F. Meredith's Story

Finding the Good after Suffering Abuse

When I was in high school, I remember thinking that if ever my life was made into a movie, there would be a video montage with me running by myself on the track while it snowed. I had injured myself and worked with a physical therapist to heal, including some limited training on my own. I am now in my thirties and realize that such a video montage is not likely, but perhaps part of my story can still be helpful to share.

 

When I walked across the graduation stage in high school, I was a straight-A, college-bound, varsity-athlete student. I was also the ongoing victim of sexual abuse, perpetrated by one of my teachers. In fact, the teacher in whose class I had most excelled. The teacher who met with me after school to discuss college and career options. The teacher who told me that he was a Christian. The teacher who hugged me when I was crying after a classmate called me a derogatory word. The teacher who invited me to attend church with him and his wife.

 

At age 17, I knew I was smart and good at school and had friends and teammates. But I didn’t know that I was vulnerable to a sexual predator. I didn’t know that my teacher, in showing me kindness, was really blurring boundaries with the intention of seeing how far he could go. I didn’t know that for many years prior, he had given off warning signs observable by other adults. I didn’t know that he was known to comment about female students’ bodies. I didn’t know he was out to get me.

 

So when he kissed me after school one day, after months of expressing admiration for my academic ability, I was somewhat surprised. It was like something suddenly was different. Then everything else happened so fast that within a few weeks, we had had sex. Over the course of four years, save for some breaks, I stayed involved with this person. It wasn’t until I was 21 and realized that I was miserable and only I could change it that I finally walked away.

 

And he didn’t like that. He showed up at my apartment one day. He waited for me at my car after a church service. I found a new church. He wouldn’t stop calling. I changed my phone number. I didn’t join Facebook because I didn’t want him to find me. Still, it took me another 13 years to realize that what had happened was abuse. And I only realized it after seeing how trusting and vulnerable my own children were—that’s what finally made me see that he had taken advantage of his position of authority, betrayed my trust, and used me for his sexual gratification.

 

I decided to make a delayed outcry to local police. The investigation took several months and ended with my perpetrator confessing to everything I had said. When I read my victim impact statement in court the following year, I also had to listen to him read a statement. I will never forget the sound of him unfolding that sheet of loose-leaf paper. He said he didn’t mean to hurt me, he got choked up about his family, and then he asked for mercy from the judge. Mercy, despite the fact that he was pleading to a much lesser crime and receiving no jail time even though he had repeatedly committed criminal sexual assault.

 

I was satisfied with the fact that he didn’t go to jail because he has to register as a sex offender for 10 years. He is now a convicted felon. I wanted the public warned about this person who had won a national teaching award and gloated on Facebook about being a former teacher, and he is now marked as a sex offender.

 

The most devastating part of this whole process was reading the police case file, which included the narratives from several employees from my old school who had been questioned. Five teachers recalled, about 15 years after the fact, that there had been rumors about this perpetrator and a student. One teacher called him a pervert. Another remembers that he said he wished he could hook up with a student. Those two teachers both recall him making inappropriate comments about female students. Three employees knew that he said he was in a relationship with me. There was never a call to DCFS. When this perpetrator finally told someone that we had had sex, I was 18, and the police questioned us and let him go. It was legal by then, and there was no DCFS report to publicly indicate that anything started before it was legal.

 

This is unacceptable. Atrocious. Disgusting. Wrong. And I was powerless to erase it. I had pretended that what had happened was another life ago; I had tried to just “deal with” my part in it and not worry about his. The gravity of the situation scared me. It scares me still. But the gravity of the situation also provides motivation to change things—motivation for courage to overcome fear and to help good come from pain.

 

I wrote to a lawmaker in my home state, and she listened. I said that sex between teachers and students needed to be criminalized, regardless of student age. (Some states already designate this, but my home state does not.) Educators needed to be trained so that they could recognize warning signs—not just those exhibited by children being abused, but also those displayed by the perpetrators themselves. Furthermore, schools needed defined disciplinary offenses to outline unacceptable behavior, because while educators are mandated to report suspected or disclosed abuse, abuse is done in secret. What is seen out in the open are the boundary-violating behaviors, often called grooming, that lead up to abuse, and these inappropriate behaviors are possibly the only visible indicators to bystanders of a danger lurking in their midst.

 

The abuse was one wound to heal from. It is a trauma I will always carry. My bodily autonomy was violated. I was treated as a thing instead of as a person with a soul created by a holy God. I have learned, through talking and time and tears, that the wrong actions perpetrated against me do not reflect God’s character but rather the depraved choices of one person. God, in fact, condemns such behavior and cares for our souls, as evidenced by Jesus Christ suffering and dying. God was, is, and always will be good, and I can see that he can now take this trauma that one person intended for evil and bring about good in my life and the lives of others.

 

One of those good things is being able to address the second wound, the wound of institutional betrayal. The wound of knowing that in my time of need, I was abandoned by those entrusted to protect me. Those employees who heard and saw inappropriate behavior chose to do nothing, and by doing nothing, they allowed a predator to groom and sexually abuse me. By doing nothing, they forsook me to his power. That wound cuts deeper, but it has driven me to do more. I have faced my abuser in court, but now I am addressing this institutional betrayal at the state level. I am seeking to address this problem not just for my school but for every school in the state. I cannot undo what happened to me, but I can use my voice to inform those in power to help change it for others. The problem, often, is not that people don’t care but that they don’t know.

 

For over a year, I have been corresponding with this lawmaker to make the language as good as possible. I have consulted with SESAME on numerous occasions. I have reached out to other non-profits and stakeholders to assure that I have the most accurate information. I have attended and made public comment at several task force meetings to inform myself on current discussions and to help inform those discussions from my lived experience.

 

If this law passes, I can know that an awful trauma has been used to make an impact and prevent trauma for others. Even if it does not pass, I have used my voice, and people have listened. Despite the good that has come from this pain, if you asked me if I’m glad it happened, I would say no. I wish it never happened. But that’s not something I can change. What I can do is use my voice to make an impact and help others instead of succumbing to despair.

 

Trauma breaks you. It leaves you alone in the world. It takes what was good and trustworthy and destroys it. But that does not have to be the end of the story. There is hope despite suffering. There can be safety and remembering and connecting to others again. There can be the rebuilding of a unified self, much like the Japanese art of kintsugi, where broken pieces of pottery are glued back together with gold—and the final product is more beautiful than before it was broken. It doesn’t make the trauma good, it doesn’t take the scar away, but it means that meaning and purpose and hope and change lie on the other side of it.

 

If you are or were the victim of abuse, I encourage you to tell someone safe, to do what is in your power to get to safety, and to keep going even when it is hard. We can’t undo the darkness, we can’t go back to before, but with help, we can walk through suffering and find hope.

 

Please reach out to SESAME if you have further questions about how to respond to educator sexual misconduct. You are not alone.

 

The following books have been helpful in describing abuse, its impact, and how to heal.

Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, M.D.

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. M.D.

Suffering and the Heart of God by Diane Langberg, Ph.D.