Sunday, October 24, 2004

Terror and Tragedy, Horror and Healing

Flipping through radio stations, searching for a tune to fit my mood, I paused as the voice of a newscaster announced a breaking story from Cleveland's near west side. "Seventeen year old girl escapes from burning house. Father killed."
"Please..Not one of my kids" I silently mouthed the plea I've murmured each time I hear about a tragedy involving teenagers in Cleveland.
Too many of my kids have made the headlines.

That day I prayed to no avail. The child was one of my favorite students, and this time the headlines would last for months.

Hour by hour the details of the story were announced by the reporters:

In the early hours of the morning a man broke into the house off of Fulton Avenue. He silently crept up the stairs, to a bedroom where the owner of the house slept. With a hammer he picked up from the man's toolbox downstairs, he pummeled the sleeping man to death. Next, he entered an adjacent bedroom, and awakened the teenaged daughter.
Brutally, he raped her, finally dragging her into the bathroom. He slammed the young girl down onto the hard tile floor, beat her, then tied her wrists to the plumbing with shoelaces.
To cover up his crime and eliminate the witness, he poured gasoline throughout the house, lit a match, and walked away.
The fire accelerated rapidly. Soon the blaze spread into the bathroom.
Determined not to die, the teenager strained toward the flames as they spread into the room where she lay. Using the fire, she was able to burn through her bindings, all the while screaming for her father.

Battered and bleeding, naked and terrified, she ran out of the house calling for him, just as the structure was engulfed in the inferno.

Soon my phone began to ring.
"Damaris. The girl in the news is Damaris."

My heart sank. That such a tragedy would befall anyone is unthinkable.
But Damaris!
Sweet and gentle and beautiful, Damaris was an eleventh grade building construction student at Max Hayes. She was in my 9th period class, taking a second year of art.

Emotion became entity that Monday as students gathered in hallways and classrooms at Max Hayes. Disbelief entwined with grief. Anger mixed with hatred and fear.
The killer was still out there.

Damaris had identified her assailant. She knew him from the neighborhood. A friend of hers had dated him a couple of times, and he had come by the house a week or two earlier to ask her father about getting a job.

The police issued an APB.
His mugshot glared from the pages of the newspaper. It was broadcast during the news reports on every television station.
Surely he would be caught soon. Very the police, we all hoped.
A number of the boys from Max Hayes took on the role of vigilante, as the days began to mount without a capture. Rumor had it, the Max Hayes boys were carrying guns. The potential for the tragedy to escalate rose with each passing day. He had been spotted in the neighborhood.

Finally, he was captured. Thankfully, by the police.
He had been hiding out, like a rat, in a tunnel that ran underneath the shoreway.

Damaris returned to school after several weeks.

A very different young woman sat at the table in the art studio now. The chatty, happy, giggling child, had been replaced by a silent, staring, wounded woman.
My gift of empathy proved both blessing and curse in her presence. The intensity of her pain, weeping spirit, bleeding soul, was difficult to witness.
There were days when distress immobilized her.
I could see the tears well up in her eyes, and I led her into my office.
"I can't draw." She whispered. "There are things I need to say, that I want to express, but I can't draw them."
"Do you think you could write them down?" I asked.

The following day I brought her a journal; 300 pages, hard bound, fabric cover. Later that week she shared three poems with me... pain-filled and powerful releases.

Over the summer Damaris continued to write. She steadfastly worked toward her own healing.
The winter of her senior year reopened wounds that had begun to close. Her attacker was going to trial. It was a death penalty case, and as victim, Damaris would have to testify. Due to the strength of her testimony, her father's killer sits on Ohio's death row today.

Damaris began to tell her story of horror, hurt, and healing, reaching out to other victims of crime. She was even interviewed by Montel Williams on national television.

Eventually she filled the three hundred pages of that journal with her poetry.
When she came to Max Hayes to visit with me a few weeks ago, she told me of her conversation with a publisher about making her chronicle of pain available to a wider audience of readers.

I shall look forward to reading about her journey.


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