FEATURE

The Right Questions

A survivor of child abuse reflects on his schools days.

Editor's Note: For an abused child, school is often an island of safety. Yet the fear, shame and secrecy that abuse creates can isolate a child from classmates and adult caregivers. In many cases, children who experience violence at home later behave violently toward others or find difficulty sustaining positive relationships. The following essay, by a teenager who has broken that cycle, suggests that no classroom is an island.

I remember my first day of school with both fondness and apprehension. The schoolyard was filled with screaming children and sentimental parents sneaking a final kiss as teachers ushered them out. I was alone. Five years old and already the owner of too many secrets.

I was sent from home each day sufficiently warned that I was never to speak of anything that occurred there. There was to be no calling attention to myself, no leading anyone to believe that life with my parents was anything but normal. I entered the 1st grade slouched and fearful. It would be a while before anyone learned the sound of my voice.

My teacher was Mrs. Feeney. She smiled a lot, had a thick Irish brogue and treated her students as if they were in preparation for a cotillion. We were ladies and gentlemen -- no nicknames allowed. She called me "Ahhn-thony," making the distinct pronunciation of my name sound regal. Mrs. Feeney said if we wanted to have a good life, we had to be good people. I resolved to be a good person, not knowing this decision would be the beginning of my moral life.

There were 40 students in our New York City classroom designed for 20. I was the only one with blond hair and blue eyes and a conspicuous speech impediment. I stuttered, and I couldn't say the sounds for l and r. Classmates called me "Alien." I once used cigarette ashes to darken my hair and cried when it didn't work. I found a pair of discarded sunglasses and hid behind them every chance I could.

But, despite the teasing and my inability to "fit in," school continued to be a far more welcoming place than home. As my classmates prayed for weekends, I shuddered at the prospect. School assured two meals a day. Some people were nice to me. No one knew about the life I led, and I did everything I could to keep it that way.

>Whenever I appeared in school with bruises, I was ready with an excuse about a street fight, rough sports, a careless fall. I apologized when I fell asleep in class by saying I had been up late studying the night before. I failed to mention that I had no bed. I was convincing when I feigned indifference about my dirty, unstylish clothes. I adamantly declared that I didn't wear coats because I hated them, when the fact was that I didn't own one.

At age 11, in a suicidal frenzy, I ran away from my abusive parents. Luckily, I was adopted a few months later by people who love and cherish me. They have taught me to not be ashamed, although some memories linger.

Today, I am 19 and living with AIDS. I rarely satisfy the curiosity of those who wonder whether I am gay or straight. I don't usually explain to new acquaintances that I got the virus as a result of childhood abuse.

I grapple with whether the school system failed me. Should I have been recognized as a child in danger? My friend Irvin, a retired schoolteacher and principal, insists he would have asked the right questions to get me to confide in him. He says he would have understood my need to cover up and assured me safety.

I probably still would have lied. Nothing would have erased the impact of the threats, the fear that they would be followed through. It would have been all right if dessert was withheld, or if I was sent to my room, maybe even slapped once or twice. What I feared were beatings that drew blood and being held by my ankles outside a nine-story window.

I still wish someone would have asked, maybe insisted on taking a stand for me. Silence -- both my teachers' and my own -- was my death sentence. Perhaps some communication or intervention could have prevented my getting HIV. I concealed and endured, and I accepted the fact that educators didn't have the luxury of second-guessing. Too many students, too much to do, not enough time or strength to accomplish it all or save a life.

Schools are still crowded, textbooks are old and too few. Teachers are frustrated and overworked, and many students will fall through the cracks and not be as fortunate as I was.

Even now, I speak most comfortably with a pen, but my voice is strong. My fears have lessened. I wish I could have trusted more or asked someone for help. While I have fond memories of the sweet lady with the brogue, I must wonder -- what if she had challenged me, asked more pointed questions, not accepted my well-constructed excuses? I wish Mrs. Feeney had recognized not just my potential but also my pain.