Last school year, I developed a relationship with a 13 year old student. She wasn't a problem student, per se, but sometimes she would get really upset and I was the only person she would talk to and calm down with.
I always felt like she was a child who had to take care of so many other people and hadn't really had an adult she could trust to take care of her. She grew to trust me - though I know that when kids have gone so long not having an adult to trust, they don't always know how. I gave her space to figure that out.
I grew to care a lot about her. I just wanted her to have some successes in her life. I wanted her to start making the types of decisions that would set herself up for success in the long run.
I say all that to set up why I reacted the way I did when one of my assistant principals approached me to tell me she'd been spotted one morning sneaking onto an empty bus with a boy that I knew was her boyfriend. The admins wanted me to talk to her - hoping that they could avoid having to give her a consequence.
I was angry. If you don't work with middle schoolers, it's easy to imagine them as cute little almost teenagers. And some of them are. But increasingly most of them are involved in behaviors we typically attribute to high school students (certainly behaviors that I and my friends didn't involve ourselves in until high school). They are doing drugs, selling drugs, drinking, having sex -- all that.
And my mind went to all the things she could've been doing on that bus. I freaked. I absolutely freaked. There was very little that was professional and wasn't personal about the way I freaked out in my mind. I don't want any of the students I work with to engage in risky behaviors, of course, but a student that I'd been working so closely with? One who had all the potential in the world? I couldn't take it.
I sought her out in the hallway and told her, sternly, that we would be speaking later. I guess she could tell how upset I was because she asked a teacher to escort her to my office the next class period. The teacher told me, "I brought her because I can tell she's scared that she did something to hurt you."
When I got her into my office, she very quickly admitted to me that she had been on a bus that morning without permission.
"What were you doing?" I asked, sure I didn't want to know the answer.
"Nothing," she replied calmly. I've been doing this long enough - kids lie. It's safer to assume they're lying than that they're not. But, I knew she was telling me the truth. I was still scared that there was something to all this sneaking, so I double backed.
"If you weren't doing anything, why did you need to sneak onto a bus?"
"It's cold outside. We wanted to be alone. But we didn't do anything. We just talked."
I felt a bit of relief. Felt like a crisis was averted and I figured this was as good a time as any to see if she'd given any thought to the things that could happen when you're alone with your boyfriend.
"Ok fine. Nothing happened today. But what about the next time?"
She hesitated. "What do you mean?" She was stalling.
"I mean you're sneaking on buses. What else are you going to sneak and do?"
She stared at me. I couldn't read her face. "I wouldn't do that, Ms. Smith." The way she said it was very final. Very cold. But you can't trust 13 year olds. They can't trust themselves.
"Ok, I know you think that right now. But sometimes things happen faster than we think they will and we're not prepared." I had no idea where I was going with this, but I needed to know that at some point some adult had talked to her about staying safe.
"Look, I don't want to talk about why, but I won't do that..." she trailed off as if there were more - a word she wanted to say, but couldn't get.
"But why are you so sure?" It wasn't that I didn't believe her. I just wanted her to tell me what her motivation was. I wanted her to be purposeful. I was so caught up in what I wanted her to know, I didn't realize what she wanted me to know.
"Ms. Smith, I've done it before. I know I won't do it again."
My stomach dropped. I needed "it" to refer to something else.
"Done what before? Had sex?" I asked, trying to sound unfazed, but feeling disoriented.
She looked down at the ground - the first time she'd broken eye contact with me. "Yes."
I still didn't realize what she was trying to say.
"But - sometimes when we've done something once," I began, "it's easier to do it again. I'm not telling you not to, though I wish you wouldn't, not right now. I just want you to be safe. I don't want you doing things you don't want to do on buses with boys you don't know that well."
"I learned my lesson already," she said, still not making eye contact. Her whole demeanor, I realized, had changed. She'd been so sure of herself but now she was such a little girl. I felt like an attack dog, suddenly. So I sat back in my chair and lowered my voice just a bit. A tactic I employ to subtly reassure whoever I'm talking to that everything is ok.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"You don't have to, but I do want to know how you plan to stay safe."
There was silence. She searched my face. Maybe for a sign that I wouldn't let her down.
"Last year, I had this boyfriend. I snuck out of my mom's house to go see him. I got there and we had..." she paused, searched my face again, and continued, "sex."
She stopped, waiting on me to react. I waited for her to continue.
"Anyway, one of his friends was there. After my boyfriend was done, his friend got on top of me. I told him to stop, but he didn't. I kept telling him no. He wouldn't stop."
It was like glass shattered around me. Noise and then sudden silence. I couldn't hear. I wanted to get up and grab her up and tell her we'd find this guy and I would kill him with my bare hands. But I knew she wouldn't want me to touch her. Not right then.
We talked about whether her parents knew or not. They did. They didn't press charges, though she said her dad told her if the guy ever showed his face, he would kill him. She told me that part with a measure of strength and assuredness she'd lost briefly during our talk.
"My mom told me that's what I get for sneaking out."
It is very hard to explain to a 13 year old that one bad decision doesn't deserve a traumatic experience.
I did my best.