Saturday, April 01, 2017

An Apology Too Late

I was startled when I saw his name of the 'Today's Birthdays' list on my FaceBook page. Of course, I realized, FaceBook doesn't know that he died last year. I clicked on his name and was taken to his page. It's still there and several people used the opportunity of his birthday to write about what he meat to them and how much he was missed. I tried several times to write something, but I couldn't.

I had been thrilled to reconnect with him when I found his name of FaceBook. We chatted a couple of times and the old guy in the pictures I saw of him became the young guy I remembered. He was a sweet kid. I liked him. At one time I called him a friend. I had been steeling up to have a hard conversation with him, and I was nearly ready, when he passed away. It's a conversation I'll never have, it's an apology I will never give, and for that, I grieve deeply.

I needed to say, "I'm sorry."

We were in grade 7, I think when it all came out. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. In the town I grew up in there were two schools, the elementary school and the high school. One went from grades 1 to 6 the other from 7 to 12. We were all excited to be in the high school. Adjusting to the move from the oldest in one to the youngest in the other was difficult but the move, for all of us was more than symbolic. It was a real representation of our progress towards adulthood and, as we naively saw it, freedom.

Walking into a classroom to see one of the teachers from the elementary school there was a shock. He had been transferred to the senior school and none of us was particularly happy about that. He was an odd man. His oddness wasn't immediately obvious. In fact he was a good looking, highly presentable guy, who took care of his appearance. He was well spoken and gracious. In all senses he was a 'good role model' for us boys.


He wasn't.

He was a teacher that often broke boundaries. He had favourites amongst the boys. He would take those boys who did best on the spelling tests on camping trips as rewards. They were nearly always the same boys. I wanted to go. But I never scored high enough. We never saw the scores of the winning boys, we just assumed that truth was being told and those kids were the best, the very best, at spelling. I don't remember if the fellow I'm writing about ever went on a camping trip.

But I do know that he became teacher's target in high school. He was smaller than all the rest of us, he would physically mature a grade or two later. I remember one day in particular. The teacher had been in an mood for the whole class. He was making jokes that none of us understood and behaving a bit erratically. I was in the desk beside the target boy. The teacher came and sat on his desk, said some silly things, and put his hand out to touch the student's face.

He squirmed in his seat. He glanced around him at all of us. Some were laughing. Most were not. We could see pain and fear all over him. Not just the expression on his face, but over his whole body.

A word formed in my mind.

A word reached my lips.

"STOP!!" was the word that I didn't say.

I let it happen. In front of me. I knew it was wrong. I didn't know how wrong it was until later that year when the teacher was arrested and charged with sexually abusing several of the boys in my class. It had taken years for it to come out. 

The town went silent.

Those who knew what had happened said nothing.

One night, shortly after the charges, a mob of men and women, fired by anger, made its way to his home. He was not there, his wife, a really pretty woman, was there. She opened the door to them. She sobbed. She didn't know. How could she have known. She was so sorry, but she didn't know.

I never knew what happened. I never knew if it went to court.

I just never found out.

But none of that mattered.

I'd failed another kid in my class. I didn't know that the teacher was a sexual abuser, but I did know that he used his attentions and his affections to torture a fellow student in class in front of all of us. I know the teacher counted on his power to keep us silent.

And, I did keep silent.

But it wasn't the teacher's power that silenced me.

It was my fear that my voice didn't matter and wouldn't help.

I was wrong then, and I would be wrong now should I ever think the same thing again. 

I had wanted to say to him that I saw what I saw and that my silence didn't negate his experience or make it less real. I wanted to say that because I know, deeply, personally know, that silence is an invalidator. 

He'll never know how deeply my regret runs.

Or what I have done over the course of my life to make amends.

I left it too late.


ABEhrhardt said...

You can't blame yourself for EVERY bad thing that happened on your watch!

That teacher had a lot of people groomed to not say anything - or he wouldn't have gotten away with it as long as he did.

It was the responsibility of the grownups to make their own kids feel safe enough to tell the parents when something wasn't right, not the responsibility of the children to figure it all out at that age.

Parents in those days ignored things far too long, insisted their kids respect authority figures, etc.

Being gay, you were already a vulnerable kid in that society. Why didn't any of the other kids, the ones who would risk less, say , "Stop!"?

Anonymous said...

You were a child. It's not your fault and it wasn't your responsibility to do anything about it. Both your behavior and your regret are normal, but you're not to blame and I'd bet your late classmate never thought to hold against you the things you didn't (failed to?) do.

Honestly, if one who'd known (of the sexual offense committed against me in school) but done nothing at the time reconnected with me and brought up their regret at the former inaction... I'd feel really awkward at best. I know what happened (as did your late classmate), I know it wasn't about them, and it's not my place to condemn them or absolve their regret. I don't need to know how they felt about it at the time or how they look upon their personal actions or inaction in retrospect. I wouldn't want to hear anything aside from the larger talk on society both now and then and any concerns they have or things they're doing to improve it. And I'd still feel awkward then.

You never needed to make amends to him. If you need to make amends for the part you played at all, it's to society for failing to attempt to change its harmful ways at the time. Through teaching both staff and people with certain disabilities -- and, in part, through this very blog -- you have made and continue to make those amends. There was no need for your classmate to hear.


Anonymous said...

I hear you, and I sympathize. Out of my own never-said-in-time apologies, I imagine that I get how you feel. I suspect that you old friend, wherever his awareness is now, can perceive the good intentions and warm regard that prompted you to write this post. Sometimes all we can do is say "I'm sorry" to the ones who have already left.

May your heart be eased.