why a harmless interaction with Michael’s new teacher would have such a disastrous impact. Of course the teacher wants to teach her students responsibility. Of course I didn’t need to go into the school to find the forms. I knew Michael was perfectly capable of getting a stapled package of forms into his bag. So why was I feeling like I was falling into a bottomless abyss? It came to me as I told Simon about the brief schoolyard interaction; I was afraid for Michael. I was afraid for his delicate self-esteem and, more shockingly, I was terrified for his safety. Once that epiphany struck I realized I needed help. And I realized that if I was struggling with feelings of vulnerability and fear, then Michael probably was too.
Almost without thinking I picked up the phone and reached out for Paul, the child and family therapist we had done some work with three summers ago. I cried on the phone as I was making the appointments; one for us and one for Michael. Paul gently reassured me that I was doing the right thing and that he could help. The following day at 2:00pm Simon and I were sitting in his office spinning the tale of last year. As we talked I could feel my heart getting heavier and my body getting squeamish. As Simon described the assault I started to cry. Paul gave voice to my shame as if it was no big deal; “so you feel like you weren’t there to protect him, eh?” I felt completely naked and exposed as he named my pain and my disgrace. I realized then that I needed some help to sort through the agonizing contents of my Pandora’s Box so I booked my own appointment.
The following morning I sat in Paul’s office listening to Michael’s version of last year’s assault; “my friend and I were playing Leap Frog going up the stairs and my teacher got really mad at me. She grabbed me really hard and hurt my arm; she screamed right in my face and yanked me down. I fell down the stairs and I hurt my butt and my head.” As I sat listening to Michael’s account I cried silently with a heart that felt utterly broken. Paul asked Michael if he thinks about that morning and Michael casually responded that it pops into his head all the time. He told Paul he thinks about it and feels; “like I am falling and falling into a dark hole.” He told Paul he is angry with himself for not doing anything to defend himself and that he feels sad and worthless; “I feel like a piece of crud all the time, just a piece of crud walking around.”
So now the lid has been completely removed and the truth is out. The pain is so acute I have been struggling to catch my breath. I have always thought of myself as a strong mother who would protect her children no matter what. I was absolutely certain that I would brandish my sword and chase away any demons that would dare set foot anywhere near my babies. I would confront darkness and horror with ease and my children would sleep snug and safe in their beds. I look back on the version of myself one year ago and I am ashamed. There was ugly darkness all around us and not once did I remove my sword from its scabbard. Instead, I trusted the system to do my job for me and it failed utterly.
I’d like to think that I have learned valuable lessons from last year. I’d like to think that I will never stand for one of my children being mistreated again. I’d like to think that my sword is now razor-sharp and ready to do battle at the least provocation. I’d like to think that I did not fail Michael. I’d like the images of what happened last year to finally start to recede.
I went to the gym this morning with the intention of sweating all this out. I grabbed Simon’s iPod as I rushed out the door just before 6:00am. As I arrived at the gym I decided to just play through all the music on his Shuffle and skip the songs I didn’t like. For those of you who have read my posting called ‘The Light of Connemara’, you will understand the impact when that beautiful song was suddenly playing in my ears. There I was, sweating my worries away and my dear friend Dan reached into my heart to sing Michael’s lullaby just for me. I almost fell off the treadmill as I tried not to break down and weep desperately. When I was feeling as hopeless and lost as I ever have, there was Dan to hold me, soothe me and make me feel less alone.
I managed to get through Dan’s song and continue my workout. I had barely recovered my equilibrium when Paul McCartney started to sing ‘Let it Be’. Needless to say, I cracked. I let the tears come. I let his words reach me way, down deep inside my tender soul. I allowed myself to cry and I allowed the pain to finally be expressed. It felt like my chest was splitting apart but I somehow managed to stay brave and allow the onslaught of physical and emotional pain. As he sang to me I felt in tender community with all those souls who have had times of trouble and yet still managed to hear the loving voice of Mother Mary. I let myself feel utterly grateful for the gift of music speaking to me when words would have been too painful. I let him guide me to a place where I could live with my fallible humanity.
I let it be.
So here is the message I got early this morning just as the sun was making its dazzling appearance; ‘let it be’ is what I need to do. I am the only one who can forgive myself for what happened to Michael. I am the only one who can let me off the hook. I need to forgive; myself, the teacher and the broken system. I know that I need to forgive if we are to heal. Those images will always be with me but they do not have to haunt my dreams anymore. I can appreciate that with the passing of so much darkness there can be light again. Maybe I can heal right along with Michael. And maybe I can even give myself permission to be less than perfect, to be human. Perhaps I can travel back a year and stand with that overwhelmed, scared and confused mother who truly did not know what to do. As I imagine standing with her I can forgive her and I can love her. And that is truly all she ever needed.
As I stepped outside the gym into the beautiful September morning, I could feel the quantum shift that had just occurred. It felt as if the burden of carrying my painful truth was feeling a little easier. I felt the deepest gratitude to whoever it was looking over me this morning as the perfect music was sent to me to encourage me to let go and start healing. As I walked home to my family I felt in miraculous community with forces that I cannot see or touch. I marvelled yet again at the miraculous unfolding of this epic journey and the power of the open secret.