(Physical) and Sexual Abuse

April 27, 2010 at 10:28 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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This is going to be tricky. I’m going to try to say something about the current church sex abuse crisis without mentioning the Vatican. I’m going to do so by talking instead about myself.

I have noted with interest that reports on the abuse of children by Catholic priests–and now nuns–increasingly include references to physical as well as sexual abuse. Priests and nuns in addition to molesting kids, beat them, shoved their heads into vile substances, humiliated them.

As my husband the American Baptist minister said last night, however, once you start down that road, it’s hard to know where you’ll end up. Certainly the Catholic sisters in my grade school in suburban Philadelphia in the 1950s hit kids. Hard, sometimes. So, however, according to my distinctly not Catholic husband, did the teachers in Davenport, Iowa, public schools when he was a student there. 

And so did I. In 1973-74 I taught the fourth grade in a parent-run community school which continued after the Archdiocese of New York ended its support of St. Thomas the Apostle parochial school in Harlem. I was there with three other members of the Grail, the (then) Catholic laywomen’s movement.

Now the first thing you need to know is that I was a really terrible fourth grade teacher. I became entranced with the idea of teaching because of new ideas like the open classroom and the turn to self-directed learning in the 1960s. But reading books about teaching isn’t the same as teaching. I had also come out of a world where women were either teachers or nurses and nobody in their right mind thought I could be a nurse.

There were about forty kids in the class and I had a pretty hard time keeping them in order. I had been down to see the principal several times, a fine woman who counseled me as best she could. But it was apparent I couldn’t keep going back and complaining about my own lack of competence.  Several other teachers had already resigned because their classes were in chaos. But I had just signed a lease on an apartment in Washington Heights. I was determined not to fail. 

And then Frederick began appearing.

Frederick was a fifth grader who would stop by my classroom every day after lunch, just as my students were settling down to their work. He would stand at the front of the classroom and mock me. Nothing I said would get him to stop. Eventually he would leave, but by then, my own students would be acting up. 

In tears, I consulted two colleagues who had been teaching in Harlem for many years. They told me what to do: the next time he comes, get your ruler, take him by the arm, drag him out into the hall, ask him if he is ever coming to your class again. If he doesn’t say no, hit him. And keep hitting him till he says he’s never coming back.

I did it. And Frederick never came back.

I’d like to say that I have been plagued with guilt about this my entire life, but I haven’t. I do think about it, though. One thing I think about is that I was utterly miserable there the entire year, because I was in over my head. I’d have done better to resign. Hitting Frederick was not only unethical, it was also stupid. 

And I think about what it means that this twenty-four year old white woman whacked a ten-year old African-American boy pretty hard four or five times, having been advised to do so by two African-American colleagues. Race is a complicated matter.

And I think about all of this especially now as the Catholics of Europe are denouncing priests and nuns but not other people for beating them. I think: well, it’s different. I only did it once. Maybe those priests and nuns did it a whole lot.  And maybe they had other choices. I didn’t.

But how different is it, really?

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