1985 was a big year for me. I had just landed my first teaching position as a third grade bilingual teacher and was moving from Madison, Wisconsin to Dos Palos, California, a small town in the central valley. Call it youthful enthusiasm or naiveté; I was totally jazzed and ready to change the world!
It had only been a few weeks into my first year of teaching when I became concerned one day about a student in my class. I’ll call him Antonio. He was a bright-eyed, exuberant and sharp 8-year old with a great smile. Antonio’s biggest problem at school was that he would raise his hand and talk at the same time. So I knew something was very wrong when he sat quietly for most of that morning. He didn’t look up or participate in class and appeared extremely sad.
So as any good first-year teacher would do, I asked Antonio to stay in at recess so I could check in with him. I made several attempts to engage him in a conversation but he wouldn’t speak or look at me. “What could possibly be wrong with this boy who was so happy yesterday?” I thought to myself. I’m not sure what inspired me to do so but I took out a small sheet of paper and wrote a question to him in Spanish. “Has someone hurt you?” To my amazement, he picked up his pencil and wrote, “Yes.” All at once I was terrified and my heart began to pound. “What do I do now?”
It only took a few notes to go back and forth until Antonio pulled up his right sleeve and showed me a two inch long mark on his forearm. I had never seen anything like it. It was a bright purple line and was swollen up almost an eighth of an inch. Although the skin was not broken, it was a nasty looking wound. So when he drew a picture of what his father had hit him with, I was stunned.
When my principal came to my class later that day to take Antonio so he could visit with a caseworker from Children’s Services, he looked at me as if he thought he had done something wrong. It turns out that his father had beaten him with a bull-whip repeatedly the day before, leaving not just the mark on his arm that I saw but severe blisters all over his legs and back. The caseworker removed Antonio from his home and family that very day. I never saw him again.
Over my twenty three year career as a teacher, school counselor and principal, I have made hundreds of calls to Children’s Protective Services. After a week in which I have made three to four reports of child abuse, I usually feel blind anger at a society that allows this to happen to our most vulnerable citizens with little more than lip service given to this destructive and pervasive problem.
I have come to believe that one of the most tragic consequences of child abuse is the lost potential of so many of these children to impact the world in a positive way. I think back to Antonio and I wonder, “Where is he now? Was he returned to his family? Is he meeting up to the promise that I saw in that bright-eyed boy over twenty years ago?”
The Antonio I knew could have done anything with his life. He could have become a doctor, a teacher or a scientist. The sky was the limit!
In each one of the thousands of children exposed to abuse each day, there is the potential to have a future adult who just might be able to lead us to world peace. And who knows, maybe one of them might find the answer to ending child abuse as we know it.