I knew her first as the head of long, mousey brown, hair piled over folded arms. The days that she showed up in class, she sat in the back of the room and buried her face on a bunched up jacket plopped down on the table. As the rest of the class was getting their latest projects out to work on, she would sit, with her head resting upon her arm, eyes closed.
"C'mon darlin', I can't give you a grade if you don't have anything to turn in. You're here, you might as well give it a shot."
Malinda would roll her eyes, and slowly walk to the file cabinet to get her portfolio. She was taking the art requirement her freshman year, and had pretty decent drawing skills, but her absenteeism was taking a toll on her progress. My cajoling was usually met with a reluctant compliance. Any attempts to talk with her were met with one-word answers. She was quiet, an easy student to overlook in a class filled mostly with excitable ninth grade boys.
Malinda had one friend in class, Sara, a slightly built, tom-boyish, chatty, tenth grader. Never lacking in self-confidence or something to talk about, Sarah was popular. Even though she had many friends, I noticed her taking time out with the loners, the "geeks", and the "underdogs". If anyone was ever so ingnorant as to pick on one the the special needs students in Sara's presence, they would find themselves dealing with a 5 foot tall, ninety pound avenger. Justice in a ponytail, Sara's fist could fly as fast as her words.
Early one morning, before the first period bell, Sara appeared at my door.
"Ms. Matthews, I need to tell you something."
"What's wrong?" Dark circles beneath her eyes told me she had been up most of the night.
"You know that girl, Malinda, I sit next to in your class?"
I nodded my head.
"She told me last night that she was being raped by her father and her brother. She said it's been going on since she was eleven. Her mom knows about it, but lets them do it. She said her mother blames her for what they do."
Whoa! Every moment of annoyance I ever felt toward the child I had assumed was lazy, morphed into guilt combined with horror. "We have to report this."
"I'll go down to the office, I'm the one she told. I heard the story."
"Is Malinda here today?"
"I haven't seen her yet."
"Do you think she would go with you to talk to someone? Is she ready? Does she want to get out of there? Did she say?" A million questions raced around my head. A million and one regrets. Never again would I assume anything about a sleepy student.
Knowing everyone carries baggage is one thing; knowing the contents can make you a participant in the burden.
"She needs to get out." Sara was resolute. "I told her I was going to tell the school. She didn't say anything."
With that, Sara turned around and headed down the stairs to the office.
Sara had breached the levy.
Malinda's life, previously a solitary, silent, scream, became a flurry of police detectives, social workers, and prosecutors.
Her family was tried and convicted. Her testimony in court assured prison time for her father. A minor without a home, Malinda became a ward of the county. Over the next couple of years she lived like a teen-aged refugee, bouncing from one foster home to another.
Now that she had found her voice, she began to talk.. and talk.. and talk.
The healing effect of communicating was evident as she began to share her frustrations and fears. I gave her a sketch/journal, perhaps it could be therapeutic.
Sara and Malinda had become fast friends. They made certain to keep me informed during the court proceedings, and kept me updated on the idiosyncrasies of the various foster homes Malinda was placed in. One typical day the girls came in to my room together, this time they both looked sad. Malinda was transferring to a new school in the suburbs. A family in Strongsville was taking her in.
Last week Sara appeared at my door, all smiles. It was two years since she had graduated, but she was a periodic visitor, so although I was happy to see her, I was not surprised. "Somebody wants to see you. Come out to the hall."
Curiously, I peeked my head around the corner.
"I thought you might not remember me."
"Oh honey, how could I forget you? How have you been? What are you doing?"
Malinda had just moved back to the near westside, had her own apartment, and was going to college. She looked so grown-up. A far cry from the sullen child I needed to keep waking up six years ago.
"I have to go to court in a few weeks. My father is going up for a probationary hearing. I'll be testifying against him."
"Good for you darlin'. Good for you."