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When it comes to protecting my students from abuse, my shield is full of holes

MIKO MACIASZEK/The Globe and Mail

'What if I can't get out the door?"

Fire drills. Every school has them. And every child in my Grade 1 classroom had a question that began with "What if?" Every time we reviewed the routine, discussed the reason for the drills and the importance of practising them, the questions would come up as the anxiety levels rose.

As a teacher I encouraged the children to use their imaginations. Reading a story and asking them, "What do you think will happen next?" Giving sentence stems and story starters, "Think of what that character might do." Science investigations were built on their questions about the world around them. Was it any wonder they met fire drills, and any emergency drill, with a deluge of questions?

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My response to: "What if the fire is right outside the door?" or, "What if I am so scared I can't move?" would start with a practical guideline. Before even getting to the finish, I would be interrupted with another, "But, what if …?" Inevitably, any discussion concluded with reassurance that this event was very, very unlikely to happen, but wasn't it good that we were practising our drills? They would be somewhat mollified and only partially terrified.

Drills are held for just about every threatening event that might occur while children are in school. We file out of the school in neat lines and assemble outside to keep them safe against fire. We curl up in a fetal position with faces to inside walls away from glass to protect them in the case of a tornado. We follow routines and we explain how to keep from being harmed. And, answer the "what if" questions as they are repeated like a mantra by children who, in the final reckoning, trust adults to protect them and save them.

When it came to protecting my students from abuse, though, my shield was full of holes.

As a teacher I saw bruises.

"I said I didn't like the cereal we had."

I heard fear.

"My Mom is going to get so mad. She is going to hit me."

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I found pictures of stick figures with frowns and drops of blood falling from the outstretched arms.

I found out too late.

The outdoor skating rink was a popular place after school and on weekends. In a small town, on a winter day, our family would race up the stairs leading to the rink's trailer, which served as a warming shack. The kids would wriggle into a pair of skates – which were usually a little too small or a little too big, and for a sweet two weeks, just right – and wrestle with the laces. Mitts on, hat pulled down, face-warmer up. And around, and around, hockey, twirls, races, fun.

We arrived one day to find yellow tape around the trailer. A young man had shot himself.

The young man had been a student in my Grade 4 class. He had a habit of wearing his one-piece snowsuit as a jacket, opting to button the top and let the bottom half bounce behind him as he ran at recess. His costume made him look like a dragonfly emerging from a cocoon casing; it was endearing.

The story came out that a neighbour, a trusted adult, had sexually abused him and his brother, over the course of years.

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His suicide sent shock waves across the community and sent me reeling, searching my memory for something I should have seen. I should have known. If only I had seen it, I could have done something before it was too late.

Abuse is a twisted thing that turns a victim on himself. A child has little, if any, control in a situation manipulated by an adult, especially one who has insinuated himself into the child's life as a trusted figure. The adult has the power and tells the child to do something that has no place in a child's life.

The adult might tell the child it is his own fault. Or the adult says the child will like it. Or, in an increasing sequence of damning blows, the sexual abuse is for his own good. How does a child cope with the trauma that ensues?

The question "What if?" was moot for the young man; the bad thing had happened. All the feelings of shame and self-hatred buried deep inside, far out of reach until it is safe for them to come out – they say it takes years, and the young man did not have enough time to know the shame and blame weren't his to own.

I am so glad children ask "What if?" Adults need to be reminded they are the ones entrusted with the safety, well-being and care of children. What if every adult knew what that really meant and behaved accordingly? If only.

Martha Morris lives in

Midhurst, Ont.

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