Who are you going to believe?
One night in the 90s my phone rang with the Caller ID showing a number I didn’t recognize. The area code of the number was for the region where my grandparents and several other relatives lived, so thinking that it was either one of my relatives or about them, I answered. The voice on the other end asked rather hesitantly to speak to me, by my old name (before I legally changed it). This made my heart race a bit, because if something awful had happened to my grandparents, I would expect anyone trying to contact next of kin would use that name.
I said, “Speaking. Who is this?”
“I don’t know if you remember be, but I’m —– ——-, I was one of your teachers at __________ Middle School?”
“COACH! What a surprise to hear from you!”
It is true that he had been one of my middle school teachers, but more importantly, he had been the coach of one of the team sports I mostly flailed at and specifically he was the coach who had taken time outside of school time to get me to a weight room and try to turn me into someone who wasn’t picked on so much at school. It was great to hear from him, but also a bit confusing. We hadn’t talked in decades.
He had gotten my phone number from my grandmother, and he’d been wanting to talk to some of his old students, specifically the ones he felt he hadn’t done enough for. I tried to argue that he had gone above and beyond for me, but he interrupted and told me to let him say his piece.
“We knew,” he said, “all of us knew which of the students were being mistreated at home. Some of you had the disturbing recurring bruises and such, others had less severe signs. We all knew, and we talked among ourselves about how we could help. But the law was different, then. If a teacher accused a parent of abuse, the teacher almost always lost their job, their career ended. It was our word against the parents’ and usually the kids would deny it, too, because they were too scared of the abusive parent…”
He went on for a bit, and I tried to assure him that I understood. I was well aware of how laws that protected teachers and doctors and so forth if they reported suspected abuse didn’t become common until years later. I also assured him that he had helped. “You believed in me. You talked me out of quitting. You showed me I could do more–could be more–than I believed I could. And that’s part of the reason a year or so later I was finally able to stand up to my dad. You’re one of the reasons I’m still alive to talk about it.”
As I said, he arranged for me to have workout time at the weight room up at the high school. That part that I haven’t mentioned is that he set it up so that the other kids didn’t know I was getting extra help. He made it clear that he understood that if my bullies knew I “needed extra help” it would make their bullying worse. He didn’t manage to turn me into a winning wrestler. But I got better, and discovered that I was actually good at running, so I joined the track team and later cross country. I was never a champion, but I stopped being the team member who always came in last. It didn’t make everything else in my life wonderful, but it made some parts better.
He still felt the need to ask forgiveness for not doing more. As we talked, I was able to put a few more pieces together. His wife had passed away less than a year before, so he had been rattling around their house with nothing but his memories and regrets. As he said, I wasn’t the only abused kid that had been one of his students. He mentioned a few who had died early deaths, from alcohol or drugs or suicide, and clearly he felt that their abusive childhoods had played a role. “I ran into your grandmother in the grocery store earlier this week, and she told me you lived in Seattle, doing something with computers. I was so glad to hear that you’re well.”
I tried to assure him that he had done good for me, and I knew he had done right by many others. “If it helps, I’ll say ‘you’re forgiven’ even though I never, ever felt wronged by you.”
It was an emotional night. I still tear up writing about it.
Domestic abuse is a complicated problem. So many forces in society enable the abuse and silence the abused. Abusers are good at presenting a respectable, reasonable facade. They are even better at casting doubt as to the reliability of any of their accusers. They are really good at teaching the abused to doubt themselves.
There is no simple solution to domestic abuse. Coach thought that if he made me into a better athlete, since my dad had been a champion in school, that maybe Dad wouldn’t abuse me as often. That’s not how it works. Abusers want control, and no success is ever good enough.
Yeah, Coach’s efforts to make me less of an athletic loser helped in many ways, but even more, his willingness to offer his time and ecouragement–to be a loving positive adult presence in my life–did far more in making me into a person who could make my own life better.
A few years later I learned from my aunt who still lived back there that Coach had died. I hope he believed me when I said he was one of the reasons my life had become better.
Thanks, Coach Clemens. Thank you for believing me. Thank you for believing in me. And thank you for teaching me to believe in myself.