Everyone’s heads lifted from their books as the office aide burst through the classroom door to deliver a note to the teacher. While this wasn’t an uncommon occurrence, what was unusual is what happened afterwards. The teacher’s eyes immediately caught mine and my heart started to do back flips. The other students were staring as she made her way to my desk, passing me the slip of paper without a comment or explanation. Some of the kids let out an “oohh, you’re in trouble” – forcing me to sink further down in my chair. Looking down at the words written on the notice, heat flushed through my body when I saw that I was to report to the guidance counselor’s office right after lunch. How could this be? At twelve years old, I had never been in trouble at school, I was always the good kid that no one ever had to worry about. They must have made a mistake. I wanted to ask my teacher what this was about, but was too terrified. Instead, I tucked the note inside my book and proceeded to freak out for the next couple of hours.
I contemplated dropping my books and running out the door, straight across the playground and beyond the fence.
I skipped the cafeteria that day to hide out in the library. While this wasn’t unusual for me given that I didn’t have a particular group or friend to sit with, this time was very different. I couldn’t think straight enough to even pretend to read a book. My heart was racing and my stomach hurt, as I prepared myself for the worst. Whatever I did must have been really bad, because they only called you to the counselor’s office if they were going to suspend, expel, or paddle you, right? Yes, this was at the tail end of the days of physical punishment in some schools where paddles were still hanging on educator’s walls as a threat. How was I going to explain any of this to my mom or dad? Dad would be furious and mom so hurt. I was a goner, for sure.
The bell rang to signal the end of lunch and I trudged my way down the long corridor towards the main office. I wasn’t even sure how to find the counselor, so I peered over the tall counter behind the door labeled “Office” and timidly asked the woman standing behind it for directions. Without even a look, she asked if I had a permission slip to be there. Embarrassed, my shaking hand pulled the appointment slip from my book and handed it over. Her smirk only reinforced that I was in for something serious. For a moment, I contemplated dropping my books and running out the door, straight across the playground and beyond the fence. Normally, I didn’t think anyone would even notice if I was gone, but this time uncomfortable attention was on me. The sound of a voice snapped me back to reality and there stood our school counselor, Mr. Riley.
It was like a lifeline was being thrown my way, but when I just barely caught hold of it, he cut it loose.
I followed him into his office with my head hanging and sat myself nervously in a chair across from him. As he proceeded to talk, I could barely make out the words because my mind was so anxious, it was like being lost in a fog that I couldn’t manage my way through. Then I heard one word that became clear, “absences.” It hit me that Mr. Riley was expressing concern about why I had been missing so much school lately, and he wanted to see if there was something I’d like to talk about. As I sat in that seat slowly processing what was happening, I started to get a sense that this was someone who really did care about me. It took a moment, but I realized that I wasn’t in any trouble and this kind man just wanted to help. No one else outside of my mother had ever reached out to connect with me like this, and I found myself wanting to tell him the things that I had kept quiet about. I wanted to tell the truth. So, I did.
With tears in my eyes I explained to him that my dad was an alcoholic and that things at home had been bad lately. He was always drunk and often angry. But before I could say anything further, Mr. Riley quickly interrupted and asked what my dad drank. To that, I replied “beer.” In one moment this man, this person of authority who I trusted and wanted to confide in, crushed me with his response: “Your dad can’t be an alcoholic if he only drinks beer.” My mouth fell open and a lump formed in my gut. I was so confused by this. Wasn’t he supposed to be helping? How could even think this way? I stumbled and tried to explain that dad doesn’t just drink “a beer”, but that he goes through at least a case a night that’s usually half gone between hitting the store after work and arriving home. That doesn’t even touch the amount he drinks on the weekends or the drugs, but I didn’t speak of the drugs because I didn’t have a chance. Mr. Riley stopped me in my tracks and firmly asserted his statement to me once more that beer does not make someone an alcoholic. I knew this was going nowhere. He didn’t believe me, he brought me in to talk but wouldn’t listen when I tried. Instead, he dismissed the shattered 12-year old girl, and the subject was never brought up again.
This incident remains very vivid in my mind today. When I look back, this person who was supposed to provide support to a child, instead only reinforced the sense that adults could not be trusted. This was a period of my young life when things had grown particularly difficult with dad, his behavior was more erratic than ever and there was no question that it was impacting me. When Mr. Riley first reached out, I actually recall feeling relief. It was like a lifeline was being thrown my way, but when I just barely caught hold of it, he cut it loose. I remember how much that hurt, but true to form, my resilience kicked in and I brushed it off telling myself that I knew more about alcoholism than the guidance counselor did. This is definitely not how any of this should have gone down, and I sincerely hope that when a child reaches out for a lifeline today, that someone is there to hang on.