Tunnel of Trauma


It’s three years.  Three years.  We’re not through the tunnel, but the tunnel has side lights, it has lights wired in, it’s not total darkness all the time anymore; although the bright light at the end is still so far away, still so very dim.

As we journey past those side lights, life’s amazing windows in that tunnel, we see two beautiful sisters flourishing in spite of what life has handed them.  One highly achieving in school, in sports, becoming the most loving sister to her big brother, planning now her own future, based pretty much on his experiences.  I don’t know many adults that could have endured what she did throughout these last three years, and handled it with such grace and such strength.  Many can’t and won’t ever understand her part in this journey and may always continue to judge it, but they never, I am certain, could have filled her shoes, or walked her path.    We see the other sister redefining what she thought her life path would be; finding her inner peace, a journey on its own; helping others find their inner peace; opening her own yoga studio so close to home, so far from what and where she thought she’d be today, prior to that day, three years ago.

We forget, until we look back, the hidden toll this journey must have taken on both of them.  We forget until we look at the happy, before pictures:  a grinning brother lifting his sisters up in bear hugs, driving them in his Jeep, taking care of them both; a brother who appears stronger than life.  We don’t realize the extent of their loss until we compare it to the after pictures: sisters spoon-feeding that same brother, holding him up because he can’t sit on his own, pushing him in his chair.   We never see in any of the pictures what the past three years have emotionally cost these sisters, their inner turmoil, their demons, their struggle to accept.  What we only see is their beauty, not their strength; their smiles, not their pain.  We never see that both of them had to grow up way too fast, way too much on their own.  We don’t see their heart aching, their silent comparison of the brother that was to the brother that is.  We don’t see that they each face their loss anew every day, a fresh sorrow, as they walk down the stairs each morning, toward his bed.

The darkness still sometimes overcomes much of the light, as we move through our days.  Emotions constantly collide as grief slams into joy, anguish meets up with gratitude.  We lost the boy we had, there is no way around that, and we grieve for him, for us, and for his lost dreams and ours as well. On the other hand, our gratitude that he is still with us and our unconditional love for him is beyond measure….but it’s a teeter totter inside our minds, happy and sad, up and down, day by day, minute by minute.  We’re ok for a while, and then we’re not, and then we are.  Up and down. Up and down. The new norm.  Ever changing emotions, never finding their level ground.  The train speeds through the tunnel, speeds by the side lights, toward the light at the end, still so far away….scaring me sometimes that I am wishing away the ride so I can just get to the bright light.  I’m terrified to think what if after all endured, after all this time chasing the bright light, we never get there or it is not so bright.  What if it is forever dim?

Three years is forever.  Three years is a blink of the eye.  It just depends which side of the teeter totter you’re on that day, or which part of the tunnel you’re driving through at that precise moment.

Boys don’t have to be Boys


When my daughter was in middle school, in 8th grade, a picture of her and her best friend dressed in their Halloween costumes found its way into the hands of some of the 8th grade boys.  The boys wrote inappropriate words and comments on the pictures, disgusting words and comments, and passed the picture from one to another to another until the principal got wind of the happenings and demanded to see and confiscate the picture.

My daughter came home and told me, and I waited for the call from the principal.  The call that would say this happened and those boys were punished appropriately.  The call never came.  So instead, I made the call to the principal.  Tell me about the picture, I asked.  Tell me what happened.  Tell me how you handled it.

I don’t remember every word.  But what I do remember is hearing, “Mrs. Szatkowski, boys will be boys.”

Nothing has been done?  I asked incredulously. They can pass a picture of my daughter around the school and write awful things and nothing has been done?

If I punish the boys he said, the ramifications against the girls will be worse.  You know how middle school is.  The boys will make it worse for the girls if the boys are punished.

Something has to be done I said back to him.  This is not right.

Let me talk to the girls, he answered me.

He talked to the girls.  He sat the two of them down and he said to them, “I will leave it up to you to tell me if I should punish the boys.  If you say I should, I will.  If not, I won’t.  I will leave it in your hands.”

The girls were afraid to ask for the boys’ punishment.  They did not want this on their shoulders.  They were afraid that the principal would tell the boys that the girls asked for punishment and then be excluded, shunned, not invited anywhere the cool kids went.  They said no.  Don’t punish.

The principal called me back and told me that he asked the girls if they wanted the boys punished.  And the girls said no.  So he wasn’t going to punish.

You asked the girls?  You asked them what you as principal should do?  You left this up to them, in their hands?

The matter was dropped.  I didn’t pursue it, my daughter begged me not to, although now, today, I wish I had.  What kind of punishment was I looking for?  Maybe a stay after school.  Maybe a missed football practice.  Maybe something to send the message that what these boys did was wrong.

Two years later, my son was the subject of bullying by a middle school boy, a year older.  The other boy and his posse were out to get him, going so far and being so stupid as to send a threatening and degrading voice mail to my son.  The boy sent the message on school grounds, after school, but at school soccer practice.  The boy came from a very privileged background.  One that I’m sure impressed the principal.

My son was threatened and told in the voicemail not to go to the next dance, because he would be taken down, beaten up.  I called the school.  I called the principal.  I had the voicemail.  It was after school, I was told.  It was at soccer practice, I replied.  I will send you the voicemail, I said. Please, just listen to it and you’ll have the proof you need.   No, he said to me.  He did offer to call the boy’s father and mention the altercation and have the boy’s father call me.  The boy’s father did call me to tell me his son would never.  I asked him if I could send him the voicemail.  I did.  After listening to the voicemail, thankfully to me, the boy’s father called the principal and said, I want my son punished.  No more dances for this year.  Only then did the principal lay out an appropriate punishment for the boy, after permission from the rich boy’s father.

Two incidences.  Just in my family.  Just in our middle school.  One, where boys would be boys and the other where privilege mattered over bullying.

I saw it again in our high school where the male athletes, especially the football players, had their own brand of privilege.  I saw punishments doled out differently for the same infractions, depending on male and female and which sports were played.  My National Honor Society, 95+ average daughter received a 3 day in-school suspension because she ran out to her car for her forgotten lunch bag, sneaking out the side door and back in just as quickly, without permission.  Yes, she needed reprimanding, but 3 days, in school suspension?  The next week, one of the football team had Dominoes delivered to the parking lot, and ran out to get it.  No punishment.  Grins. A slap on the wrist.  Don’t do that again.

Boys.  Money.  Sports.  All three, shields of privilege that build up and up from a young age, protecting so many of our boys from consequence for their behaviors, teaching them that they are above the rules that they are above their female counterparts, creating a climate of fear and danger for our women.

Look what they were wearing in the picture, the principal had said to me.  What does it matter, I had answered. Their clothes were tight, the typical costumes for teenage girls, but not revealing.  But what if they were?  What did it matter?  I was appalled merely at words written on a paper, degrading my daughter.  I’m not sure how I would have handled worse, then or now.

How many professional athletes are accused of rape?  How many times is it swept under the rug?  Boys will be boys.  These men are professional athletes, making more money in a year than most of us will see in a lifetime, probably having their pick of dates lined up at the door.  What has society done to allow such men to think breaking the law, hurting a physically weaker human, exerting the most degrading form of control is perfectly fine?  What has society done that these incidences can be just swept away?

A few weeks ago, before the Stanford rape case and letters from the victim, the father, and others made headlines, before the gorilla, the news was all about protecting women in bathrooms.  Protecting them from men.   Protecting them from the men society has created.  The men who as boys were told boys will be boys.  The society where the girls will feel the ramifications if the boys are punished.

It is not up to women to dress differently, to drink less, to cast our eyes elsewhere.  It is not up to women to avoid certain places, certain parties, certain venues.  It is up to all of us to raise boys to know respect, to know consequence, to take responsibility. It is up to us as parents, as principals, as society to stop overlooking actions at a young age by dismissing it with boys will be boys.  It is up to parents to teach boys from a young age; it is up to our schools to have a zero tolerance policy.  It is up to society to stop looking away and stop blaming women for the actions of men.

Boys will always be boys.  Just as girls will always be girls.  But it is up to all of us to make them better boys.  And then turn them into men who respect women, who respect the law, who respect themselves.