We sat in assigned seats. She sat next to me. I didn’t understand why she would keep her arms crossed, as if holding herself, and rock back and forth while looking down at her desk or staring at the blackboard. Back and forth she rocked, back and forth.
We were in second grade. I understand child abuse now, but then, I didn’t even know what it was.
Looking back, she did.
We were all afraid of our teacher. She was a mean, crotchety old woman. If you missed a math problem, she’d make you hold your hand out and hit the palm of your hand with a ruler.
For whatever reason, the old bag of dirt liked me, but my best friend that year, who sat just past her to my right, seemed to have a target on him. When he realized he missed a problem, was talking, or whatever else she deemed as needing punishment, she would hit his hand.
We were little, powerless, really. I always felt bad for him. Even as she would be walking up telling him to stand, I remember the sullen look in his eye as he braced himself for the ruler that left red marks across his hand. He never cried like the other kids. He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.
The girl sat between us and just rocked. Back and forth. Every day. Every week.
She often wore the same clothes. Seldom talked. Stayed to herself at recess.
She was skinny, but in the cafeteria, she ate. A lot.
I always wondered why she missed so much school. And why she didn’t make eye contact unless required.
She was never mean. But then again, she never talked enough to be mean.
When the teacher came near, she always rocked faster, but showed no expression or emotion on her face.
I didn’t know then she was self-stimming by rocking herself back and forth. Or that it was probably the only safe stimulation she had.
I didn’t know then she was showing classic symptoms of an abused child, and in all likelihood, sexual abuse.
I didn’t know then that her life was far different away from school than my own life and experiences.
I didn’t know. I had a heaven on earth. I just didn’t know.
I know now.
In college while studying for a Masters in counseling, I learned what I didn’t know in second grade. She became my first reference point of knowing abused children, even though it was years after the fact.
I hurt for her pain then, and now. Years later, child abuse can still hurt.
But in the second grade, as she rocked back and forth, anxious, often biting the inside of her lip, I didn’t know.
One day my best friend and I took up for her on the playground when some third-grade boys were making fun of her.
She didn’t say anything. Just rocked, looked at the asphalt, tried to walk away, become invisible.
After recess she sat down. She turned and looked at us, right in the eye, looked at us.
We smiled at her.
She pursed her lips, as if she wanted to say something, wanted to smile, but somehow ashamed, she looked back down so her stringy hair would cover the sides of her face again.
From then on, I whispered the answer to my right so she and my best friend wouldn’t get their hands slapped by the ruler.
But still, I wish I knew then what I know now.
Today, she’s still rocking.
Different time. Different faces. Different schools. Different circumstances.
Same rocking. Same feeling. Same loss. Same pain.
I can’t change it.
Not for everyone.
Maybe for one though. Maybe for one.