Finger Guns and Trauma Triggers
She pointed a finger into my chest, her remaining fingers gripped around an imaginary gun. Quickly she moved from my chest to my forehead and questioned, "Have you ever had a gun pointed at you, Teacher? Like this?" My heart skipped a beat, but not in shock, as some would assume. I had become almost used to these types of questions from the kids at school. In fact, I often encouraged them. I want to be a place where my students feel free to ask me for help with real life problems, as well as with school problems. I long to find a way to connect my door-to-door ministry work in the township with the work I am honored to do at the school. In my mind, that starts by being willing to listen - no matter what they want to talk about.
The kids gathered around the picnic table, surrounding me with playful hugs and smiling faces as they did every Tuesday when I covered break duty. Slowly, however, they seemed to take notice of this heavy question and the young girl who had asked. I don't know if they saw the fear race momentarily across my face as my mind remembered vividly the feel of cool steel to my forehead, or if they were just taken aback by my sudden stillness and deliberate gentleness in removing her hand from my head, placing it softly between my hands, and quickly praying for discernment and wisdom. Slowly, I made eye contact with this sweet girl in her red and black school uniform and simply answered, "Yes, I have."
I knew why they were asking me about guns and other scary things. The news here in South Africa has been flooded with stories of kidnappings, hostage situations, farm attacks, murders, rapes, riots, and more. It's been a very tense time all over the place. And these kids, as sheltered as they are in our special school of faith, are still going home each night to live the stories I only hear about afterwards. They know people who have called these fears reality. They've heard the stories of their moms and aunties and felt it deeply in their own hearts. It's because of this that their childlike minds wander to questions and games of this nature during their free time away from class. But, I would venture to say, they never expected a teacher, especially a "rich American" teacher, to admit what I had just released into the open air.
The girl gasped at my response and immediately I saw her tear up. I patted her hand while the other girls settled in around me, listening intently. The one to my left said, "Won't you tell us what happened, Teacher?"
Quickly, I shot up a prayer. Dare I, Lord?
I have always said that my story isn't really mine to tell. It's His. Ultimately, my whole life is a part of His story. And I'll only share when and if He gives me permission. Sometimes, this has felt like a cop-out. But, primarily, it's a way of realizing that the journey God and I have been on is very different from most. Not everyone is prepared to deal with the topics of my life as they unfold. And that's fine. But, if God says, "Speak," as He did in this moment, then.... I will speak.
I took a deep breath and let go of the student's hand who unwillingly started the saga of events that would last for the next three weeks. I knew I needed to speak, but my mind was fighting the C-PTSD, and I needed all of my strength to keep the flashbacks at bay. So, I did the only thing I knew to do. I prayed.
Lord, if You want me to speak, You're going to have to do the talking.
I opened my mouth and words began to flow out like water.
Gently, I heard myself explaining that a "bad man" had used a gun to scare me when I was quite young. He had chosen to scare me because he didn't want me to tell anyone what he had been doing to me. "What was he doing?" they asked. "Hurting me," was my simple, yet honest response.
It was basic. It was surface level. It was enough. And then the bell rang.
I don't believe I have ever been more grateful for that bell as I was in that moment! Slowly, the girls walked away to ready themselves for line up. I stayed a bit longer, catching my breathe and refocusing my mind. As I finally rose to walk towards my next class, I saw them coming back, one by one, to hug me and thank me for telling them. I almost burst into tears in that very moment. But there simply wasn't time. I had a class of Grade 6 students to prepare for, and more students after that. So, I did what I'm good at. I pushed it aside.
Fast forward two weeks to today. As I sat in my normal spot on the picnic table, I saw them standing together in a clump. Five girls nervously walked towards me and sat down, shooing away the younger girls. I knew where this was going.
"Teacher, we want to ask you something. But we don't think we should," the leader of the pack started.
"You know you can ask me anything. As long as you understand that I don't have to answer if I don't think it's appropriate. But, you're always welcome to ask me." I had given this speech a lot to my older students, primarily in reference to our Ask Me Anything journals that we did weekly. But I often made a point to say that this rule applied outside of the journals as well. It's pretty much the same rule I live my life by. I'd rather people ask me, outright, what they want to know about me, rather than trying to "investigate"me on their own as if I'm a time bomb about to explode. If you want to know, ask. Otherwise, your curiosity is going to drive me crazy. (I promise you, I notice.)
"Ask me," I encouraged.
After several minutes of giggles and pushing to decide who was going to ask, the same girl, the one with the "finger guns" from the previous week, finally spoke up and said, "The bad man. Teacher did he.... "
I paused, hoping to give her strength to voice what was on her mind. "Did he what, sweetie?"
Giggles, shoving, arguing in Afrikaans... Then, finally,
"Teacher, I don't think we should say it out loud. No Teacher! We don't want to ask you! It will make you sad."
These sweet girls really showed their compassion in this moment. But I pushed in anyways, knowing that if they didn't ask me, they would ask someone else. And who knows what kind of information they would get.
"It's okay to be sad sometimes. But that doesn't mean we can't talk about it. Tell me what it is. Can you give me a hint?" I didn't need a hint. But I wasn't going to dive into this subject if it wasn't really what they wanted to know.
Another of the girls spoke up. "Well... it has four letters."
A third girl, "It ends with an 'e' Teacher."
We were definitely leaning towards the hard topic. But I needed confirmation.
"Lots of words end with an 'e,' Darling. I'm going to need more than that."
As the girls argued with each other in Afrikaans over what they should say next, I heard one of them say, "It starts with an 'r.' Just say that."
I held up my hands to get their attention.
"Are you asking me if the bad man raped me?"
Crickets. I swear I could hear the kids playing in the school 5 miles away; it was that quiet! They all looked down at their feet, their hands, the sky, anywhere but at me. And I knew.
"Look at me, please." I said. Slowly, five Grade 6 girls, all around 12 years of age, met my eyes with theirs. I smiled. And they seemed to calm instantly.
"I know what you want to ask me," I continued. "And I don't mind answering you. But I need you to look at me while we talk about this so that I don't feel like you're not paying attention."
They smiled sweetly, giving me the courage to go on.
"Yes. One of the things the bad man did was to take my innocence. That's the way I like to say it. It sounds a bit nicer, but it means the same thing as rape."
They sat in silence for a moment, and I allowed the quiet to help them process. Then, it was my turn to ask some questions.
"Do you know anyone who has had their innocence taken away from them? Who has been raped?"
They all nodded solemnly.
"I thought so. It's a big problem in our world."
Again, I prayed for wisdom and His words.
"But, listen. Just because bad things happen to us, it doesn't mean that we have to live in pain the rest of our lives. I had some bad things happen to me when I was a kid that should have never happened. But I still think I live a very good life! And you know what makes the difference for me? God. I know that He still loves me. I know that He thinks I'm beautiful and pure and amazing and a hundred other awesome things. And I know that He will never, not for one second, leave me. So I can make it through the bad things in this world because I know that He is with me. Does that make sense?"
"Teacher, did you have to forgive the bad man? My friend says she can never forgive the man that hurt her."
"Yes. I did have to forgive him. That's the only way I could move on. But I did it for my sake, not his. I decided that I wanted to be free of his memory and his control. The only way that was going to happen was to let God take care of the punishment for me, which He did. And, the thing is, I still have to forgive him. Because, every once in a while a memory comes back to me of something else that happened when I was younger. And when it comes, I get angry or sad again. And I have to remember that God took care of that for me. So I have to choose to forgive the bad man again. But the more I forgive him, the easier it is. And the more I forgive him, the lighter I feel, the more I can feel God's love for me, and the less the memories and sadness come. Because, forgiveness isn't about feelings. It's not about what I feel towards the bad man. It's a choice. It's deciding to believe God no matter what and letting Him help me with my feelings."
They all looked around at each other like they didn't know what to do with everything, now that it was all out in the open. And, just as I thought we had finally found an ending to this story, one more question popped into their curious minds.
"Teacher, is the bad man still alive?"
I smiled. "No, Baby. The bad man died several years ago."
"Are you happy he's dead?"
"Well, honestly, yes and no. I'm glad that he can't hurt anyone ever again. So that part of me says, 'yes'. But, I'm very sad to know that he died without Jesus. He never got to know what love really is or understand what it's like to have God in your heart. And a big part of me is sad about that. Even though he did some very bad things, I still wish he would have found God."
"Did you want to see him in Heaven one day, Teacher?" She seemed utterly appalled by this answer.
"No. I don't think I would have liked to see him ever again, even in Heaven. But that doesn't mean that I would want him to suffer in Hell for all eternity, either. No matter how bad of a person he was, there's still a part of me that wishes he could have made his own life better, and the lives of his family better, by letting God in."
They just smiled. One of them reached out and held my hand, while another sweetly rubbed my back. I don't know what they thought in this moment. But I hope that they heard my heart for them, for God's love, and for forgiveness in it all.
And, because God's mercy isn't just for my students, I know that He used this moment to show me just how far He has taken me on this path to healing. Never in my life would I have imagined being so honest with anyone about this topic. And never would I have found it so easy to talk about the complexity of forgiveness as I did sitting with these five sweet young women. Did the triggers come? Yes. Did the flashbacks have their way? Eventually, yes. But even in these, they are less. And, as I now understand it, each one is a step closer to freedom and a release of control in my own mind and heart. So, even in them, I am grateful.
So, tonight, as I sit and ponder about all of these break-time conversations and what all God has done, I just pray that I said what God wanted said to these girls. I pray these conversations planted seeds of truth in their hearts and opened doors for healing in their own lives and the lives of those around them. And I pray that I did not cause any damage by being willing to discuss these heavy topics with these girls, whom I love dearly and deeply. And I pray that by sharing this story with you, God will open doors for others to reach out for help, reach up for answers, and reach inside of themselves to let God in. But, no matter what, I am honored to be used by Him in whatever way it works out.
Have Your glory, Lord, no matter what.