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When Teachers Become Substitute Parental Figures in the Face of Trauma

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse or neglect, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

In the first grade, I begged my teacher, Mrs. White, to be my mom’s best friend because “she doesn’t have any friends and is lonely.” In the third grade, I asked my teacher, Mr. Stansberry, to marry my mom because “she’s lonely and she needs a husband.” In seventh grade, after switching middle schools because of the intense bullying I was experiencing, I discovered the safety of Mrs. Halford’s classroom. I thought that switching schools would stop the bullying, but it didn’t and it felt like nowhere was safe. So I hid behind her presence and behind her door.

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When I got to high school, things didn’t get much better. My freshman year, I felt desperately like a fish out of water. I was lonely, scared, isolated, in the throes of an eating disorder and couldn’t seem to escape the constant bullying or the gnawing angst of hypervigilance that held me hostage. After years of sexual abuse, covert incest, neglect, and feeling abandoned by my absentee dad who I hadn’t seen since I was 3 years old, I couldn’t seem to find comfort anywhere not at school — but especially not in my own home where I felt the constant pressure of needing to keep my mom safe and happy. I was drowning and I needed some kind of flotation device.

My sophomore year I changed schools again, this time because the high school I was going to had a dance team and I thought maybe I’d have a better chance of fitting in. On the surface I kind of did, at least as a dancer in the studio. But outside of that dance studio I was a poor kid attending a high school that was populated by kids whose families were predominantly upper middle class. These were kids who wore all the cool clothes like Abercrombie and Fitch and who got a Mercedes for their 16th birthdays. They couldn’t understand why I was even there. The misfit in KMart clothes who was socially awkward and had to be driven 30 minutes each way to get there every morning by her grandmother in a beat up old red Honda Accord. I felt ashamed and humiliated that I was so different; so again, I searched for ways to hide.

Her classroom was a sanctuary, a safe haven.

Enter a sweet, kindhearted French teacher, Madame S, whose class I was enrolled in. I had always loved French and had already completed several years of French in middle school. I guess you could say that I was a bit of a Francophile. I found Madame’s classroom a welcome respite from every other place in my life. Photos of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe graced the walls. There were quirky French chansons sung by a teenage Céline Dion and a broody guy named Joe Dassin playing during listening comprehension that I absolutely adored. And there was the lilting voice of Madame greeting us every day with her usual, “Bonjour tout le monde!” which felt like a warm hug.

Pretty soon I joined the French club and began spending many of my lunches with Madame S. Her classroom was a sanctuary, a safe haven, and she enthusiastically encouraged my great French accent and endless curiosity about French culture. She taught us how to make a classic Buche de Noel (a Christmas Yule Log), showed us thought-provoking French movies starring Gerard Depardieu, and played games with us. She was fun and patient, but most of all, she really seemed to care about me. And I could feel it.

It was a different kind of care than I had ever felt from anyone else. She asked me about ballet, she talked to me about my other classes, she attended all of my dance recitals, she even took me to French camp when I couldn’t afford to go. When I had pneumonia and had to miss a month of school (twice), she sent me notes saying she was concerned about me and missed me in class. And the best part was, I never felt like I had to do anything to earn her care. She had no expectations of me, except to complete my homework assignments, and I didn’t have to worry about her self-harming or otherwise abandoning me. She was a steady welcome presence that I now understand was very much a substitute parent when I needed one the most.

She never knew about my sexual abuse or how unsafe I felt at home. She never knew the extent of the bullying or how overwhelmed I felt by the burden of being responsible for my mother’s mental and physical well-being. But somehow, she intuited that this child needed someone in her life to protect her, to value her, to help her feel like a child.

When I graduated from high school, I remember how Madame S hugged me and told me she was so proud of me. When I finally got to study abroad in my beloved Paris, we exchanged letters, me fussing over perfecting my French while telling her all about my adventures. When I got back we had lunch and she gave me a video of Céline Dion Live in Paris because she knew I was becoming a superfan. (I kind of forgot to return that video to her and still have it in my video library. Whoops.) When I met my husband, she was invited to and attended my wedding. She was a constant and meaningful presence in my life for a very long time until we moved to Las Vegas and then to Illinois, during which we lost touch.

She was there for me in every way that I needed her to be.

That vacancy left a ginormous hole in my heart. I’d often try to look her up on Google or social media, aware that she had retired from teaching and not knowing where she could possibly be. As I began processing my trauma in therapy seven years ago, the urge to find her grew stronger. My recollection of my abuse and abandonment trauma rekindled within me a deep need for a parental figure, someone who felt safe and comfortable. So I tried the internet yet again, and much to my glee, I stumbled upon her address. I crafted a note to mail her, wondering if she remembered me as fondly as I remembered her.

I needn’t have worried because she enthusiastically replied inquiring about my life, my passions, and even my trials and tribulations. I cautiously reengaged with her, fearing that I would push her away if she knew how much she meant to me and why. But something within me desperately wanted her to know. Fortunately, we were going to visit family in California so I arranged to have dinner with Madame S.

The day of the visit I was excited and anxious. Would she recognize me? Would I recognize her? Would it be awkward? Would I feel the same fondness and feelings toward her that I once did? My mind swirled, like a little child terrified of discovering that Santa isn’t real. When I arrived at the designated restaurant, I was early. The anticipation was almost unbearable. A few minutes later, she walked in. I recognized her instantly, her radiant, gentle, kind smile hadn’t changed a bit. A lump formed in my throat. I could barely hold back the tears as we threw our arms around each other like no time had passed at all.

That evening we chatted over a couple of glasses of wine and a delicious meal, recounting the good old days of French classes, my stint as her student assistant my senior year, and my study abroad. She told me about her family and hobbies, I told her about mine. And I began slowly sharing some of my trauma with her, telling her how without her even knowing it, she saved my life. She was there for me in every way that I needed her to be. We embraced and she apologized for not knowing what was happening and told me she wished she could have done more to help me. I absolved her of any guilt saying I didn’t have the language to express what was happening. The whole evening was beautiful and magical.

To this day, Madame and I are close friends. We communicate regularly and on particularly hard holidays, like Mother’s Day, I send her my love and best wishes. This past Mother’s Day I even had a dream that she had adopted me, which I shared with her. As always, she told me she was proud of me, she loved me, and that I made her day. It was just the salve my aching heart needed in that moment.

To all the Madame S’s in the world, you may not think that you make a difference in the lives of the children you teach, but you do. It’s like the fable of the boy and the starfish. Hundreds of starfish wash ashore and the boy picks up one starfish after another and throws it back into the water. A man witnesses this and asks the boy why he persists when he cannot possibly save all of the starfish. The boy replies, “it made a difference to that one.” I was that one starfish in the sea of Madame’s classroom for whom she made all of the difference in the world. And thanks to her, this starfish is alive and thriving.

Chère Madame S. Merci et je t’aime… aujourd’hui et pour toujours. Ton étoile de mer.

Original photo by author

Originally published: May 19, 2022
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