Drawing Lines in the Sand

walkthewalk

“Call me Ted.”

When my husband was 13 years old, the police installed metal detectors in his local public high school. As a result, his parents insisted he take the entrance exam for a private all boys’ school an hour from their row home. He scored high on the test and was accepted. Instead of walking, clad in parachute pants, through a metal detector into school a few miles from his home, he rode two buses and a jitney to school every morning. He wore dress pants, a collared shirt, and a tie. He traded classrooms overcrowded with teenagers for small class sizes. He was as mischievous as he was bright, so the individual attention from his teachers proved invaluable. My husband thrived in his new school environment. He tells me to this day that his parents’ decision to make him take that entrance exam changed his life for the better.

When our young sons ask their Dad what his favorite part of school was, his answer is always the same. “Hands down, the field trips.”

My husband’s sophomore year, a priest joined the staff. That priest quickly earned the reputation of the cool teacher. My husband recalls his having an open door office policy, encouraging the students to spend time in his office, “hanging out”. My husband remembers a handful of his classmates calling the priest by his first name, Ted, at the teacher’s insistence.

This priest organized field trips for the students…both during the school year and over the summer months. Awesome field trips. As a high school junior, my husband joined his classmates white water rafting down the New River in West Virginia. The distance they traveled from school coupled with the thrill of the rapids make that particular trip a standout for him. 25 years later, he eagerly awaits the day our kids will be strong enough to navigate the New River with him.

My husband’s senior year, the same priest organized a trip to the Virgin Islands. There was a community service component to the weeklong trip. The high school kids also enjoyed some downtime snorkeling. My husband’s fondest memory of the Virgin Islands was sleeping outside in a hammock under the stars every night. It was a long way from home for that 17 year old kid from Collingdale, PA. And he loved every minute of it. He credits Ted, a mentor to my husband and his classmates, for organizing and executing the trips that made his high school experience so rich in team building experience.

Earlier this month, my husband sat at our family’s computer to open a link to an article a buddy of his had sent him with the message, “Yo, bro, this priest is in trouble.” According to the article, Ted is an alleged sex offender.

****

“Call me Bob.”

My older brother attended a private all boys’ school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It was at that high school that he was introduced to the sport that would define him. It was there that my brother became a rower. During my brother’s junior year, a young man joined the coaching staff as an assistant coach. The recent graduate of Temple University brought a new level of energy to the already competitive program. A rower himself, he’d been in the boat that had won its 4th consecutive Dad Vail Championship, and he had the personalized license plate to prove it. My brother and his high school teammates held their young coach in high regard. He bridged a gap for them…his title was coach, but his proximity to theirs in age lent itself to a kinship they didn’t share with their other coaches. He asked the boys to call him by his first name, Bob.

Bob was accepted into the school community immediately. He was an outgoing, charming young man with an easy smile. I remember because he sat across from me at our dinner table on many occasions.  He always removed his hat before sitting down for a meal. My Dad appreciated this show of respect. He complimented my Mom’s cooking. He engaged easily in discussion with my parents. He included my brother in the conversation. He made an effort with my younger sister and me, interrupting the discussion of crew to ask us about our school years. He pretended not to notice when our cheeks burned pink from his attention. My family loved Bob. My older brother, who graduated that private boys’ high school to attend Temple University on full rowing scholarship and went on to win 4 Dad Vail championships…just like his mentor before him….my older brother worshipped Bob.

Last year, my brother sat down at his computer to learn that his high school mentor, the young man whose encouragement, support, and validation had helped shape his rowing career, had been sentenced to 9 ½ years in prison for child molestation.

****

“My name is Sr. Maureen Christi. And you may call me Sr. Maureen Christi.”

She was my high school Honors English teacher. And she scared the shit out of me. She walked with purpose from her classroom to the faculty room.  She didn’t bother to acknowledge students in the hallway. She didn’t give out A’s frequently. You had to earn them in her class. But when she closed the classroom door to signal the start of class, she transformed. She covered the aisles between desks in quick strides. She gesticulated animatedly. She laughed! Sr. Maureen Christi actually laughed. She clapped her hands in delight as she quoted Henry David Thoreau. I learned to think critically in her classroom because she demanded it. Her opinion meant more to me than any of the teachers I’d had before or would ever have after her.

The first semester of my senior year in high school, I nervously approached her desk after class. It was my second consecutive year in her classroom, but I wasn’t any less intimidated. She sat in her chair, perusing papers. She glanced up at me, then quickly turned her gaze back down to her papers.

“Yes?”

“Sr. Christi, I wanted to ask you a question.”

“Why am I still waiting for you to ask the question? Out with it!”

“Sr. Christi, I need two letters of recommendation for my college applications. I was hoping…if it’s not too much to ask…I was hoping that you would write one of them for me. Please.”

Eyes still on her papers, she nodded once, “Give me a stamped envelope and a copy of your application.”

“Thank you, Sr. Christi.”

“Why are you still here? You’re dismissed.”

Two weeks later, the teacher I respected above any other stopped me in the hallway. She called me by name, which surprised me because I didn’t realize she’d known my name. She handed me an envelope.

“I don’t normally do this. But I’m giving you a copy of the letter of recommendation I wrote for you. I want you to read it. I want you to have it. I want your parents to read it.” She frowned, turned on her heel and walked away. She never spoke to me outside the classroom again.

I read her letter that night. It turns out Sr. Maureen Christi had always known who I was. Even before I’d entered her classroom as a junior. In her letter, she’d captured my very essence. Words of praise for my character from my mentor changed my life. Validation from this one teacher instilled confidence in me…as a writer, a student, and a young woman. I still keep her letter. I haven’t read it in years. But it occupies a sacred place alongside old macaroni necklaces constructed with love and a lack of dexterity by my sons. The knowledge it exists even now gives me faith in myself.

****

My husband trusted his teacher. My brother trusted his coach. Neither of them suffered under the hands of their mentors…my husband’s teacher an alleged sex offender, and my brother’s coach a convicted sex offender. Both of them have positive memories of the men they respected. The night stars twinkle just as brightly from that hammock in my husband’s mind’s eye. The discipline he learned under a coach he revered was woven into the fabric of his character…and remains a vital piece of the man my brother is today. But a shadow now exists where before there was none. The brevity of these accusations demands they examine their time with Ted and Bob through a new lens…the lens of suspicion. Those field trips so far from home…were they really designed to be team building experiences for high school boys? Those weekend trips to compete in regattas where the boys felt honored that Bob hung out with them…was there an ulterior motive to his fraternizing with the boys after the races? Suddenly these fond memories hint at a different meaning. They shift to resemble the work of a predator fostering an environment ripe with opportunity to take advantage of potential victims.

By design, overnight field trips require that a teacher spend a considerable amount of time with students. Weekend races require that a coach spend ample time with athletes. My husband and brother certainly spent much more time with their teacher and coach than the 50 minutes a day I spent in Sr. Christi’s classroom. But, Sr. Christi took her role as an adult in the presence of teenagers seriously. She didn’t confuse it with the role of friend. Our roles were clearly defined as teacher and student. The lines were impassable.

A significant part of a parent’s job is to protect our children. It’s also a facet of the teacher’s and the coach’s role. Ideally, we parents should work in collaboration with our children’s teachers and coaches to reinforce what our children are learning both in and out of the classroom.

Wouldn’t it be comforting if our children came to us, their parents, with their problems? But that doesn’t always happen. Not all kids are lucky enough to have understanding, involved parents. Some kids have the love and support of their parents, yet still feel more comfortable discussing their life’s challenges with a guidance counselor, a teacher, a coach, a mentor, a friend’s parent.

I hope my kids know they can come to me and my husband with anything and everything. If they choose not to, if our boys make themselves vulnerable to someone other than the two of us, my hope is this…

My hope is that my children choose mentors who set boundaries.

Newsflash, parents, we are no longer cool. Teachers, it’s rarely a good idea to kick back with students. Coaches, there’s no need to be a friend to players. Our days of being cool are over. Let’s embrace it…or at least accept it. The weight of our responsibility to our kids, our players, our students has to eclipse the need to be cool in their eyes. We’re the adults, let’s act the part.

Our job, our responsibility, what we agree to upon accepting these positions is to teach them. Our job is to recognize when they are ready to stand on their own and encourage them to do so. Our job is to push them, knowing sometimes they’ll fall, and opt NOT to pick them up…so that they eventually acquire the strength and confidence to pick themselves up. Our job is to set goals for them, sometimes goals they think are unrealistic, and watch their newly found self confidence inflate their young chests with pride when they do, in fact, achieve that seemingly unattainable goal. As role models…and we are role models…we need to recognize when to play an active role. And, as difficult as it is, we also need to recognize when our job calls for a supporting role.

Sr. Maureen Christi set boundaries, and my memories of her role in my young life hold even more weight as I look back on them now as an adult.

Let’s understand our kids’ inherent need for boundaries. Let’s set the boundaries. Let’s enforce the boundaries. When we have the common sense and the courage to draw those lines, it gives us pause when another adult enters our child’s life and neglects to do so. Let’s do the job we signed up for, and in the process, make our kids less accessible to the potential predatory behavior of adults who threaten to take advantage of their trust and, in doing so, destroy the very innocence we strive desperately to protect.

Please, parents, teachers, coaches…let’s do the work to keep our children safe.

24 thoughts on “Drawing Lines in the Sand

  1. We live in a sad and scary world. It always amazes, scares and shocks me when you hear yet another story on the news about another person who abused a child/teen. I feel such a tremendous, exhausting and overwhelming need to protect my child from the monsters these monsters that exist in our world. Thanks for an insightful entry, Bethany.

    • Thanks, Maryanne. I don’t know what the answer is. B&B and I had a heated discussion about this topic right after he read the article containing the allegations about his teacher. The only thing we could come up with is the importance of boundaries. So, when someone comes along who opts not to set boundaries, his behavior begs that we examine the situation more closely. Thanks for reading!

  2. Dear Bethany,
    Thank you for writing such an important piece. I always love reading your writings that bring a smile to my face, a bit of humor to my day, but this one is of such importance. We need to be so aware of everyone our children come in contact with. I think that the most important message you wrote about was that you want to be sure that your boys always know that they can come to you and their dad whenever they need to. It is so important for kids to know that there is absolutely nothing that they can say to us that we will not stop and listen to what they have to say. To believe them. That we will always find a way for them to “have a voice”. Thank you, Bethany, for using your talent to get this important message out there.

    • Thanks, Debbie…I remember being a kid and not wanting to say something that would disappoint my parents. Kids can’t comprehend the concept of unconditional love. Sometimes their need to look good in our eyes drives them to turn to someone other than a parent when it’s time to talk. If they turn to someone else, I can only hope the advice is good and the boundaries are respected. Thank you for reading!! And for your feedback!

  3. Nauseous. I feel nauseous every time my boys are in the care of other adults. I know it is a bit neurotic… ok a LOT neurotic, but it may be good to be always cautious.

    Child predators have evolved over the years as society takes a harder look at these monsters and their tricks. I know too many priests (one is too many) that have raped children in their care. I know too many fathers (one is too many) who have sexually abused their daughters. I know too many brothers (one is too many) who have molested their younger relatives.

    I thank God that I was never a victim. I feel for those that were and I Believe them. I believe the victims. Kids don’t make that shit up. Adults that come forward after years of therapy and hardship do not do so for any other reason than justice. I think that we must listen to children. We must evaluate their behaviors. We must evaluate the behaviors of those around them. We are their protectors. We must teach them boundaries and to follow their instincts, listen to their gut, no matter how improbable it seems.

    I love that you had a teacher that encouraged you and recognized your talent. Sr. Christi Rocks! My AP Lit teacher was Ms. Jean Smith and she was a hard ass, whom I respected immensely. Thank you Bethany. Great topic, your serious stuff is just as compelling as your funny stuff. Keep working on that book!

    • Michelle, I was thinking of you when I wrote this…you know how I love your pieces about this topic. What’s scary is that my brother’s coach was a great coach! It’s like Jerry Sandusky…Sandusky was a very well respected coach. And the kids he coached and never took advantage of…he had a positive impact on their lives. That’s the scary part. Many of these predators work with children and ARE GOOD AT WHAT THEY DO! Boundaries, communication, and trust. We have to have them with our kids. Thanks for your feedback! XO

  4. Such an important topic – clearly and effectively expressed. This should be required reading for anyone opting to be involved with children’s lives in any capacity – write on! ;^)

  5. You handled a really difficult subject with a lot of grace and impressive wisdom. Well done, Bethany.

    It seems simple enough, doesn’t it. Boundary lines reinforce proper conduct, and when they are blurred–one should ask why? What is sought and who gains? I had one of those congenial, “cool” teachers. I thought he was great. He gets credit for giving me confidence at an awkward age–and he was never inappropriate . . . with me. It was such a shock to learn others felt differently. As you stated, I filtered my memories through a different lens and they tarnished for what I never knew.

    Today, a friend laughingly blamed an excess of caffeine for her new position as room mom. I enjoyed her joke, but we both know that coffee isn’t the reason she volunteered–it’s what a parent, who can, does to ensure the lessons her child learns are the ones she approves.

    • Thank you so much, Dee. Huge compliments from a fellow writer, and I appreciate them.

      Oh, I am a lifetime room Mom. The Meyer boys just keep on rolling through school. Although I am there so I can make threatening eyes at my kids. Picture Robert DeNiro in Meet the Parents, “I am watching YOU!”

      Thanks for your perspective…always so valuable. XO

  6. Bethany, I think you hit the nail right on the head with your comment above about Jerry Sandusky. It’s the people like him who truly terrify me. He WAS a great coach, and he NEVER did anything bad to the kids on the team. So NO ONE ever suspected him. It’s the monsters who hide behind their everyday looks and their well respected positions that we have to fear the most. Sadly, it’s so hard to grasp that something like that can even be possible from someone with whom you’ve worked so closely and built such a trusted relationship. We don’t want our kids to fear ever being close to anyone, but we need to let them know the importance of boundaries and how to not be afraid to come forward if they think that God Forbid, that line has ever been crossed. This piece is sensitive, yet so well written. Thank you for writing such an important piece!

    • Thanks, Jen! You’re absolutely right. I do want my boys to be trusting of other adults. I also want them to trust themselves to speak up if/when something doesn’t feel right. B&B never called his teacher by his first name. He never hung out in his office. Even before these accusations were made, he told me that that particular teacher creeped him out a little bit. I wonder if it was a sixth sense.

  7. Hello, fellow Mercy girl! I am class of 1970 and came via the GMA FB page.

    I think you did a marvelous job with this piece- great writing and terrific impact. As a teacher, I see all that you say, and agree. I work very hard to keep appropriate boundaries, but also have experienced so many cases where having the students know, for SURE, that you care about them has brought good out of evil. Or if not good, at least an end to the evil.

    I have had, sadly, two episodes in my career where students chose me to confide in about abuse- one by a teacher and the other incest by an older relative. I think it is the fact that these students had previously learned that they could come to me and whine about the “little” things (my Mom grounded me, I had a fight with my boyfriend, etc.) that made them know that I would be the right person to go to when something terrible happened to them. While all the lines are still clear, kids also need someone they can feel close enough to, and comfortable enough with, to be able to trust that adult when another adult has harmed them.

    While reading your piece, and, sadly, recognizing the situations you described, it got me to wondering who I would have turned to at Mercy about a terrible personal trauma. I am happy to be able to say that there were more than one name that popped immediately into my head.

    • Teresa, you bring up an excellent point…and one my husband and I debated! Right after reading the article containing allegations against his teacher, he turned to me and said, “I really think no adult should ever open up that door to a child. A coach’s job is to coach, a teacher’s to teach.” I disagreed with him. My argument was that some kids have only a teacher or a coach to turn to…and confiding in that one teacher or coach could make all the difference in that child’s life. A responsible mentor has the ability to validate a child. And it sounds like that’s exactly what you did…more than once. He and I can already identify kids who are friends with our oldest son who will be hard pressed to confide in their parents…because the parents have unrealistic expectations. I’d love for those kids to know that we are available to listen if ever they feel the need. When I pointed that out to him, my husband immediately saw my point. Luckily, he’s not as stubborn as I am!

      I loved my years at GMA. Thanks so much for reaching out to me…I appreciate your reading and your thoughtful comments!

  8. Hi Bethany,

    Long time listener, first time caller. 😉

    This subject just completely fires me up. I should be paying the bills, but here I am….

    As an educator who lived with students at boarding school for the last fifteen years (recently escaped by buying a house!), I have always felt there is so much room for error in those settings. I always wondered why spouses of faculty(who resided on campus) did not have to have criminal background checks too. And like other areas of society, if a teacher is suspected of improper behavior, s/he is sent on her/his way to the next independent school with a great recommendation…..I have seen this happen way too many times.

    Have you read PROTECTING THE GIFT by Gavin DeBecker? Such an important book…..it speaks to arming your own children with the skills to protect themselves, spot predatory behavior, and advocate for themselves. Rather than teaching our kids not to to talk to strangers, we should teach them how to trust their instincts when it comes to strangers. We need to especially arm those kids who do not have the support system; those kids are targeted because of that. My go-to advice from that book (rehearsed weekly in the car with the gang)….when you get lost, go find a mom with kids immediately! I could go on…I would send you my copy, but in my sleep-deprived life right now, I have to reread the damn book every other year to jog my memory!

    Anyway, one more question….my youngest is 2. At what point should I stop listening to Howard Stern when I am alone with her in the car? She did say, “Ba-ba booey” the other day, but I blame my husband for that! :))

    A new fan,

    Kristen

    • Kristen!!! Thank you so much for your comment…so full of content and so well written. I like the way you think.

      We are so fortunate to have a child psychologist on staff at my kids’ school. She is my guru. I go to her with all the big things…what to say to my older kids about Sandusky, whether to talk to them about the shooting in Aurora during the Batman premiere, having the birds and the bees talk with my oldest, breaking the news to him about Santa. I run it all by her first. She is a phenomenal resource. She recommended Protecting the Gift in the spring as a must read for parents. I have it in my iPhone notes! So it’s on my must read list…after your recommendation, I’ll definitely get it.

      I talk to every random who crosses my path unless it’s someone who heightens my senses in a negative way…and my kids model my behavior, so how could I ever expect them not to speak to strangers? Makes sense to teach them to trust their instincts.

      Once you have more than one kid, I vote you’re automatically forgiven for listening to Howard in your youngest child’s presence. I abstained for 9 years. That’s a huge sacrifice. Keep listening. Whenever he drops the F bomb, turn down the radio, and remind her, “Howard uses that word because he’s an adult. You know little girls don’t use that word, right, honey?” Call it as a teaching moment;)

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting….love your insight! Hope to hear from you again. And congrats on the house!!

  9. What a powerful post. This is definitely a scary topic. I went to Catholic Schools my whole life, and my sons attend now. This is always in the back of my mind as they grow and attend school functions or sleepovers without me sitting right there. The scary thing is that someone can seem so good, so trustworthy and then not be. It’s scary that it’s usually the last person you suspect. The good thing, which is perhaps a double-edged sword, is that people are more aware that abuse does go on. It’s a double-edged sword in the fact that someone who IS simply that sweet, kind person may be falsely accused.

    • Kathy, you are absolutely right about the double-edged sword. Which is the perfect time for me to reiterate that my brother’s coach has indeed been convicted, but my husband’s teacher has not been convicted of anything. I posted an article that claims there were allegations against him. I don’t know anything more than what I read in that article. And my husband never heard or saw anything in his teacher’s presence that led him to believe his teacher was anything more than a teacher who enjoyed time with his students.

      I have a writing buddy who lives in TX, and we email each other about our subject matter. He sent me an email last night saying how scary it is that when these things happen, the accused child molester is often someone you would never suspect. I replied that we felt like that about my brother’s coach. I used the word “sociopath” to describe him. There may be some truth to that. Someone would have to have sociopathic tendencies to gain the trust and respect of so many people…adults and children…yet be able to prey on minors.

      Thanks for your thoughts! And for reading! I loved Catholic school.

  10. My oldest son (I am a mom to three boys) just started at an all-boys Catholic high school a few weeks ago. This is a new experience for him — and me — because I am Jewish! My husband is Catholic and had such a wonderful experience (like your husband) at his parochial high school that he wanted us to explore the option for our son. You have done a great job at discussing a sensitive topic. Although the situations you describe have been at the back of my mind, I also take comfort in knowing that my son is very forthcoming with his thoughts. In other words, he tells it like it is and I believe would come to us with any problems or concerns. It is my hope that my son has as positive an experience at this new school as our husband’s did at theirs.

    • Emily, my brother and my husband absolutely loved their all-boys Catholic high school educations! And my husband is an atheist. He was agnostic in high school. But the camaraderie and the discipline (without the distraction of girls) were exactly what he needed. I hope your son has just as fabulous an experience too…and, since he’s forthcoming, I bet he’ll let you know if his experience isn’t what he’d hoped it would be. Thanks for reading…I’ll be checking out your blog as well!

  11. Very thought provoking. Setting boundaries is something we need to teach our own children. They need to realize that adults are adults not pals, I worry how to teach my own children–it’s not like you can tell them that these people look and act like monsters. I have had two former employers from my teen years recently accused of predator acts and looking back I never knew or had a clue. I guess I thought you could always tell who these people were? Sadly we will have to raise our own children differently—I love the boundaries guidance—I will use this.

    • Thanks, Jen…it’s scary that we are often surprised by who it is who’s been accused. We rarely pick up on anything amiss in our dealings with the same people who are capable of taking advantage of kids. This parenting gig is only going to get harder. Good luck to all of us…thanks for reading!

  12. Hi there! I’m another fellow Mercy girl here via the GMA Alumnae FB page. (Class of 2000)

    It is so lovely to see an acknowledgement of Sr. Christi in your article. Whenever I look back on my days at GMA, three teachers stand out to me as huge influences on who I am today – one of them is Sister Christi. I feel like her push to think critically, and to write well and write often, is what influenced me to find a career path in writing. I also credit her for my super grammar skills!

    • Hi, Colleen! I’m glad you share my sentiments about Sister Christi. I feel the exact same way…thinking critically and knowing my grammar were my big takeaways from her. Thank you so much for reading…and for commenting!

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