Saturday, March 2, 2013

Frankenstein or Jaws?

          Wearing a red plaid flannel shirt and a pair of men's jeans, Lida stepped hesitantly into my classroom. Her Afro was trimmed quite close. With her straight up and down physique, she could have been mistaken for a boy. I welcomed her warmly, but she neither looked directly at me, nor did she return my smile. She didn't want to sit down, choosing instead to stand in the far back corner the entire first day of school.  She was correctly placed in my room, I knew that for sure.
         At sixteen, this sad-eyed bi-racial girl never wore makeup, but always wore a long-sleeved flannel shirt and jeans. It was like her uniform. She cooperated well with instruction and was actually a very bright young woman. Of course, in my class, bright was always a relative term. The rest of my students were all there for the same general reason: each one was normal or near normal intellectually, but functioned at a level that put them in the range of being severely developmentally disabled. To put it another way, they were mentally ill or had another condition that prevented them from performing at their maximum level of intelligence. They were not regular high school material. I called my classroom the "junior college" of our special school for intellectually handicapped kids.
        Like many of the others, Lida had been traumatized. At first, the social worker was very obtuse about exactly what had happened to her. She dodged my occasional inquiries with comments like, "It really won't help you to know",  and "You should speak with her mother about that."  Even these days, with my current students, I generally do not make it a practice to know all the gruesome details of their lives. Too much information can make it difficult to be the fair-handed educator, instead of their therapist. I decided to wait until parent conference time in the fall, and just cover the topic with her mother then.
        I discovered the the extent of damage to Lida the third day of school. The building principal was "making his rounds" and he knocked on my classroom door, peeking through the window in the door.  Because she had insisted that she did not want anyone sitting behind her, Lida was seated in the back of the room,  near the bank of windows on my east wall. Seeing his mustached face and hearing his first three or four firm knocks, Lida jumped out of her desk, nearly knocking it over. She extended her arms at shoulder level out in front of her and started growling; then she began pacing back and forth in front of the windows, marching with large stiff steps, like Frankenstein. The effect she was aiming for was perfectly obvious.  She never took her eyes off the door.  The "monster" was on guard in the rear of my class. 
       Dr. Haider, was a sweet older Pakistani gentleman. He had a developmentally disabled son of his own and was very loving and gentle toward all the students. He heard the loud noises coming from my room and  opened the door.
       Lida shouted, "You need to leave! Frankenstein is angry and dangerous! Get out!"
       Dr. Haider knew exactly what to do. He backed out and closed the door behind him. Lida completed stomping two more lengths of the classroom and returned to her seat; then she crossed her arms on top of the desk and put her head down. I just stood there, not moving or speaking, while this thirty second drama played itself out. The other students resumed their lessons.
       A similar incident occurred two days later. A  male custodian came into the room to examine our wall of windows for their winter readiness. (That's the sort of thing you need to do in early September in Minnesota.)
      This time, Lida abruptly stood up again, then backed a few steps into the corner of the room, with a fixed stare at the man. She put one of her hands on each side of her mouth and started clasping her fingers in  chomping motions, while simultaneously making loud chomping sounds with her own teeth. In a low, almost bass rumbling voice, Lida warned, "Look out for Jaws! Look out for Jaws!" Her eyes were fierce, but also fearful.
        The custodian retreated to the hall, just as the principal had, saying he would be back after school. Lida returned to her seat, and put her head down for a while.  The movie Jaws had been released the previous summer and most of my students had seen it. They were very complimentary about Lida’s shark simulation, but she did not thank them. It was serious business for her, not entertainment. We had episodes like this less than once a week after Lida became more familiar with the male adults in the building. The females caused no alarm for her, but any unknown man she saw sent her into her Jaws or Frankenstein terror. At outside recess,  I had to make sure she did not venture too close to the six-foot high chain link fence that surrounded out downtown school playground. An unsuspecting man passing by on the sidewalk could trigger one of these episodes. She would still get that fearful wide-eyed look when around the familiar men, but not resort to the scary imitations. Her purposeful androgynous appearance provided some cushion for her; many folks thought she was a boy.
       At fall parent conferences, Lida’s mother came at the scheduled time. We usually wanted to have students at the conferences, but her mom had left Lida at home. When I joined this mother at the conference table, she already had tears rolling down her face. The social worker had her arm around Lida’s mother and was comforting her. Smiling at me and patting the mother’s shoulder, the social worker assured me that these tears were tears of joy. She was so happy Lida was staying in school,  making friends, and not resisting attendance.
      “After all she has been through,” Mom finally explained, “she deserves to feel safe and happy. I know she will never be the same after this rape, but I am willing to do whatever it takes to make her feel protected.
      Why hadn't the social worker told me at the beginning of the school year that Lida had been raped? I had thought all along that the root of her behavior was probably rape, or some other sort of sexual assault.  Within the first week of school, I had seen Lida transform herself into two impervious characters in the presence of unknown men. She was afraid of most men and her adaptive behavior was to transform herself into those extremely frightening creatures. Pretty clever, really. Who is less vulnerable than Jaws or Frankenstein?  Obviously, this reaction seems a little extreme, even for a rape. Rape is horrific crime, and Lida had been raped horrifically, by several men, several times. Lida had lost herself. Most of the time, her eyes looked much like the ones at the top of this blog. She was so full of hurt and sadness. Our experts found that her mental disability made it difficult to counsel her. Still, she had found her own way to defend herself.
       As the conference proceeded, I was able to report glowingly on Lida's progress in all areas of her academics and behavior. She was indeed making friends and making good gains in her life skills. Her grooming had improved greatly, although she still insisted on her flannel shirt and jeans wardrobe.
      One of her best friends from my class was a very hyperactive young man. He was a slim, blond, blue-eyed talking machine. Lida never tired of listening to him. He was so grateful to have her for a friend. They also lived in the same neighborhood, so they became fishing buddies in the local creek. Their weekend jaunts to the banks of that creek gave them both much pleasure, until one fateful Saturday. The young man decided to bring his two brothers with him. They had no ill intent; they just wanted to meet Lida.
      When he went to meet Lida down by the creek, she observed them approaching her. She apparently felt trapped between them and the creek, so as they approached, in spite of the fact that her good friend Bobby was with them, Lida pulled out a pocket knife. She stabbed her friend three times and each of his brothers twice, before she ran away. They were superficial wounds, but the damage had been done. There was more damage coming Lida's way. The police were called and when they came to her house to arrest her, there was a ferocious struggle by some very tenacious police officers before they were able to handcuff the terrified Frankenshark. Lida was hospitalized after threatening suicide in juvenile detention.
       Ultimately, the young men and their parents did not press charges, and it was not even the end of the fishing friendship. However, the part of this narrative that does not turn out happily is the additional trauma inflicted on Lida. She had been traumatized by the fright of possibly  being gang-raped again. Her arrest was a tragically violent one. She had unfortunately wounded a gentle young man she felt true friendship toward. The young man's forgiveness did not comfort Lida. Having her mother accompany them on future fishing trips really took away the sense of independence and adventure that was most of these excursions' appeal. Most importantly, Lida's sense of personal safety had once again been devastated. It was a very dark time for her.
       Lida was in my classroom for three more years. She made tremendous strides in her life during that time. She became an assistant for feeding one of the most severely handicapped younger students in our building. She excelled in her home economics classes. Lida also helped a volunteer from a nearby dental college organize an after-lunch tooth brushing program for all 200 students in the school. At nineteen she transitioned into the vocational part of our curriculum and became trained as a housekeeper at a suburban Marriott hotel. Her mother "teamed" with her and they were allowed to work together. It gave Lida the independence of her own paycheck, while letting her work with the physical security of a trusted partner. By this time, the days of Jaws and Frankenstein were behind her. Maybe not far behind her, but intentionally pushed into the past. She was determined to move forward.

       Lida was what I call a "long-term project". There were times, like the stabbing, when it seemed like Lida's life was on the edge of complete ruin. Still, she persevered, far beyond her limited mental capacity. This accomplishment, in itself, is almost unbelievable.
     My lesson from this was simple. Redemption exists. Coming from an experience that would put most adult women into years of therapy, this teenager survived multiple subsequent traumas, and still prevailed. I don't know what reaching the "lowest point" might be for a teenage girl, but I think Lida must have been close; more than once. She battled back from rape. She struggled with suicidal thoughts. She overcame immobilizing, irrational fear. Certainly, her coping mechanism was not a conventional one, but Frankenstein and Jaws gave her space and time to recover her sanity and find her way to her future. I want to believe that Lida is happy, working, maybe still living with her mother; maybe even still friends with Bobby. I am sure she is surrounded by loving, caring family and supporters, and that she is helping others, volunteering, giving back. She deserves that.