When I was eight years old my mother announced that she felt inspired to make special gifts for my brother and I to give to our teachers on the last day of school before Christmas. I intentionally left mine at home, and yet during homeroom I looked up to see my older sister at the doorway. She drove the gifts to school and told me “you forgot these!” as she put them into my backpack before leaving just as quickly. She didn’t ask me if I had actually forgotten them or why, she felt entitled to tell me what I had done and then leave me stuck with them. The problem is, my 4th grade teacher Mr. Kresge was verbally abusive and cruel. Every time I came in with no homework, he would mock and rant at me in front of the class, asking “what song and dance do you have for me this time?” It’s true, I didn’t tell him about the late night pedophile orgies that went on at my house, I didn’t tell him that the moment I got home from school I would often be beaten or locked outside in the cold by my older brother; I didn’t tell him that I had just been abandoned by my older sister after she went away to college, leaving me alone in hell; I didn’t tell him about my alcoholic mother or how because of all of this I spent all of my free time dissociating and trying desperately to cope with the abuse.
Of course I couldn’t have told him that. No, when he demanded a reason each day I said that I had forgotten it at home or lost it. The fact is, I didn’t have the concentration, time or resources to do spelling homework. And I couldn’t do any take-home projects for the same reason, and also because we had no supplies at home and I was deathly afraid of more abuse if I asked my parents to get me some. But he didn’t care; my teacher liked to pick up my desk in front of the class and empty the entire contents onto the floor, then he would shout “Well, here’s the worksheet; and you said you left it at home!” Other times he would do it when I had left the room because he said my desk was ‘too messy,’ and then he would wave around whatever personal items I had in there, offering them to the student who raised their hand first.
I was bullied severely in 4th grade, by a group of boys in my class who would spend every day at recess chasing me around and trying to beat me up. One day the leader punched me in the stomach extremely hard as we were walking back into school. In class I set my math textbook upright in front of my face, so no one would see me crying. But Clarissa, a girl in my class did and she told the teacher that Adam had punched me in the stomach and I needed to go the nurse . In response he smirked and with a little laugh said “He doesn’t have to see the nurse!” Mr. Kresge didn’t see it in his duties to write Adam up and send him to the principal either. The next day the bully and his friends openly bragged about it, saying “I bet he was crying so loud last night they could hear him a block away!” And they got away with all of it, because the biggest bully in our class was the teacher.
Mr. Kresge loved to reminisce by telling us sadistic stories of how he had humiliated students in the past. Once he talked about a boy who was “acting like a baby all the time” and so instead of inquiring about what was going on at home or sending him to the guidance counselor, the teacher forced him to walk around school wearing a diaper all week, to punish and humiliate him, undoubtedly leaving lifetime scars. Our school, detestably, still allowed corporal punishment so long as teachers gave students twenty-four hour notice before hitting them; which was apparently enough of a killjoy that it was rarely used. However Mr. Kresge didn’t always give notice, he would have me stay after class sometimes while the other students were already in gym and the door was locked, and he would hit me. I remember being backhanded by him so hard that I hit the floor and blacked out; and when I got up he told me “We can do this again tomorrow, and every day after that until you get the point.” I hated my 4th grade teacher, he was a violent, cruel. irresponsible scumbag who shouldn’t have been allowed to work with children. I hated his guts and dreaded going to school on account of him.
So on the day of our class Christmas party I tried to ignore the gift forced into my bag with his name on it, and just enjoy the day. We had a drawing where we would each win a prize, meaning a little slip of paper with a ‘class privilege’ on it. I honestly didn’t understand what mine meant, so I went and asked him, and he told me it was something much less exciting then what other students got (like ‘be the third person to stand up for the pledge of allegiance’.) When I said ‘that’s lame’ under my breath as I started to walk away he stopped me in a rage, took it back and threw it in the trash. Clarissa said she would trade with me if I didn’t like mine, but I had to tell her no, he had taken mine back. Soon after that was the Secret Santa gift exchange. Everyone was supposed to bring in a gift to place under the tree but I had been too afraid to ask my parents for something. Yet I was also nervous and embarrassed about not having anything to share so I kept looking for a way out, thinking maybe I could just go to the bathroom when the gift exchange happened and no one would notice. But then Mr. Kresge announced loudly in front of the whole class that anyone who didn’t bring in a gift should raise their hand immediately. I didn’t want everyone to know, so I struggled and ultimately didn’t raise my hand.
I thought back on this so many times as a child, wondering what else I could do as the gifts were randomly handed out. But in the moment I froze, and then gave in to wishful thinking that somehow it would go unnoticed and there would be enough gifts to go around anyway. It was only a minute or two before a boy raised his hand to point out that he brought a gift but wasn’t given one. The teacher yet again blared in front of everyone “Did anyone not bring in a gift?” “I bet it was Caden!” a girl in class who hated me exclaimed. I was filled with horror when afterwards the teacher made me admit in front of the whole class that I had brought nothing and repeat after him who the gift really belonged to and then hand it to the other boy. My quest to not be humiliated or berated that day by my parents, by the teacher or other students thus failed entirely; I was more embarrassed and exposed then ever before. And being exposed was one of the things I feared most in childhood. I wanted very badly to escape the reality that I was abused; that people took off my clothes and made me do disgusting things with them. I was desperate for dignity, and wanted a way of life that involved as much privacy as possible, so no one would know.
But now they all did; I went into the bathroom until I could stop crying, and was avoided by other students for the rest of the day. Yet there I had in my backpack an unwrapped gift (thus ineligible for being re-purposed towards the secret Santa even if I had access to such agency) and a card attached to it made out to my teacher thanking him for being such a great guy. My mother knew that every year there was a secret santa in elementary school, but she didn’t think to get or make me something for it. Likewise my mother and sister never asked if my teacher was nice, if he treated me well and created a safe, kind classroom environment. They just treated the matter as if “he’s a teacher so he deserves respect and you SHOULD give him a gift no matter what!” So at the end of the day after everyone else had left the now dark room, I reluctantly placed the gift on his desk. He gave me back a little card with a phony thank you message on it after Christmas break was over, and of the course the abuse continued for the rest of the year.
I felt so ashamed of my behavior that day, and I certainly didn’t tell this story to my family when I got home or to anyone else, ever. I know my parents wouldn’t have taken any responsibility, but instead shame me even more, tell me all the things I “should have done.” Or they would have just implied like my teacher that I was some stupid, selfish greedy kid who “wanted something for nothing” and got what he deserved. But I was eight years old, and I was the responsibility of these people who abused and taught me many dysfunctional and wrong messages that I couldn’t just magically shake off. I know my mother had acted as if getting a present for the secret Santa at school was an onerous burden on her the year before, thus making it even scarier for me to bring it up. And I know that in previous years my teachers organized the secret santa better; sending guidelines home to parents and making sure well before the gift exchange how many presents were under the tree and why; they didn’t leave it all until the last minute and make a scene in front of the whole class.
It’s amazing to me how compartmentalized my memory of this day was before writing this post. I remembered each instance separately, as if they took place during different years and not all on the same day. Naturally, that is what my mind had to do at the time in order to try and escape the pain and trauma. But compartmentalizing also meant that I was never able to see the bigger picture, to realize the contradictions and messages I was being given. Separating everything out made it easier to cope but also easier to blame myself for everything. But I was not to blame for what happened that day and I did not deserve to feel more shame and self-hatred on account of it. Society seems run on the idea that it’s right to maintain very harsh, punitive expectations and judgments on children’s behavior whether their needs are being met, whether they’re being abused and violated horribly, whether they’re actually being given the chance to make healthy choices in their lives or not. But I disagree with that; children are not circus animals that can be made to perform whatever their parents or society wants, they will reflect what is actually being done to them. and act out when they are abused.
It is the child’s needs and the child’s interests that should be coming first, not mindless busywork and ego trips. I loved learning, reading books and exploring interesting new concepts as a child, but I hated school. Because it was no better then at home, my voice and my rights were never taken into consideration at either place. And the school worked with my abusive parents to put me down and go over my head to make my life worse, they never called CPS (the furthest they were willing to go was to have an outside therapist come in and talk to me after he had already met with my parents.) I had to go alone in taking the step to leave school in later years to pursue independent study, but I’m so glad I did it because it opened my world up to so much that I wasn’t finding in the authoritarian, uncreative, bullying environment at school.