For those of us who grew up in stable homes with loving parents, we cannot imagine that the reverse is also true and the impact on children is devastating. I recently had the privilege of interviewing a young woman who lived an early life of child abuse and parental dysfunction but overcame it through resilience and perseverance and, most of all, courage. She asked to keep her name anonymous. I will refer to her as Linda.
Linda is a single mother of three kids. One is going to be a junior in college, another is a senior in high school and another a sophomore. Linda is doing her best to raise them to be responsible, educated individuals and her goal has been to be unlike her parents and to break the cycle of abuse and dysfunction.
Q: Who were the early positive influences on your life?
A: I didn't have any real positive influences as a young child. My mom was a waitress and my dad was an LPN. At a young age I started to resent my inability to go to school because my dad worked nights and my mom worked during the day, so it was my job to help care for my younger siblings (6, 7, and 8 years old). Both sets of my grandparents lived in town but didn’t really have anything to do with us, unless it was for a special occasion or some kind of social get together where our appearance was needed to "look good."
By the time my siblings started school and it was no longer necessary for me to babysit them, I was so far behind that I felt hopeless. I also have ADHD and I wasn't medicated, so focusing on school was overwhelming. This in turn kicked in my anxiety and I would mentally shutdown.
My brother was mentally and physically disabled. He was 4-foot 10-inches and maybe 90 pounds, bipolar with a mentality of maybe a 12-year-old and couldn’t have children. My dad wanted a boy to carry on our last name. He told us all that when he was 10 he wanted to become a priest and after hearing this his parents adopted more boys; my dad was adopted as well. I feel this played a huge part in my parents having more and more kids, nine kids in total. Three died as infants and my mom lost one late in her pregnancy, leaving one boy who couldn't carry on the last name and four girls.
I heard my parents arguing and saw the bruises. Because of the cost of my dad's college, my mom attempted to hide his drug and alcohol use after losing those babies. My dad started to only focus on his temporary happiness and his wants.
When I was 16, I was kicked out after a brief stay in a foster home because I turned my dad in for whooping my sister. I felt guilty because I was a junior in high school and I had gotten my sister up and ready for school. My sisters went to the bus stop and I started my walk to school. Two of my sisters got into a fight at the bus stop and one sister went home and missed the bus because my dad whooped her.
I met my sisters at J.W. Smith. I always checked in to see that they made it. My one sister told me what had happened and I took her with me to the high school. We went straight to the social worker’s office who called the police and took my sister away from me. They placed my sister in a foster home and I was placed in Evergreen. Eventually I was placed in foster care.
Q: How would you describe your K-12 educational experience?
A: Education wasn’t a priority in my growing up survival. I was in a violent home. My older brother was placed in foster care when I was 6, but social services left me and my baby sister. My parents had buried three babies by the time I was 5. Any type of mental health was frowned upon back then and my dad took out his frustration with God on my brother and me. I became my younger siblings protector—taking beatings for things they did so that they didn't get hurt. By the time I was in middle school I had given up. I felt like I was damned if I did or damned if I didn’t.
Q: What more could educators have done for you to make it a positive experience?
A: I had elementary teachers that cared, but when they would talk to me, I told them that I didn't have a choice and I had to stay home to babysit my siblings. Hearing this they seemed to drop it, probably because that was acceptable back then, same with the abuse. It wasn't uncommon for a kid to complain of a sore from spankings -- except my dad took it to the extreme.
My youngest memory of abuse is from when I was 5, my dad made my brother and me lie down on the floor boards and drove to Turtle River gravel pits. He made us strip and he loaded a 4-10. He had my brother walk out 50 yards and proceeded to tell us that he brought us into this world, he was going to take us out. About then I heard a dirt bike and the panic was clear in my dad's face as he yelled for us to get back in the car. He made us lay on the floorboards naked till we got home. My brother and I were crying hysterically.
I think my giving up on school is why my teachers did not push when I got into grades 6-11 and the fact that there were so many kids per class that they couldn't help every student and so I just fell through the cracks.
Q: What more could your parents have done?
A: I always sought my dad's approval and love but never could get it. He didn't come to school concerts, plays or conferences. My mom was involved. I always knew she loved me and that she herself was struggling. Many times she tried to leave my dad but we ended up back there.
My parents could have been better parents. They both came from good families and had the opportunity to go to college but their parents didn't support their marriage and therefore didn't do for my parents what they had done for all their other children. My parents had the attitude that money isn't important, that it would never make you happy and social status did not matter. My parents were very much hippies and even lived on a commune.
Q: When did you decide to obtain your GED and why?
A: My dad went to court and was only ordered to complete anger management. When he completed that, my sister went home and I went to the streets. I wasn't welcome home because I turned him in. Social services reached out to both sides of my parents family and none of them would take me in. I started working at GoldPine. I was working 16-hour shifts and only getting paid for eight hours. I got my first apartment, an efficiency. It was $300 a month.
At 18 I was pregnant with my first child and I knew that what I was making wasn't enough. I tried to do ALC but I just couldn't get it so I went for my GED and passed on the first try. I got a job at the Beltrami nursing home and did my Certified Nursing Assistant class there.
Q: What advice can you give young people about the need to complete high school?
A: I feel like kids give up because of their living situations, the instability and the lack of support. I know that was my issue. I wasn't involved in sports, no clubs or organizations. I was a child but always had adult responsibilities. I don't feel like race is the reason for the difference in graduation rates. I feel like it has more to do with living conditions.
Q: How can a community help kids find success in education?
A: I feel that we could reach the 100% graduation rate if we dealt with our community issues such as drug addiction and mental health, and our poverty rate. When multiple families have no choice but to cram in one tiny place to survive, because the cost of living is so high. We end up with kids taking care of kids, grandparents struggling to raise their grandchildren and parents that have no idea how to parent.
Q: What advice do you have for parents?
A: With my children I made sure they knew that school was very important and that they needed an education so that they didn’t have to struggle through life as much as I have. I couldn't afford school activities for my kids, but I always attended the school functions and conferences. I made sure to be involved with their education and tried to help them as much as possible.
Q: What more can teachers do to help 100% of our students stay in school and graduate?
A: I have discussed this with so many people. Yes, sometimes it's necessary to remove children from their home. But if we went in and taught parents how to budget, how to keep up with daily chores and other parenting skills and put more money into these types of programs, I think we would see positive changes in our communities. Instead, kids are turning to gangs for that "family love" and support. They run away; they drink and do drugs and struggle with abandonment issues keeping the cycle going. Until we start breaking this cycle I feel that this will be a continuing issue.
Linda concludes by saying, “My story is full of unimaginable things from child abuse to child molestation to homelessness. I live off hope for better days and better lives for my children.”
Thanks, Linda, for sharing your heartfelt story. You have something to teach all of us and all of us wish you well.
Riddle: What is so delicate that merely saying its name breaks it? (Answer: Silence. It takes lots of courage not to be silent about any kind of abuse. Thanks to all of you, like Linda, who choose not to be silent.)
Thanks to the following businesses for supporting the 100% initiative: Crown Property Management, Bark Avenue, 3-D Repair, Bemidji Town and Country Club, North Auto, Ruttger's Birthmont Lodge, TailWaggers Grooming, Knife River Materials, Cease Funeral Home, Diversified Insurance.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.