20 Minutes of Action

I am a mother of daughters and a middle school nurse. A while ago, a student was raped one weekend. Here’s what to high a price for 20 minutes of action looks like.

A girl I’d never met before comes into my clinic. She’s beautiful, or would be if not for the two large scars gracing her cheeks, right below her eyes. She says she’s not feeling well – they’re in the middle of mid term exam season and she has a headache, afebrile (no fever). Her eyes are watery and her breathing is shallow, too fast. I don’t say a word 20 or so about the angry red lacerations, so deep they’ve scaled over since she made them, that run up the length of both her forearms. I watch as she digs her nails into her knuckles, scraping and digging as if clawing off the skin will somehow ease a pain that can’t be touched.

Despite my steadfast rule of straight return to class on testing days, I give her ice, tell her to lay down. She takes the ice in shaking hands and I am grateful she’s no longer digging her skin off. I ask if she’d like to talk to a counselor, but she shakes her head, lays down and curls into a ball. I hear her crying, softly, as I check her records and match her face to a name I’d heard only once before.

I’d never met the victim, late spring of prior school year, when the attack happened. I was off-handedly informed at a staff meeting intended for dealing with student issues. She was attacked. Raped. 12 years old.

Questions like ‘what was she doing,’ ‘what was she wearing,’ ‘how could she have prevented this’ flayed around the table. These words were uttered by trained counselors and staff who give so much of their lives and selves in an effort to give kids who – in society’s eyes – don’t have a chance, a chance. One gentleman spoke up, the futile words that were running through my numb brain – were not victim blaming here! ‘Of course not, but…’

What they meant to say, but couldn’t get to because their social programming wouldn’t let them, was: how can we keep her safe in the future? She wasn’t on campus, but how could we save her – and others like her from the men who will pretty on them? It’s as easy as educate on respect and consent and convict perps strictly, sternly, and to the full extent of the law but our society tells us it’s not. Our society tells us that:
– A man’s brand or lable or image is more important then the violation of a woman’s body.
– A man’s financial standing or employability is more important than a woman’s emotional, social, or physical welfare.
– A man’s freedom is more important than a woman’s right to make choices such as when, where, and how sex happens.
– A man had more right to have sex then a woman has to refuse sex (there by making sex something you do to women)
– A man’s “actions” are not worthy of any amount of punishment, despite the lifetime impact said actions have on a woman.
– A man’s life is inherently more worthwhile and important than a woman’s.

These examples are from the past 12 months alone. The same 12 months I spent watching a broken girl struggle to survive. When she left that day, I tips her she was always welcome. If she needed to rest, or just needed a place to feel safe. She mumbled thank you as she shuffled or the door.

It wasn’t a week before I saw her again. She came in, half led, half carried, by a group of girls. Her head was low, her body limp and as I greeted her she looked up with wet eyes and blood smeared cheeks. She’d ripped the scars off her cheeks wroth her own nails, creating teardrop shaped patches of blood. The cuts on her arms were fresh and I watched her fingers slipped up to her cheeks, digging as if to make sure no one would ever fob her beautiful again. As if to rid herself of this cage of skin and flesh that holds her in that moment. A moment she will never be free of.

I taught her to breathe through the panic attacks. To disinfect self-made wounds. As we moved through the months, I tried to give her safety, solitude. Compassion the adults around her seemed to often be running short on. She learned her triggers, for the flashbacks and overwhelming grief. She learned, slowly, how to cope. Her body healed. I can’t say the same for her soul. The attack itself was a topic we avoided and when confronted in our vague way of ‘rough day?’ or ‘I’m thinking those thought again’ there was this feeling in the air like the one you get when you walk into a dying person’s room – all loss and gut wrenching pain with no hope of ever getting clear.

As the year went on, she came less and I have hope that she’ll survive this. That, somewhere down the road, it won’t kill her – using her own hands to do the deed.

Today is the first crystal blue summer day we’ve had in a good long while in Houston, and yet – for me – it feels gray. I write this, slowly, teeth gritted behind straight lips, eyes and noise stinging with tears I won’t shed because of some man’s 20 minutes of activity.

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