Ms L and my silent phase

Here’s a shocking fact: recent research in Spain shows that 90% of teachers are not aware of any methods to identify child sexual abuse. That’s nine-zero. If you were a Spanish child that’s experiencing sexual abuse, you would have a ninety percent chance that your teacher does not know how to recognise the signals. After six years of primary school, you or may not be able to calculate the likelihood that even only one of your primary school teachers knew how to detect your signals (47%). Now that’s not a whole lot, considering you had six shots. I’m not particularly worried about Spain or Spanish children, nor am I mad at Spanish teachers; I’m worried about all children.

For me, when I entered the third year of highschool at age thirteen, the abuse had just stopped. In response to the things that had happened, I had stopped speaking. I literally went about my life in silent mode, unable to produce answers to the simplest of questions like “Hey Ana, wanna hang out on Saturday?” or “Ana, how did you get on with your homework?” or “Do you need a bag for that, miss?”. In the early days of my silence, I would open my mouth and try and try and try, but produce no sounds whatsoever. I was desperate to regain control over my own voice: I tried saying words in front of a mirror, one word at a time. I tried to produce ‘er…’ or ‘uhm…’ sounds to trick myself into starting a sentence. I tried whispering, and speaking with my face buried in a pillow. All to no avail. The questions soon became more difficult, like “What’s going on, Ana?” or “What the hell is wrong with you?” or “Please tell me what happened to you, Ana”. I felt like my head was exploding; opening my mouth would cause everything to spill out. The thought of speaking make me feel sick to my stomach. At some point, I just stopped trying. People didn’t really expect me to speak anymore, anyway (and I don’t blame them).

During my (six, eight, ten?) months of silence, Ms L was my classroom teacher. Ms L did not give up on me. She kept talking to me and asking me questions, pretending it was absolutely normal to have a conversation with someone who didn’t reply. She reckoned I was struggling with my parents’ recent divorce. Time and time again she would ask me to stay after class, ask how I was doing, show that she was available if I wanted to talk. And every time she did, I tried to tell her about the abuse. Even after I had given up on speaking all-together, for her I kept trying. Sadly, I never managed. It was too big a leap. Summer came, and over the holidays I mourned over the opportunity I had missed. That summer, I decided I would never tell anyone what had happened, and quite to my surprise that decision helped me to start speaking again.

Not too long ago, I wrote Ms L a letter. I wrote about the abuse that had caused me to go mute back then, and how I had appreciated her efforts to support me. Honestly, the main reason (if not the only reason) for that letter was probably quite selfish. I needed to reconcile with my thirteen-year-old self, forgive her for not reaching out even when she was given plenty of opportunity. I gave myself a second chance to tell my story, and to feel the relief and support I had needed so desperately back then. I don’t blame Ms L for not picking up my encrypted signals as signals of abuse. She probably did pick them up, but needed confirmation that I was unable to provide. We were both trying really really hard back then; we didn’t manage and that’s sad. But throughout the years, I continued to feel the support Ms L’s had given me during my silent times. In the end we managed to get the story out. If you’re a teacher, in Spain or anywhere in the world: please don’t give up on your students. Whatever it is they’re struggling with, your support may help them for many years to come.

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