Warning: This poem contains intense and controversial topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features poverty, a terrible school in a poor neighborhood, petty arguing, discussions of past child abuse and neglect, a child held in a padded cell, past failure to account for traumatic stress and possible learning disabilities, verbal abuse, past reference to hitting a child with assorted implements, dishonesty, past reference to destructive behavior, failure to provide appropriate educational methods, lingering effects from abuse, scars, evidence that Shiv is not in fact stupid after all, vulgar language, prejudice, past quashing of help-seeking behavior, arrest of child abuser, possible case of reality tunnel rupture, angst, and other challenges. People who have issues with educational abuse and neglect, or other types of child maltreatment, may find this poem particularly fraught. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
"Uncovering the Complete Truth"
[March 2, 2015]
Elliott Elementary School was
an ugly chunk of beige and red brick
sitting in a shabby neighborhood
of Lincoln, Nebraska where
a raw spring wind cut the air.
Dr. G frowned at it, shifted
his grip on a stack of thick folders,
and then stalked through the doors.
When he walked into the school office,
the secretaries behind the front desk
startled at his abrupt approach.
"Direct me to Principal Roach,"
Dr. G said in a brisk tone.
"She's on the phone,"
one of the women said.
"Then get her off it," Dr. G said,
opening his flip wallet to display
some of the most relevant credentials.
"I am not inclined to wait, and you
do not want to try my patience."
The secretaries shared a look.
"I'll see if she can fit you in,"
the older one said, heading
for a door behind the desk.
Dr. G simply followed her
into the principal's office.
The office was cramped, with
drab walls and only one extra chair.
The blue carpet had dulled to gray, and
it clung unpleasantly to his shoes
as he walked into the room.
Autumn leaves still stuck to
the desk, indicating that nobody
had bothered to change any of
the decorations in months, which
only added to the general sense
of neglect that tainted the school.
"You can't just barge in here and --"
Principal Roach sputtered.
"Yet here I stand," Dr. G said,
looking at his watch, "at the time
when I said that I would arrive. I've
come to discuss child abuse. I doubt
you want to do that with the door open."
Grumbling, Principal Roach waved away
the secretary and said, "What do you want?"
"I want a great many things, but let's start
with investigating the padded cell that
you're probably still misrepresenting
as a quiet room," said Dr. G.
"I'm not going to show you that,"
Principal Roach said, crossing her arms.
"Then I'll find it myself," Dr. G said
as he pushed his way past her.
The door had a thick metal bar
across it. Occupied, then.
He reached for the bar.
"You can't open that!"
Principal Roach said.
Dr. G flipped his wallet.
"Doctor of Medicine.
Doctor of Psychiatry.
Green Heart. So yes,
actually, I can open it."
He lifted the bar and
yanked the door open.
A black girl looked up at him,
her hair a dark fluffy mane
around her small face.
He got down on his knee.
"Hi," he said, pointing to
the Green Heart pin on
his lapel. "I'm Dr. G.
Let's get you out now."
"I'm Alvie," the girl replied.
"They said I had to stay
in here for an hour."
"Well, they were wrong,"
Dr. G said firmly, offering
her his hand. "Come on."
He led Alvie toward the front desk,
surreptitiously thumbing a few buttons on
his smartphone and much more obviously
keeping himself between her and
the still-fussing principal.
"You know that's not
a real quiet room, right?"
he said. "It doesn't have
anything in it to help people
calm down, and it's too small."
It was, in fact, half the size of
his coat closet at home, and
lined with violently pink foam.
"I know," Alvie said. "The one
at KinderMall is nicer. It has paintings
all over the walls, a swing chair, and
a canoe chair. There are body pillows
and bouncy balls. Then the cubbies
have books and quiet games."
"Oh, I've been there. A friend
recommended it, though he only got
to go a few times," Dr. G said. "I agree,
their quiet room is much better."
He had, in fact, made a point of visiting
KinderMall after Shiv mentioned it. Dr. G
had no trouble finding gifts for his family at
Invisible Connection, Paper & Paint, Galaxy,
and Gadget Geeks. He bought floral candies
for Shiv at Chocolate & Rose, which he
intended to present on his next visit.
"Are you going to tell me to shut up?"
Alvie asked. "My teacher does."
"No, never," Dr. G said. "That's
a very rude thing to say, and they
shouldn't do it. My job is all about
listening to people instead."
"Good," Alvie said. "I don't like
how the teacher never calls on me."
"That sounds awful," Dr. G said
as he pushed the office door open.
"Now, here is my friend Manushi.
She's a Green Heart like me."
The black woman helpfully pointed
to the pin on the white sweater that
she wore over a green blouse.
"I need to talk with the principal,
Alvie, so I'd like you to go with
Manushi for now," said Dr. G.
"I don't know her," Alvie said.
"That's true," Manushi said. "It's
good to be careful about that. We'll
get to know each other, though. Do
you know your phone number? We
can call your parents and make sure
that they know who you are with.
That's a good way to stay safe."
"Okay," Alvie said. "The library
has study rooms. We can go there
and talk without bugging anyone."
"Lead the way," Manushi invited.
"Just what do you think you're doing?"
the principal demanded, hands on hips.
"Cleaning up your mess," Dr. G said grimly.
"Let's take this somewhere more private
than the main hallway of the school."
He stalked back to the padded cell, took
a roll of crime scene tape from his pocket,
and blocked the door with crossed stripes.
"What crime?" the principal demanded.
"Child abuse, in this case solitary confinement,"
Dr. G replied. "I've been counseling a young man
who attended this school fourteen years ago.
He recently gave me permission to look at
his school records. Between his stories and
your records, I have plenty of evidence for
an investigation. Your office, now."
She didn't really want to let him
back in her office, but then, she
didn't have a choice about it, either.
Dr. G thumped a thick file onto her desk.
"These documents detail just a few
of the incidents that concern me."
Principal Roach leafed through
the pages and blanched. "Well,
he was a very difficult boy --"
"He was a very injured boy,"
Dr. G said through his teeth. "He is
now a very injured young man. You have
in no way accommodated his disabilities
due to traumatic stress, let alone any
of the possible learning disabilities
suggested by his class performance."
"What performance," she muttered.
"That is exactly the sort of thing that
brings me here today," Dr. G said.
"His poor academic presentation
should have alerted you to a need
to check for disabilities. You didn't."
"We couldn't," said Principal Roach.
"He wasn't even table ready! He
wouldn't sit still for the tests. He'd
always act up, and he lied a lot."
"When you see those symptoms,
they indicate disrupted attachment,"
Dr. G said. "You know how I got him
to start sharing things with me? I spent
months working to establish rapport."
"What a waste of time," she said,
shaking her head. "We can't afford it."
"Yet I succeeded in helping Egon reach
a place where he can talk with me, and
you didn't," said Dr. G. "Clearly, it works."
"That's nice for private practice, but it's
no use in public schools," she said.
"Principal Roach, if you don't teach
students properly in public schools,
they will wind up in private practice,"
said Dr. G. "You may as well send for
Ms. Jezebet Benton, since she taught
Egon Harrison during his time here."
Perhaps hoping he would focus
on someone other than herself,
Principal Roach readily agreed.
A few minutes later, the door opened
and a short, pudgy woman arrived.
"I'm Jezebet Benton," she said.
"What do you want? I have class."
"I'm Dr. Graham Finn. I'm here
to discuss your handling of a student,
Egon Harrison, who attended this school."
"You mean the Monster?" she said.
Dr. G ground his teeth, then stopped
and took a deep breath. "That kind of
verbal abuse is exactly why I'm here."
"The little beast bit me!" she snapped,
waving a hand with a crescent scar.
"And what were you doing to him
at the time?" Dr. G said softly. It
had been in the report, but he
wanted her to admit it herself.
"Nothing he didn't deserve.
I was just trying to teach him
some manners," Ms. Benton said.
"No wonder he still hates them,
after you hit him with a paddle,"
Dr. G said. "He tends to equate
manners with lying. I am beginning
to see where he got that impression."
Her paperwork had been filled with
discrepancies, gaps, and outright lies.
"He was taking his desk apart,"
Ms. Benton protested with a frown.
"Some children do that," Dr. G said.
"Several of mine have. There are
better ways to handle it than hitting."
"Whatever," Ms. Benton said.
Dr. G offered her the folder.
"These are the issues I want
to discuss with you," he said.
Ms. Benton flipped through
the pages. "They're pretty typical,"
she said. "He was always a problem.
He could barely read, couldn't do math,
and his behavior was horrible."
"Let's start with reading," said Dr. G.
"What teaching methods did you try?"
She just blinked at him. "From the book,
of course, like all the other children."
"Did you try anything else to engage
different sensory modes? Storytelling,
music, sandpaper letters?" Dr. G asked.
"Of course not," said Ms. Benton.
"If he couldn't handle the basics,
he certainly couldn't handle any of
the more complicated alternatives.
So we just stuck with the book."
"All right, let's move on to math,"
said Dr. G. "What did you do there?"
"I followed the curriculum. It comes
from the state, I can't just change it
because one boy didn't understand,"
she said. "I have a schedule to keep."
"And when that didn't work?" he said.
"It's not my fault he was stupid,"
said Ms. Benton. "Some kids
can't learn, and others won't.
For him, it was probably both."
"So you didn't think to try
any other methods, such as
math manipulatives or showing
him exercises for using math in
everyday life," Dr. G said.
"We can't afford those,"
Principal Roach said.
"He was always counting on
his fingers," Ms. Benton said.
"I had the very devil of a time
breaking him of that bad habit."
"Well, you succeeded," Dr. G said.
"He's still afraid to do it. He's also
afraid to reach for math manipulatives
even when encouraged to do so, which
is what brought the matter to my attention."
"I'm glad something worked," she muttered.
"Yes, let's take a look at that, shall we?"
Dr. G pulled out the injury report and
a recent photo. Except for family photos,
Shiv would only let Dr. G take closeups where
Shiv's face didn't show, but it was plenty for
this case. "He still has scars from this."
"They were just scratches!"
Ms. Benton said, frowning.
"He wouldn't quit crying, so
I took him to the school nurse
and she said so herself."
"And yet, he still has the scars,"
Dr. G said. "I'd seen them earlier,
but I didn't realize what they were
until we started talking about some
of his school experiences and I got
permission to view the records."
"He was so awful at math,
I had to do something," she said.
"If I hadn't, he'd probably still
be counting on his fingers!"
"At least he'd be counting,
instead of struggling to create
even a basic household budget,"
Dr. G said. "But since you're
so convinced, let me show
you something I brought."
He took out an intricate ruffle
of white yarn, the pearlescent fibers
glimmering with hints of pink and blue
even in the flat artificial light of the office.
"What is that?" Ms. Benton asked.
"It's a soft sculpture made of yarn,"
Dr. G said. "Take a closer look -- it has
interesting geometric properties."
Ms. Benton turned it over in her hands.
"The middle looks like an oval, but
I can't tell anything more than that."
"All right, how about something
simpler," he said, and offered
her another sculpture.
This one was ruffled too, but
thicker with fewer folds, bright blue
lined with turquoise inside and
mottled beige on the outside.
"Is it a purse?" she said,
poking her fingers inside it.
"It's not a purse," Dr. G said.
"Can you tell anything about it?"
"I don't even know what stitch
this is," Ms. Benton grumbled.
"Single crochet," Dr. G said.
"Both of the sculptures use
only one stitch throughout."
"That's hyperbolic math,"
Dr. G corrected. "I know, it's
advanced even for college level,
and a bit over my head too. I can
certainly admire the results, though."
Her fingers found the paper tag
on the blue-and-brown sculpture.
"What in the world ...?" she said.
"Those are the equations for
the hyperbolic plane, along with
the crochet pattern," Dr. G said.
"Too complicated for me," she said,
shaking her head. "I teach first grade."
"Egon made those," Dr. G said.
"Bullshit," she snapped. "That boy
couldn't count to twenty. I doubt
he's improved much over time."
"Nevertheless, he went to
a college-level presentation on
tactile math because he thought
the sculptures were pretty," said Dr. G.
"Then he taught himself to crochet and
started making things. A few months later,
he made these, and let me borrow them."
"What are they, really?" Principal Roach said.
Dr. G picked up the blue-and-brown one.
"Tridacna crocea, or crocus clam," he said.
Then he showed them a photo. "This one
happens to live in my daughter's aquarium."
"They look the same," Principal Roach said.
"How in the world did he manage that?"
"He sat in front of it and looked at the clam
when he needed a reminder," Dr. G said.
"Not very often, at that -- he has
an impressive visual memory."
"He has a terrible memory,"
Ms. Benton complained. "He
never remembered anything
in my class. He was one of
the worst students I ever had."
"If all you tried were numbers
and letters, I'm not surprised,"
said Dr. G. "He thinks better
with his hands, it turns out."
"What's the other one, then?"
Principal Roach wondered.
"Tritoniella belli, a white sea slug,"
Dr. G said, offering another photo.
"He found that one in a book."
Dr. G had been startled to find
Shiv and Aida leaning over one
of her marine books, but it was
mostly photos, so perhaps it
appealed to his eye for art.
The conversation had started
over a televised news report about
the thawed survivors from the Skadi
and their continuing challenges,
then morphed into a discussion
about wildlife in the Antarctic.
"These models actually look like
the creatures," said Principal Roach.
"I must admit, I'm impressed."
"Thank you, I'll pass that along,"
Dr. G said. "I wanted to show you
that just because someone struggles
in class, doesn't necessarily mean that
he has no intelligence -- just that it's
not suited to the current context."
"Yes, well ... we run a school here,
not an art gallery," Ms. Benton said.
"We can't coddle the kids, or we
would never get anything done."
"If you did less of the things you
did to Egon, that would be good,"
Dr. G said. "I'm quite serious. You
took a damaged child and made him
a great deal worse, in ways that not only
caused suffering for him personally but
also put other people at risk later."
"What did he do, grow up to be
a gangster just like the rest of
the little hoodlums around here?"
Ms. Benton said. "No surprise."
"That's part of public record,"
Dr. G said. "I'm sure you know
how to use a newspaper if you
feel like looking it up. Beyond that,
I'm not at liberty to give details."
"Then why are you even here?"
Ms. Benton whined, glaring at him.
"Child abuse damages a person for life,
and that damage is in no way diminished
by the ignorance of the perpetrator," he said.
"Only through the uncovering of the complete truth
can those involved understand their history of
child abuse and begin to recover from it."
"Nobody asked you to come here and
dig up this whole mess," said Ms. Benton.
"That's true," said Dr. G. "It's even part of
my reason -- you helped teach a little boy not
to ask for help, because he'd never get it."
"If that's the case, what's the point
of butting in?" Ms. Benton asked.
"Because it's important," Dr. G said.
"I wanted you to understand that
your crimes went beyond letting him
flounder in school or leaving him
with scarred hands. We are all
lucky that Egon has more ethics
than anyone gives him credit for."
"What crimes?" she squeaked.
"As I have said, more than once,
I'm here to investigate child abuse,"
Dr. G said. "You consistently failed
to make allowances for traumatic stress,
past neglect, and other issues affecting
a boy's schoolwork. You refused to share
the space by accommodating his need for
different teaching modes. You hit him."
He flipped through a folder and took out
some abuse checklists. He had filled them
using the school's own records. Then he
added the childhood trauma checklists,
filled from what Family Services had sent
to the school when the boy arrived.
Ms. Benton crossed her arms.
"I want to talk to a lawyer."
"That's my cue," Dr. G said,
baring his teeth. He took out
his smartphone and pressed
a sequence of buttons.
This time, a police officer
arrived to collect Ms. Benton.
"You're under arrest for child abuse,"
he said as he fastened the cuffs in place.
"You have the right to remain silent ..."
Dr. G watched them go, then
heaved a sigh of satisfaction.
A sniffle caught his attention.
Principal Roach was still staring at
the pile of papers, some of which had
every box checkmarked in red ink.
"What ... what about me?"
she said in a small voice.
A shaking hand wiped
over her wet face, smearing
what little makeup she wore.
"I couldn't find enough records
to charge you with child abuse today,"
Dr. G said. "Instead, I'll be talking with
the school board and licensing office.
You might want to update your resume.
Of course, there's also the investigation of
current events in this school. I'll send in
that team as soon as I finish my sweep."
Observing her, Dr. G realized that
their discussion could have caused
a serious rupture of her reality tunnel.
That could be scary and agonizing,
often needing professional help to heal.
"I didn't mean to ..." She waved a hand over
the paperwork. "I don't know how to fix it."
"You probably can't," Dr. G said. "However,
if you truly regret your actions and inactions
in this case, I can recommend a few programs
that might help you find some healthier ways of
handling those issues. In school, needs should
be seen and considered instead of ignored. If you
want to write an apology, I'll offer it to Egon, but
understand that he may not want to read it."
"All right," Principal Roach said, sniffling
again. "Those sound like good ideas."
Dr. G looked around for a box of tissues.
Finding none, he fished a packet out of
his pocket. "Here. Blow your nose."
She obeyed. "Thank you," she said.
"I'll give you some time to pull yourself
back together," Dr. G said. "I still need
to check on Alvie and Manushi. Then I
will drop by the other first grade classes.
The investigative team can do the rest."
"Well, at least the problems will be
out in the open," said Principal Roach.
"That's a start, I suppose."
"Sometimes, that's the best
we can do," Dr. G said, and
let himself out of the office.
He looked down the long hall,
wishing that he could have
gotten here sooner, when
Shiv had needed help.
He could help the ones
here now, though, and
that was something.
"If you can help a child,
you don’t have to spend
years repairing an adult,"
Dr. G reminded himself.
Taking a deep breath, he
headed toward the library.
* * *
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