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.