The principal’s secretary interrupted my class and said she would cover my students, but I was needed immediately at the front desk. Several folks pretended urgent business in the open foyer and watched while a uniformed officer handed me a court summons.
I was needed to testify as a character witness in a child custody case concerning the little brother of an ex-student.
I faintly remembered the young man. He had been in my remedial reading class several years previous. He preferred to read all my Choose Your Own Adventure books than hang out with his friends in the play yard before school. We talked about the books he liked, and I would purchase as many as I could find of that genre. He would tell me about them and I listened but I never read them myself. I didn’t find them interesting.
His reading level improved that year and as expected so did his grades and his attitude. His other teachers noticed a positive change in him, but when he graduated to the high school, I forgot about him until I was served the summons.
* * *
I showed up early at the court house because the lawyer wanted to talk to me. The parents divorced while the father served time in prison, but now that the dad had been released early, he wanted visitation rights for the younger brother.
When the teenager realized this, it forced him to tell his mother something he had never told anyone in his life - his father had sexually abused him for years - ugly, unimaginable things. It had started when he was a baby until the year his dad went to prison, the year I had the boy in class.
He kept silent as long as his father did it only to him and stayed away from his little brother. Since he would not be able to protect the little brother if his father got visitation rights, he found his courage and told about his painful past.
Why was I there? A child psychologist and I were to tell about the year I had him in class. I was there to tell about the change I saw in the boy, and defend the integrity of the shy teenager who sat silently in my room reading adventure books.
I had to return to school the next day, so I never heard the verdict, but before I left the court house the lawyer told me that the mood in the room changed after I was questioned and the child psychologist explained why the boy chose me, and why he sat quietly in my room instead of being outside with boys his age.
He used the books as an excuse to be near me, since he had nothing in common with the boys his age. He felt safe in my classroom, reading adventure books, while I piddled around, dusting chalkboard erasers and straightening workbooks, unaware that every time he initiated a conversation, he was trying to find a way to break his silence.
It took the threat of his brother’s safety to force him to tell his mother.
The lawyer said the judge was a child advocate and the father would not get visitation rights; instead he would be charged with sexual abuse of a minor.
The boy’s mother thanked me for helping her son, but all I did was allow a boy to sit in my room and read paperback books. He was the one who deserved our focus. He not only survived and persevered through one of the ugliest horrors a child could ever face, but he stood up to his father and saved his brother’s life.
So here I sit thirty years later. I think of that shy, silent boy every time I hear or read of cases like his. I pray his story ended well.