A Lesson Begun at the School for the Blind. Abuse and Forgiveness

Some weeks ago, I promised some blog posts on topics wider than technology, and here we are. This one has taken me 10 days to write, because I wanted to be as clear as possible about my reasons for writing it. I wrote a very different version of this post a decade ago, inspired by a disturbing newspaper article. Writing it then gave me flashbacks and left me upset. I recount the same facts now with a sense of detachment, satisfaction with my progress, and a deep sense of gratitude for the lessons this particular school experience taught me when I was ready to open my heart to those lessons. And that is, in fact, precisely why I am writing it – in the hope that it may help someone achieve the peace I have.

The events that inspired this post happened a very long time ago. 37 years ago to be exact. So much was different then. Attitudes towards children alleging abuse, the kind of punishment considered acceptable, the kind of people considered acceptable in blindness education and probably education in general. They were different times, and I want to stress that blindness education here is very different now. I feel nothing but admiration and appreciation for all those who devote so much time, many of them their entire working life, to giving blind kids a chance at being successful adults who achieve their full potential.

For over a decade, I travelled the world extensively, and socialised with a lot of blind people. By no means all, but a number that was higher than I expected, seemed to carry emotional scars from their attendance at a school for the blind. There’ve been books written and TV shows made about boarding schools, so this isn’t exclusively a blindness issue by any means. For children who are inclined to be more sensitive and in need of nurturing, being taken away from your family for prolonged periods at a young age is going to be tough, even without any unfortunate experiences. When the wine gets flowing, some pretty heart-wrenching stories come out.

Words can’t do justice to how thankful and grateful I am that my parents bought a house very close to the school for the blind, so I could come home every day, just like any regular kid would come home from school. I’m the youngest of five children, and thanks to this loving and generous sacrifice, I was able to enjoy family life.

I was a gregarious and happy little kid, but became unhappier when at age seven, I ended up in a classroom with a teacher whose methods were very different from those of my previous teacher’s, whom I adored. She’d walk around the classroom with a ruler. If you got a spelling word wrong, it wasn’t uncommon to receive three whacks on your knuckles. Some of us got into the habit of trying to conceal our hands when she was walking past to check our work, but she’d make a point of grabbing them and putting them on top of the Perkins Brailler where she could have easy access for whacking purposes.

I didn’t thrive in this environment, but it was to get far worse. One day had a profound effect on the way I grew up.

We used to have a wonderful heated swimming pool complex at the school for the blind. Twice a week, we’d head off to the pool and learn how to swim. The trouble with me was I was scared of putting my head under the water. I don’t know why, some kids just fear certain things I suppose. I used to have fantasies about being trapped underwater and drowning. The swimming teacher did her best to be persuasive and convince me that there wasn’t anything to worry about, but with about 14 children in the pool, there’s only so much attention you can give to one kid having issues. That’s when my classroom teacher decided to help.

She got in the pool to give me one-on-one attention. Not only was I a frightened child, I could also be a stubborn one. So perhaps the combination of the fear and the attention just made things worse. Whatever the cause, she ultimately lost her temper, and said that if I didn’t have a go at putting my head under the water, she’d have to do it for me. That really freaked me out, and I tried to back away from her. She caught up with me easily, grabbed my head in both hands, and repeatedly submerged my head under the water for I think a second or so, lifted it out, then submerged it again. By the fourth or fifth round of this, I was crying and begging for her to stop, promising that I would try harder.

When I woke up on the morning of the next swimming day, I experienced a feeling that was totally new to my eight-year-old self. Absolute terror. I couldn’t stop shaking, and I couldn’t stop sobbing. My mother finally got out of me that I was scared because it was swimming day, and I told her what had happened on the last one. She marched up to school with me and confronted the deputy principal. It was agreed that for now, I wouldn’t be required to go swimming, that my overall education was the most important thing. I understand that the teacher concerned was approached about what had happened, and that she denied having done what I said she’d done. It was the word of a somewhat precocious eight-year-old against the teacher’s.

Of course, abuse can be psychological as well as physical, and this sadly isn’t the end of the episode. After a short while, the teacher in question got tired of me having been exempted from swimming. After reading the afternoon story, which immediately preceded swimming time, she asked the class, “wouldn’t swimming be so much better if Jonathan was with us too?” She then led the class in a collective round of pleading with me, in exaggerated tone, to please please please come swimming with us. I remember the sweat pouring off me, clearly suffering what I now know was an anxiety attack, and finally uttering some sound of distress. Excitedly she said, “was that a yes? Did I just hear a yes?” which just left me sobbing harder.

Now that the teacher had tried to get the kids on-side, I was teased about being too chicken to go swimming by other kids for weeks.

The school then decided that it was I who had the problem, making up stories about teachers like that, so they sent me off to a psychologist to find out why I was doing it. I don’t actually remember the psychologist’s interview or what he asked me, but apparently he reported back that there was no sign at all that I was prone to making things up.

All this happened during the first year of being taught by this teacher, and the school placed me in that class for three years. Three years is a very very long time for a child. By the third year, my mother told them that if they didn’t make alternative arrangements for me, she would take the matter much further. They did, and I really started to thrive after that as a student and socially.

Looking back on it now, that experience had an enormous impact on my attitudes. I distrusted authority, I believed that those with power of any kind would protect each other. Different personality types will react to the same situation differently. You’ll always have people who’ll say, “ah we were thrashed as kids and it never did me any harm”. Perhaps that’s true, or perhaps they don’t actually realise the harm it did in terms of their adult relationships. Also, for me I think the biggest deal was the not being believed and the subsequent psychological abuse. Had my parents never wavered in their belief that I wasn’t making it up, I honestly don’t know what would have become of me.

To put this in its proper context, it isn’t like I couldn’t and didn’t function or anything like that. I did really well academically, topping the country in history at high school in fact. But I now realise I carried a lot of anger. I felt like I’d never been heard, vindicated, and apologised to. My mind would wander a lot to the swimming pool when I was in bed at night, and it would make me angry.

The grievance I felt became almost a badge of honour. I still felt I hadn’t achieved justice, and yet I don’t really know what it was I was expecting. When I became Chairman of the blindness agency here in New Zealand, which at that time was running the school for the blind, I acknowledged in one of my annual addresses that different attitudes and different times had meant that some people carried hurt and baggage. It felt good, and right, to be able to do that, and not just for me. I am by no means the only person with such episodes to recount. I at least then felt that I had what justice I could legitimately expect.

Having given you a lot of context, and the context was necessary so you can understand what I was dealing with, I can now come to my reason for writing this post. One day while travelling, I jammed the tail of a friend’s guide dog in a door. Have you ever heard that yelp a dog makes when that happens? It’s hard to forget that cry of anguish. I got down on the floor, gave the dog a hug, and told her how sorry I was, making those comforting noises you make to dogs. Actually it’s fascinating hearing the way people interact with dogs.

A couple of days later, my friend with guide dog attached and I got together again. The dog bounded up to me wagging her tail furiously and giving me a big lick. That dog just knew that the moment where I’d inadvertently hurt her was over. She was focussed on the now, living in the moment, being present. In that moment, nothing was wrong. She was glad to see me.At that time, I had recently read Eckhart Tolle’s book, “The Power of Now”, in which he talks about how we are so often captured by a past that can’t be changed no matter how often we play it back in our heads, and a future we can’t fully control or predict. All we really have, with any certainty, is now.

I then began reading books on the power of forgiveness. Some of it was serious, I mean far more serious than the incident I recounted above, which I readily acknowledge while having a big impact on me, was minor in the scheme of things. I read about people who had forgiven the murderers of family members, or the perpetrators of hideous other crimes. Of course I had already read Nelson Mandela’s book “Long Walk to Freedom”, but I read it again looking for different things. He had forgiven those who’d held him captive and oppressed his people, and brought about a peaceful transition few people thought was possible.

As a child who didn’t have any counselling or even get an investigation into what happened to me, it’s understandable that it affected me. But as an adult, I came to realise that any anger I still felt, all those years later, about a situation that had long past and wasn’t impacting my life now in any way was all down to me. I was making a choice to carry that baggage around. I was making a choice to treat it as a grievance. So one night, I did two things. The first was to write a letter to the teacher, long dead now but I wouldn’t have actually sent it even if she had not been. I tried to remember how it all made me feel at the time, and then I told her that I’d forgiven her. I wrote about the good times – all the wonderful stories she read us, the cool little memory aids she showed us that still help me remember how to spell certain words or complete some maths problems. I told her that she must have had feelings of profound frustration and anger, and that I wish she had been able to seek help. I told her that I would never forget, but I did forgive, completely and totally.

I then wrote to my eight-year-old self, telling him that an adult understands, that it would be OK, that he had a mum and dad who would loved unconditionally, that a future chair of the agency would kind of apologise.

Perhaps if you’ve never struggled with letting go of something that really invades your spirit, this all sounds very cheesy. But for me, it was wonderfully liberating. I can tell the story of what happened to me now easily and freely, because it has a happy ending and there is no resentment.

To those who have suffered far more serious abuse than I, I’m not for a second suggesting that those of us who are the victims of abuse are the problem. Actions have consequences and justice must be done. Once it is done though, once the appropriate consequences have occurred, if we don’t seek to forgive, then the perpetrator wins, because we allow them to have an ongoing effect on our lives. You forgive not so much for the other person, you forgive for your own sake.

The phrase, “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” still applies here. If someone has a propensity to be detrimental to your well-being in any way, then it’s just not sensible to allow them back into your life. You can hold that stance without feeling any resentment towards them though. You can simply note the choice, reflect that they’re not hurting you now, and leave it at that.

I still cringe at the phrase “everything happens for a reason”, but maybe not so much now. I think we can find a lesson in anything that happens to us. It may just take time before we’re ready to have the lesson revealed to us.

3 Comments

  1. Mike Cole

    Boarding schools, any kind of cloister I suppose, what happens to authority figures? How did the idea you could hit children in to alertness take root? If a kid is scared, where did the notion come from that you could defeat the fear by forcing your head under water? It sounds like her frustrated anger got the better of her. And there are fraternities, and marching bands in the US with hazing rituals, and kids hitting you and telling you they will stop as soon as you fight back, knowing you never will. I’m sorry you were put through that Jonathan. Back when I was in Junior High School, a typical punishment for the boys was swatting carried out by the gym teachers or the school’s vice principal for boys. The same boys were beaten in this way, time and again, which said to me it was a punishment that accomplished little or nothing, but it taught certain kids that the world functioned this way, where the big people crushed the small ones. I’m sorry you didn’t receive a fair hearing. Adults who lose control need to work somewhere else.

    For every action there is a reason? Cringe away Jonathan, because that’s a foolish myth, not at all how the world actually works. You have worked hard and given back in many ways. You have confronted your ghosts the best you can. These big brains we are given, they can lead us in to very dark corners, the pain we inflict on ourselves can be as harsh as any we receive from others. If we try hard to get better, we just might. It sounds like you have worked hard at your adjustment in this matter. Good job.

    Mike

  2. Derry Lawlor

    Jonathan thank you for sharing your story and opening up to us I have a fe wstories like the swimming experience and maybe soon I can forgive like you did. thanks again.

  3. Kyle Cogan

    Reading this blog post made me think of how things were dealt with back then and thinking how they are dealt with now. dealing with experiences like that can often leave one insecure but eventually one learns to regain confidence with just that little bit of encouragement. Even i myself went through a phase where i was bullied at school and felt i wasn’t being believed so my method at that time was to keep it secret for 3 years not the best idea in the world but occasionally my brain will sometimes stray back to the past and i do my best to rein it in and focus on other stuff which works 9 times out of 10. I now look at my life and think that now 2014 has gotten off to a good start. I’m doing work placement that i enjoy and am soon to be reviewed as to whether i have more work I.E extra hours or paid work etc i’m getting out there socially and going tandom bike riding once a week or so riding between 15 and 20km each time. enough about me jonathan but you’ve done extremely well to get where you are in life now and being so successful even i myself have held onto anger for a long time but i’ve calmed down to the point that i don’t see any reason to get angry so those feelings have been pushed as far away as they can possibly be pushed.

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