virtual children by Scott Warnock

Victim silence: My own close call

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There have been many high-profile child sex abuse cases lately. A recurring aspect of the legal side of these stories has been the victims’ silence. People try to shed doubt on accusations by asking of victims, “Why didn’t you speak up earlier?”

Let me tell you about my own close call.

I was a troubled middle schooler. Teen rebellion. Suspensions. Lots of drinking, often before school.

I remember with great clarity my hard-working, caring seventh- and eighth-grade teachers. They saw potential, and tried to turn it to good. They worked with me despite myself, sometimes with tough love, sometimes with friendship. I got an individualized fast-track math curriculum in seventh grade, but I’d sit off to the side with my materials and lob rocks at classmates when the teacher turned his back. I remember the math teacher challenging me for writing inappropriate notes about his wife, the science teacher. He embarrassed me publicly, a lesson about respect I needed. The English teacher drove to my house on a weekend to talk to my mother.

Collectively, they inspired my career choice. They wanted to help a child. They were amazing.

Except this one.

This one teacher’s interest in me was driven by something else. I was an ideal victim: Dad not around much, rebelling against all supports; full of teen fire, I saw myself as tough, independent.

This teacher befriended others like me, kids with fouled-up home lives hiding behind a veneer of cool. We all did make fun of this guy and his quirky habits and over-friendliness. We laughed about chalk marks on the front of his pants, saying he touched himself with chalky hands behind his podium. But the kids he latched onto gave him some street cred in the school.

My deal with him started simple. He took me to some Flyers games. Sometimes we’d get a quick dinner. To my mom, dealing with a wild kid who thought he was Jim Morrison (ah, if only I had talent, because I had the hair and boozing down pat), this must have been a godsend: some stability, a night off.

I remember observing this guy’s oddness with a kind of knowing amusement, but it all seemed pretty fine. On our outings, he would talk straight up to me. Really, it was therapeutic, a word I’m applying now. But I remember one night in his car he asked me about a girl I liked, and he used graphic language in asking how I felt about her, what I wanted to do with, no to, her. A warning flashed, but more because it seemed another phony adult was trying to get into my head than what it probably was, a probing into taboo topics, a softening.

One weekend night, it was arranged that he would take me and another boy camping at a trailer he kept in the woods for vacations with his young family (who I never met). Just the three of us.

The night was strange. He broke out beers not long after we arrived. Forget my before-school drinking issues. The three of us, two young teenagers and a teacher, sat around having beers and talking.

Then he got out a game: Pass-Out. This is a game you play with people you want to get drunk with. This is not a game a teacher plays with middle school students.

We played, drinking hard, and the night dissolved into bizarre, overly chummy interactions. The teacher became giddy and enthusiastic, began to eagerly touch us. At one point, the other kid stumbled into the lone bedroom.

I remember him going away and realizing something bad was happening. One-on-one with me, the teacher got serious. Earnest. Patting. Leaning toward me.

I remember it. Yet nothing further happened. As he kept reaching out to me, did he notice some steely resolve in my eyes, something that scared him off? Was he afraid I might tell? While everything pointed to the whole night being a set- up, he never carried out anything worse. Were these just the bumbling efforts of someone fighting twisted compulsions? I don’t know, and I don’t know how I escaped unscathed.

From there on out, I avoided him. No more outings. At school, I treated him with apathy.

I don’t remember feeling shame or even anger. I don’t know what happened with the other kid or remember even being curious about it. I didn’t see much of him in subsequent years.

Most importantly, I didn’t tell anyone about that night.

In fact, I don’t remember thinking about it through high school or college. Life soon moved in a more positive direction. As I marched through college, I went back to visit those loyal middle school teachers. At one point, that teacher was gone.

It was only toward the end of college, one night sitting with a buddy, that the story came up. I dismissed it, but my friend was furious. He started leafing through the phone book. He wanted to find the guy now. He wanted revenge.

I laughed at his militancy, but that prompted me to think about this weird guy. Now in my twenties, I tried to find out where he landed and learned, as best I could, that he was no longer a teacher. Even then, I never thought of my experience in the context of something bigger, something involving other kids.

After grad school, when I re-visited the school, I talked with the dwindling number of teachers I knew who were still teaching about what happened. There was hesitation, some of them said there had been suspicions about his behavior with young boys.

Since then, I’ve told this story plenty of times. As you can see, I’m kind of open. I think of myself as conscientious, an advocate for children. And that night, I dodged the worst. Yet not only was I silent at the time, but even years later, I was only mildly proactive. I’m not annoyed at the 14-year-old version of myself, but I do wish the man of 24 had done more to find out where this person ended up.

My response had been silence. Maybe because I got away, I didn’t know what to say or even that I should say anything. But certainly there was little conversation about such things in my early 1980s world. You can understand silence as a natural response to being victimized, especially if you feel you’re alone. Let’s keep ripping this topic open, so predators can’t use silence and taboo as weapons, so we can take away one of the reasons why victims don’t speak out.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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8 Responses to “Victim silence: My own close call”

  1. Thanks for sharing this story, Scott. If I was this brave, I would share stories about a major in the US Army who molested me while I was in ROTC and a boss who thought forcing kisses on a young married woman was appropriate. If I had not been a rule follower and had not thought it rude to do so, I would have run both times instead of thinking that I could not make them stop. Keep opening up this topic. Children–even those in their late teens and twenties–still need advocates.

  2. Speaking from personal experience, I must say that one of the main reasons a child doesn’t speak out is fear that people will not believe them. I do believe that in our current time, these children have way more of a shot of being believed then they would have 20 years ago. 20 years ago the child would have been brushed off or perhaps told to keep things quiet. In our current day and age, these children have much more of a chance of putting a stop to indecent behaviors and can prevent further damage to themselves as well as others. It is important for children to know that there are resources and people out there that are willing to help. It takes a tremendous amount of strength and courage to come forward and speak out. Two things I did not learn until I had my first child. Two things that should be taught as our children are developing and learning their rights from wrongs.

  3. A brave, earnest and very moving column, Scott. My hat is off to you for sharing such a personal story, and doing so in a way that may help others. There is one thing I’d like to note. Although you may have been something of a troubled kid, you had one key defense tool in your arsenal. You’re an exceptionally bright person, and even at 14, were likely clued in to inappropriate behavior and siutations that other kids of that age may not have registered. You likely saved yourself that night by simply recognizing that something was wrong, despite your impairment. Unfortunately, not all children are blessed with the sharp intellect you had then and have now, making them easier to victimize and making this story all the more compelling. You’ve done a service with this column and I sincerely hope it’s broadly read and discussed.

  4. Thank you Scott for an exceptional writing on a difficult topic. Thank you also to the responders for continuing the discussion as well. As a divorced mother of a now teen-aged son the fears can be endless for this and other risky situations. It is with the knowledge that there are adults with the right influence available to my son that I can continue to funtion instead of spending all of my time obsessing about the potential dangers for a child.

    And to end on a lighter note, being a fellow former devotee of Jim Morrison – I really need to see those pohotos of you! (What were we thinking admiring that chaos!)

    MT

  5. Moms (and Dads) if you are a single parent or just one without any support…don’t let some one be a roll model for you children..thats what I did ..so happy a teacher took an interest in Scott..he really needed that. Just 2 weeks ago I mentioned to Scott about THAT teacher..and he told me he was a preditor…OMG..I never knew…just felt something wasnot rig thought I cried then I read this I give Scott so much credit for becoming the person he is!!! Love you Scott, great character and moral fiber..Love Mom

  6. Dear readers, I have some typos in my message..Hey I am getting old…

  7. Scott,
    You are truly an inspiration! Having known you for many years (not sure how many years?), I am not at all surprised at your honesty and candor. Those qualities along with your courage, unabashed strength to rise above the conflict and dedication to family and friends make you the man you are. I am very proud to call you “friend” ! Love and miss you.

  8. How very brave of you to tell this story…Now, a mom of 13 year old twin boys and an 11 year old daughter, I worry about the interactions/relationships my children develop with teachers, scout leaders, tutors, music instructors, etc…I want my children to have good memories and to feel safe with those adults in their lives. It saddens me that I have to repeat conversations about what is appropriate it and what is not. I assure my children constantly that there is nothing they could say to change how I feel about them, no matter what another adult tells them.

    I knew you then and it makes me wonder how many children are friends with my children and are going through something like this alone….feeling as though he/she can not speak out.

    Thank you for addressing a serious issue because the more educated we, as parents, are on this subject, the better we can help our own children.

    Thank you, Scott! And God Bless!

    Lisa

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