Saturday, April 26, 2008

Remembering Barbara and Learning from Her Life

I knew the face. Last week the pages of local papers were plastered with the faces of two young people, the latest victims of domestic violence. My state has been experiencing a terrible escelation in violence recently, and the headlines have grown all too familiar. But there's a strange phenomenon with teachers. Sometimes you recognize a face and wonder if it's somebody you know from charity events, or the preschool pickup, or... And sometimes you get a funny little feeling that it's one of "your kids." They used to make jokes about how teachers had eyes in the backs of their heads. Thing is... if you are or were a teacher, you'll know what I mean... you never really forget "your kids."

And I knew that face.

I avoided looking at the articles too closely for a few days. It's not like I haven't had similar experiences. Mr. Smith of This or That Lane was arrested on drunk driving charges. Name's familiar. Puzzle pieces fall. Fifth period Psychology. He always wore a baseball cap. Or I bump into someone and they call me "Ms Olie." A few words into the standard greeting a tumbler clunk happens and I recall a girl who had deep golden hair, not platinum blonde, who drew incredible pencil portraits in the margins of her notebook. Cindy, she used to snort when she giggled.

Yeah, I knew Barbara. But I knew Barbara. Not THIS PERSON they've written about. I had her as a student on a long-term substitute job. I was there for a little less than a year. She sat by the windows, third seat back, behind another girl named Trish. She was pretty. She was smarter than she thought, and blossomed when she was praised. And now I will always wonder if more praise could have given her the confidence she needed to find someone who could love her better, more healthily. I wondered, too, did I miss a boyfriend who was unkind, even then? My memory is that she didn't have a boyfriend.

Violence starts early as a pattern for so many young people. Liz Claiborne offers a great section on their Love is Not Abuse site for teens. On that site is a list of ten warning signs that may actually surprise you. Canceling plans at the last minute for suspicious reasons, making excuses for the other person: sounds pretty normal for a young girl with a boyfriend. But combine these behaviors with others, or note a pattern... now some red flags need to go up.

It often concerns me how casually young people talk of toxic patterns in relationships without really seeming to internalize the danger. "He's very bossy with her. He checks where she is constantly." It may seem normal. "If we go out he calls her, like, ten times. It's so annoying. She can't be with her friends anymore." It may seem like just a typical teen in love. But failing to recognize those kinds of behaviors as problematic is both unhealthy and potentially dangerous. And it creates habits that can, as in Barbara's case, take you to places later in life you don't ever want to go. The papers say Barbara wanted out; told friends she would leave.

You really do remember them forever. Hundreds. But you were given a serious responsibility: the gaurdianship of their minds for a while. If you are very lucky, and make a connection, you find these bright faces turning to you. You sit at a rickety desk in a dusty classroom after all the buses have gone, and a kid walks in looking like he'd rather eat dirt than ask, but knows he can trust you. Or you just give the guy who never talks, sits with his sweatshirt pulled up, sulking, a big grin and hand him a paper with a 96 on top and get a big grin in response. Just that. Big grin. Day made.

Even later, when you stop teaching. Tom, who walked up to me at CVS and said "you're the reason I'm a writer." (I cried, Tom, in my car when you drove off.) Jen, who emails me every month or so. She's a physical therapist. Danny, who used to always seek me out at the theater when I was still writing movie reviews. Barbara...

I wasn't close to her. She was only my student for a while. I was covering for another teacher who had been in an accident. But I remember her. I remember shiny, shiny hair and a sweet laugh. I remember her looking out the window a lot. I wonder, now, what it was she was thinking as she stared off into a day bright with promise. I wonder if a magical phrase might have changed things for her. I wonder how her husband, who was a brilliant kid (or so they tell me) became so utterly, utterly lost. I know I won't forget her. I will always, now, be haunted by that lovely profile turned toward the light of the windows, searching.

If you, or someone you care about is in a situation that makes you uncomfortable, please look at the following resources.

LC's Love is Not Abuse

Love is Respect

Cool Nurse's Dating Violence Page

Need Help Fast? Call the National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline: 1-866-331-9474


  1. Personally, I loathe abusers. And feel a lot of pity for them.

    My ex father-in-law was loathsome to my ex-wife. He stopped when I told him that if he continued there would be consequences.

    I wish more people would do that sort of thing, make it clear that some behaviours aren't tolerated.

    Myself, I blame the control freak nature of our society, especially for men. We're supposed to be 'in control', all the time. If you aren't you're 'weak', not really a man.

    So too many men would rather kill or assault than 'lose their control'. Sad, and rather sick.

  2. This is heartbreaking and so, so important. THANK YOU for sharing your perspective. I'll be praying for her family.

  3. I wish I had the magical thing to say here. Thank you for posting this..your story and the links.

    Love shouldn't hurt. Never settle for anyone less than the person who would give his last breath making sure you were safe from harm. If you feel the same about him...that is the One.

  4. a beautiful tribute wrapped up in a very important message.

    On another note, I love teachers like you. Right now, we're having a lot of problems with one teacher and I wish she had half the love for teaching and students. But she doesn't and it shows. Sigh.

    We need more teachers like you in the world.

  5. So right! My sister is an an abusive relationship and was in it since she was a teen. PLEASE PLEASE, girls if he is bing 'overprotective' it's NOT romantice! A man should be strong enough to let you do your own thing. It's the first sign when he starts putting your down or checking up on your or trying to control what you do. It might be 6months into the relationship when it starts but it's better to break if off then and have a little heartache rather than a lifetime of abuse that will break your spirit, take away years off your life or worse.

    WTG Chris

  6. Anonymous9:50 AM

    Thank you so much for calling attention to this important cause. It was a beatuiful tribute to your student and my heart goes out to her family.