Not My Story by Sue Mitchell
Photo by Axel Eres on Unsplash
Content note: Child sexual abuse; judicial failure
Those eyes disturb my sleep. Each time I close mine, I see hers; silver grey and swimming in tears.
Every teacher has neglected or abused kids in their class, but knowing it happens is a universe away from hearing a disclosure.
My childhood was different. My daddy always treated me well. I had assumed everyone’s daddy did the same. I was naïve.
Teacher training statistics shocked me. A supervisor told me to toughen up to survive a teaching career. I still struggle with this. If it means that these stories should no longer horrify me, I will have lost a significant aspect of my humanity and should not be working with children. Regardless of how commonplace, prevalent or statistically normal child abuse is, it must never be acceptable.
I’d met her parents and they were delightful, interested in her achievements, supportive and involved. At least, that was their public facade. The reality appalled me.
Like every teacher, I’ve had the training, what to do and say — or more importantly what not to do or say.
It is the beginning of the final term and people are already looking forward to the summer holidays and spending time with their families. She isn’t.
Those emotion filled silver grey eyes. Fear, shame and desperation are uppermost, competing with trust and hope.
“Can I speak to you, Miss, in private?”
Decades later, those simple words and those eyes haunt my waking and sleeping hours.
I listen. I ask no leading questions; I sit sideways so I am less overwhelming. A part I cannot name or identify, which appears on no medical charts, shrivels and dies, replaced by pain.
My beautiful girl approached her aunties and mother. She’s reached out to every female relative. No one will hear her, help her, or support her. Everyone tells her to shut up, to go away; tells her she was wrong: that sort of thing doesn’t happen in this family.
I watch my beautiful, clever, confident student tremble into a foetal ball of terror and shame. I school my face into a mask of neutrality, hiding my horror. Her courage astounds me. Six weeks without the shelter and protection of school drives her to attempt a final plea for help. Still keeping her head down, she risks a glance at me. I promise to do all I can.
I am honoured by her trust. I am incandescent with rage at her family. I want to tear apart her monstrous father for abusing his daughters, and the mother for ignoring her daughter’s claims because they might bring shame. She sacrifices the well-being of her daughter for community standing. I am baffled.
I follow correct procedures, write my report, the police interview me and I stand back while they process the ‘case’. Seeing my beautiful girl become a ‘case’ breaks my heart. Her father has already dehumanised her. The chest pains are almost unbearable but nothing compared to my girl’s experiences. Both Principal and Guidance Officer tell me, this isn’t my story, it isn’t about me and they order me not to discuss it. There are privacy issues.
The Child Protection Agency take the girls into temporary care. I breathe easier. They are physically safe for now, although they may be emotionally damaged for ever.
Police officers, child safety officers and social workers interview the girls at school. All her friends are a-flutter with excitement. Whatever my girl is telling them, it isn’t the truth.
The court date arrives and everyone except me is nervous. I do not expect to swear on a bible at reception; I thought that would happen in the courtroom. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This is why I am here.
My husband takes a day off work to support me. It’s unnecessary but I’m grateful for his company. He calms me. We hold hands in the elevator and walk arm-in-arm down the corridor. I’m surprised to find the Deputy Principal and a union representative; not to act as witnesses, but to support me. I wonder who is supporting my girl and her sisters. Does the court assign officials to the task?
The air-conditioner works furiously to maintain arctic conditions. I ask myself why it needs to be so frigid, is it to keep us all torpid? To inhibit our hot-blooded responses when faced with the opposition?
I am glad I brought a jacket, but even more glad to have the warmth of my supporters when my girl’s family and legal team arrive. They throw poisonous looks. They are intimidating. We sit in opaque glass walled booths, deliberately loud voices accuse me of lying. Vindictive faces stalk past, peering in, trying to provoke me. The temptation to respond is great. I restrain myself. I am not the accused and need no defence. This is not about me; it’s not my story.
Unprepared, I should have brought a book to help pass the time and block the unsolicited catcalling. The bone chilling temperature and the mind numbingly tedious wait affects my mood. I move from righteous anger through resignation to desperation for resolution. We are sent out for lunch which allows us to defrost and regain some feeling — physically and in our souls. I feel too sick to eat but am grateful for the chance to move.
What is my girl doing? How is she coping? Is someone holding her hand through this ordeal? All the relatives I’ve seen are here supporting her father. I imagine her feeling alone, isolated and scared. I try to imagine myself in her situation. I’d been a solitary child by nature but never lonely or scared.
We return to the court with renewed purpose and relief. This must all be over soon, we agree between ourselves.
The air conditioning works on our defrosted limbs, once again inducing torpor. The defendant and his supporters return with a surprising degree of buoyancy. We agree this facade is for our benefit, an act to psych us out. Several members traverse the hallway to the coffee and snack machines, calling back loudly to the group, referencing ‘that lying bitch teacher’ and how she’ll get her comeuppance. I sit like a stone. Not my story, not my fight. I am to bear witness and see justice prevail. My tiny role in this drama will be over in a few more hours. We all agree.
At the end of the afternoon, a court officer finds me. He tells me the case is over, I am not required. He won’t give any other information.
We leave, reasoning my girl and all the accumulated evidence has been compelling. We all agree. It is anticlimactic but a relief. I am suddenly so tired I can barely walk. I need my husbands support to get to the car.
All the way home we ruminate. Will the girls return to the care of a mother who ignored their pleas for help? How long will it take? Or will they remain in care? The mother isn’t ideal, but without the sexually predatory father, it is the best option. I wonder how resentful the mother will be towards her daughters and how that might manifest.
I sleep that weekend, too exhausted to dream. Unusually, nightmares don’t wake me. This is a relief and I awake refreshed.
I imagine the girls’ relief to get back to normal. Their nightmare is over.
The Principal is waiting for me in the car park on Monday morning at my usual time of 6:30, I’ve no idea what time he’d arrived but it was at least two hours before his usual time. He whisks me into his office and gives the news behind closed doors.
The judge dismissed the case and returned the girls to their family.
An image of those silver grey eyes engulfs me. She trusted me and I’ve failed her. How could this happen? With the overwhelming amount of evidence to corroborate her accusations; everyone involved had been certain of obtaining a conviction…
Realising the Principal is still talking I struggle to regain my composure and pay attention. I hear the words but can’t comprehend the meaning, I ask him to repeat himself. Grudgingly, he does.
When the police interviewed my beautiful girl, they recorded everything. My girl was quietly spoken to begin with, and only got quieter as the interviews proceeded; nothing she said was audible. They could not record her voice. The notes made by the police officers, the child safety officers and the social workers were not enough. Unless the judge heard her make the accusations, he insisted there was no case to answer.
The judge ordered my beautiful girl to enter an alien environment to give evidence. He expected a ten-year-old girl to stand in front of strangers, mostly men, and all her family, to describe in forensic detail how her father raped her.
Unsurprisingly, she was speechless.
Thinking I misheard, or misunderstood, I ask the Principal to repeat himself.
Most adults, even the innocent, find courtrooms intimidating places and are easily flustered. Naively, I assumed if they required my girl to speak in court, it would be via video conference or at least behind a privacy screen.
I’m not sure how many grown women could describe, to a roomful of adversarial strangers, their consensual encounters. How is a ten-year-old child expected to describe rape, while the rapist — her father — is watching?
Grabbing my handbag I flee to the ladies’ toilets. I vomit violently into the pan. I don’t realise I am crying until the mascara stings my eyes. I clean myself up as best I can, repair my makeup and chew a handful of mints.
When I return to the Principal’s office he hands me a mug of strong coffee. There is more.
The parents of my beautiful girl have gone on the offensive. They demand her removal from my class, forbidding any communication between us; they forbid her participation in classes or activities where I will be present.
Obviously her parents have spoken to others, some of whom demand the removal of their children from my class. The Principal complies. Once again, he reminds me this isn’t my story. The protection of the children and the privacy of the family are paramount. Under no circumstances am I to discuss the case with anyone.
Those eyes, that once looked at me with hope and trust, now look at me with contempt — when they look at all. In a small school it is impossible to avoid each other. The first time she sees me her eyes blaze with hatred. Over the following weeks, it cools to contempt. Eventually she learns to look straight through me.
There are definite undercurrents of tension, impossible to ignore. My colleagues cast sideways glances, knowing only that a number of children have transferred to other classes and hearing only rumours. No one dares ask me a question. It isn’t my story; I have nothing to say. A few bolder students ask me why I am no longer friends with my beautiful girl. They want to know if it is true I’d told horrible lies about her.
The following year, her final year in primary school, the family doesn’t return. Through the grapevine, I learn they have moved interstate where records of any kind don’t follow you.
Rumours eventually die. Maybe a version of the truth will creep out and into the community. It isn’t my story to tell.
Those eyes; pleading, hopeful, trusting, grow to accuse and despise. I see them, each time I sleep. Decades later, they still haunt me.
Did she build a good life? Did she find love and trust, someone who honours her? I need to believe she looks at someone with love and trust. I need to believe she is healed and those silver grey eyes view a happy ending.
Sue Mitchell is a retired primary school teacher with a double degree in English Literature & Media Studies, and Education. She has always been fascinated by the written word. Together with her Yorkshire born husband, Sue now lives in Tropical Far North Queensland, where she is able to devote herself full time to developing her novel, and writing short stories and poetry.