It’s been over thirty-five years and still the memory rattles inside my mind’s closet, until I’m forced to take it out and look at it once more.
She was in my fifth grade class. I always thought of her as poor but in truth, her family was probably no worse off financially than mine.
I don’t remember where she sat in my class. But she must have sat close enough to me that I became aware of her tears, even though she never made a sound. I don’t remember how we ended up in the girls’ bathroom – me, her, and another girl. I do remember her crying. She stepped into a stall and motioned us closer. She turned around, raised her shirt and lowered her pants and underwear. The image of her injured body seared into my mind. I can still see the myriad of black, blue, and sickly green bruises that covered her back, buttocks and thighs. Even now, thirty-five years later, I cringe. The damage inflicted by a belt buckle was like nothing I had ever seen. I don’t know how she walked much less sat in a hard, wooden desk.
She was scared and hurt and she swore us to secrecy. I was ten years old, naïve and afraid for my friend. I didn’t know what to do so I did what a ten-year old kid does. I promised to keep that secret. And I did.
For thirty-five years, that promise has haunted me. It’s taken years to forgive the little girl that I once was – the little girl who didn’t realize that speaking up might have gotten her friend into a safer environment. After all, child abuse was one of those things we didn’t talk about.
Looking back, I can’t help but ask? How did my teacher, the custodian, the lunch ladies – miss her tears? Did they just not want to see? Because I was there – and it was hard to miss.