Led by Author Nellie Jacobs
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Writing can be any or all of the following: cathartic, exciting, revealing, exploratory, emotional, motivating – and way more. Through the act of writing, the writer can discover/uncover more about him or herself.
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In October 1971, I was a public school kindergarten teacher supervising the playground when one of my students came up to me with his older sister to ask a question: “Do you want a puppy?”
Without thinking, I responded with, “I don’t know, why?”
Their dog had recently given birth and they were looking for good homes for her puppies. They asked if I wanted to see one. “Sure, I said, ever polite, again not thinking.
A few minutes later they were back with an adorable black and white bundle with long flappy ears that was placed into the cradle of my arms. As the two kids quickly backed away, they called over their shoulders, “Mommy said if you hold her, you own her.” Off they went.
What a surprise ending of the day for me – and my unsuspecting husband when I carried the bundle into his downtown law office.
Brandy was a joy for years, the subject of all kinds of stories. She came into our life before our kids. Here are two ink line drawings I created while she slept:
How did your pet come into your life?
“Should siblings have expectations of each other? Is it possible to, or can we successfully persuade our kids to be connected/close to their family?”
I raised these questions during a discussion at a small inter-generational lunch gathering …
Along with hundreds of others, the previous day I’d been at the funeral of an esteemed member of the community. I was impressed by the sibling support shown to each other and to their remaining parent.
Of course, eulogies generally extol the supposed virtues of the deceased, Everyone inevitably compares themselves to that angelic person and his/her relationships.
My mom, an only child, has a romanticized view of how siblings should behave. I’ve argued with her about the reality of sibling relationships – and then she raises the interaction of my late mother-in-law with her six siblings. All gone now, they were a rare bunch. She was the eldest; she adored her brothers and sisters, and they did her. There are many legendary stories about how, in spite of their differences in age, sex, station, status in the community, skills, talents, abilities to communicate, and even the personalities of spouses, the siblings all kept in touch regularly and completely supported each other.
I’ve often thought about my relationship with my brothers, my kids with each other, my husband with his brother, my in-laws with theirs.
Again, I ask if it’s possible to ensure that our kids respect, enjoy and support each other after we are gone?
Can we? Can they? Should we? Should they?
What say you?
I can’t stop thinking about it…
The other day, some of our kids and grandkids came for a visit. Among them was our youngest grandchild, the cause of my curiosity.
Next month, she will be just 2½. She’s quite a character. She tries to be fiercely independent and walks with great confidence. Resolute in her opinions, last year she was going through that typical toddler stage at which she replied to every and any request with a determined “No!!!” When our son/her dad tried to urge her to say yes, she looked at him squarely in the eye, and insisted, “NO ‘yes’ daddy!”
She loves to draw, colour, and paint…
So, back to what happened the other day…
While everyone was interacting, I was busy laying out the food I’d prepared earlier in the day for a buffet. I noticed this little girl walk into the space between our dining room table and kitchen island, stop in her tracks, and stare at the painting resting on an easel in the corner of the dining room.
Fascinated to see such a young child study the painting so carefully, I stopped what I was doing to watch her. Just as I began wondering what thoughts were going through her head she turned to me, and declared,
“I don’t like it.”
I almost fell over.
“What?” I asked, not sure I heard her words correctly. “What did you say?”
“I don’t like it,” she repeated.
Now I was really fascinated, so I asked her, “Why don’t you like it?”
Her answer, “Because.”
No explanation. So, now, like a fool, I began pleading my case to this two year old. I told her I was the one who painted it and that I’d also painted the artwork behind her.
She turned to look, and immediately turned back to the first one. I mumbled on, pointing out again that I was the painter, that the subject was only flowers – and ended with the grand, “Who asked your opinion anyhow?”
I’d argued in vain. Unmoved, she barely glanced at me as she went off to continue playing with her cousins…
Later in the evening after everyone had left, I repeated the exchange with my husband Paul. He asked why I was feeling so sensitive.
On the contrary, I told him, I was fascinated. What about the painting prompted this two year old to stop, look and give an unasked for opinion? Why would she say she didn’t like it? What did she find disagreeable? I wished aloud that she could have had the ability to articulate the reason for her reaction. My musings led to the bigger picture, the question of criticism overall: understanding where it comes from, the person’s agenda, expertise, background, knowledge, our reaction to it, our own tendencies to be critical, etc.
I had conversations about it with others. “Out of the mouths of babes” and “She’s pure of heart” and “She knows what she likes” were some of their responses. Those discussions became deeper, leading to provocative debate over the definition of criticism, why people criticize, and whether there can be any value to critics generally.
See below for comments to this post…
Have you ever had any mortifying moments of embarrassment? I’ve had plenty of them. It’s funny how we remember forever such moments and the feelings we have around them. The other day I was reminded of one such time.
I was taking a leisurely stroll exploring my new neighborhood. The air was crisp, clear and sunny-a taste of spring hopefully around the corner. On my way back home, I stopped in front of TYPE, a small independent bookstore.
I stepped inside. Listening to chatter between the sales woman and customer, I wandered the aisles glancing at the racks, shelves and tables full of new books, celebration cards and knickknacks of various kinds and uses.
And then, I stopped at the table displaying a book of poetry by Michael Ondaatje.
I flipped its pages, deeply sensing the book would be dedicated to his late friend and collaborator, Barrie Nichol, otherwise known worldwide as bp Nichol. It was. (bp was my creative writing prof when I returned to university as an adult in the mid 80’s. )
Memories start spilling out…
Reading those two names reminded me once again of the time when Ondaatje caught me unprepared for class. But first, the background.
I was enjoying this particular course focus on early Canadian Literature since nothing like it had been available when I studied the subject in high school twenty years earlier. We read groundbreaking early Canadian books including Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso. At the time, I was also taking three other demanding courses: Media studies, Logical Thinking and Writing, and an intensive hands-on art course called Line and Form. Each prof gave us assignments to complete during Xmas break: a take-home exam from Media; a quiz for logic; creation of art pieces for a portfolio; and the reading of a short book called Tay John by Howard O’Hagan.
Did I mention I’m also a wife and a mom to four children, ranging in age at that time from 2 1/2 to 13 years? Needless to say, I had to set priorities. As an avid reader, I figured that I could read the book quickly at any time, so the decision was to leave it til I could take the time.
So, to continue…
We are back from Christmas break. I’ve arrived early to take my regular spot, a seat at the front of the very small classroom, facing the podium. Our prof steps up as usual to begin her lecture, but instead proceeds to introduce the already well-known author Michael Ondaatje, who, she says, is the world-renowned Tay John expert. “Wow!!’ I thought. “Who knew?”
Then I look again at the book’s cover…
It reads, “Afterword by Michael Ondaatje.” How nice! Impressive, I think.
Ondaatje nods, walks up to the lectern – which is only about six feet a way from me – leans in, and begins… He says Tay John is a mispronunciation of the french Tête Jaune (Yellow Head), referring to the hair colour of the protagonist who is the result of a rape of a Native woman. She was impregnated. Before giving birth, she died and was buried on a hill. Legend goes that her child arose as a toddler out of the earth – and strode away.
Since I have not yet read the story, I am listening so carefully my mouth drops open with surprise. Unfortunately, Ondaatje’s attention is caught by the movement. He leans further forward on the lectern. “And if you haven’t read that,” he roars at me (or so it seemed), “you haven’t read far, because this piece of information appears on page TWO!”
I was mortified. Completely. I felt my face burn. All I could think of was that he didn’t know me, nor my name, nor did he read or grade my exams. Those facts saved me.
A few years later, I graduated on the Honours List. And was armed with yet another story to share with you.
Life is like that, isn’t it?
I have been wanting to write this post for years. This is the first time I share this story – my secret – publicly.
Here is why:
The speed at which the #MeToo, #MoiAussi and similar movements have taken traction and spread worldwide after the Weinstein scandal exposure frankly astonished me so greatly I was compelled to create a collage to depict the phenomenon visually:
No previous public accusations of sexual abuse against celebrities and politicians have ever resulted in such a spilling of stories from long traumatized victims. The swift downfall of public figures, heads of companies and leaders of major organizations is unprecedented. Why now, why this time, I wonder? Why not when Polanski, Clinton, Cosby, Ghomeshi, or even Trump were news media headlines screaming alleged sexual harassment or rape accusations? What broke the dam of silence?
What led one celebrity after another to spill the beans? Safety in numbers? Hope that revealing their experience and pain will help others come forward? Belief that finally society will accept abuse happens – and the victim isn’t at fault? Expectation that the accused would not be able to overcome the numbers of their accusers coming forward…
I’m not a celebrity. I’m a mom of four married kids and grandmother of eight. Most people in my circle of friends and acquaintances are unaware of what I endured as a child, although I’ve become more open to share it if conversations move in that direction.
I’ve been reading with considerable curiosity the copious articles posted online analyzing the characteristics and modus operandi of these alleged predators – and comparing them with my own experience. Here are some of my conclusions:
Predator. An abuser is often a predator. He or she chooses to work or volunteer in a field where they have continuous access to an unsuspecting supply of potential victims. The predator works him/herself into a position of power. Besides heads of corporations, directors and producers, think boy or girl scout leaders, sport coaches, close relatives, caregivers, therapists, or family friends – and, yes, priests. My abuser was an elementary school teacher.
Until now, fearing retribution and law suits, if anyone did admit or made innuendos that they were abused, usually they didn’t name names or places. Until now.
Mr. Shaver (Charles Victor, according to 1958 archived list of Ontario teachers, and U of T archives) was my grade six teacher at Toronto’s Glen Park Elementary Public School. I remember him as tall, with a deep dimple in his chin. In his role, he had a recurring pool of girls to choose from year after year. Of course, I didn’t know that. I was relatively new to the school and had no idea of what was to come. Not that anyone who knew would have said anything.
Procurer. Procurers are much like pimps.They are the people who round up potential victims and present them to the predator. Benefiting from their role in one way or another, in an unwritten or stipulated arrangement, they set up an innocent-seeming scenario, such as a supposed business meeting, and then redirect the prey to an isolated, confined area which serves the predator well. The confused, frightened victim has little chance of escape.
In introducing the framework for abuse, Predators charm and lie. They gain trust, then use that trust to terrify the abused.
Shaver would shut the door to the classroom after school, and take turns lifting his female students, sliding his hand beneath their underwear as he moved around the room.
I wouldn’t say Shaver specifically had procurers. But someone in that school had to know what was going on…especially after my mom told the principal.
Protectors. This group consists of all the deniers, including family members, the legal defense teams, the senior executives, directors of boards, bosses and friends. This includes anyone benefiting from, working around or for, the predator. These people condone it, or know something is fishy, or deal with complaints over years. They refuse to step in, hold the predator to account, or force the accused out. This group – whether its inaction is for fear of suspected collusion, shame, loss of income or potential lawsuits – pretends, won’t acknowledge or refuses to accept the evidence or wrongdoing. Or they are advised nothing can be done and to stay clear. The result, of course, is that the predator can keep on assaulting more victims.
Consequences of Breaking the Silence
Families are split into camps – supporting or defending either accuser or accused – that never speak to each other again. Victims lose their privacy, dignity and careers. They are disbelieved, shamed, faulted and threatened. Their indignity and shame is imprinted in the minds of anyone who knows the story. They are made to feel responsible for the acts or for potentially destroying the accused. In some countries, victims – even those who are little girls – are forced to marry their rapists.
At one point, I think it was the spring of 1958, I finally worked up the courage to tell my mom. I don’t know what I expected her to do, but I needed to reveal my secret. I certainly didn’t expect her to come to speak with the principal of the school. Mom was a young immigrant from war-torn Europe who was understandably reluctant to approach people in authority. I was unprepared for what she did next – and its consequences.
Until then, I was a good student. Although somewhat shy, from time to time I was chosen to assist in an activity led by a teacher of younger students. I liked learning. Shortly after my reveal, I was sitting at my desk during a lesson when we heard a knock at the door. The principal walked in and asked Shaver and me to come out into the hall. My heart began to beat wildly. We three stepped out to join my mom who was standing there. The principal got to the point. I don’t remember what he said, except that I was accusing Shaver of something or other. I don’t remember the words or how the accusation was framed. The principal paused so Shaver could respond.
Abusers will deny, deny, deny. They are cowards who are terrified about owning up to their acts. They also manipulate the situation so their victims appear to be liars or story-tellers, or perpetrators of a major fraud.
I remember Shaver towering above me with his dimpled chin and no sign of remorse looking at me straight in the eye. Indicating surprised shock, he spit out, “Why, Nellie, I can’t believe you are making such accusations. You know they aren’t true.” I don’t remember saying a word. The principal took a moment, and then gave us – abuser teacher and abused pupil – permission to return to the same class, and then he walked away. So did my mom. What else could she do? The authority had made judgement. The collusion continued. She had no power. And I was back in the classroom with my predator.
Predators use their power to humiliate, control and isolate victims who displease them. They can ruin victims’ self-respect, careers and futures. Here’s what happened to me…
From that moment on, I was no longer molested. However, I became a non-entity, completely ignored in class. As example, during spelling practices, whenever the teacher would go up and down the rows, asking students to spell words, he’d skip over me. Students would put up their hands to let him know. I never said a word. My marks went down to a degree that in the last weeks of school he called me up to his desk to whisper to me that I was going to fail the year.
Abusers take control of their victims through threats and bullying. They threaten anyone who will think of exposing them.
I told my mom. She called the principal. He assured her I wouldn’t fail. You’d think this would be another alarm to him. But, no.
The next year, I transferred to another school, closer to where we lived at the time.
This story is not done…
Fast forward to 1966/7. As a Toronto Teachers College student, I was on a week assignment of practice teaching in a grade one class at Wilmington Elementary School. Part way through the week, I was having lunch at a table in the teachers’ lounge with my back to the door. Suddenly, I heard a man speaking loudly as he entered the lunchroom. My spine bristled when I recognized the voice out of the past. I turned my head slightly to confirm my fear. It was Shaver, smiling face, dimpled chin and all, now the vice-principal of this school. I quickly turned back my head, and felt sick.
If they work or move in the same circles, it’s not uncommon for victims to come across their abusers. They feel completely powerless, intimidated by the unspoken secret, re-victimized by keeping silent. Yet, until now – and even now – what recourse did/do they have?
The next day, I was leading a lesson at the front of the class, trying not to show my nervousness, as the teacher at the back of the room watched and graded my performance.
The door opened, and in walked Shaver. He sat at a desk near the teacher. My heart skipped several beats while I tried to pretend he wasn’t there. At the end of class, he approached to invite me to his office. I picked up my books and binders and followed him, praying he didn’t remember me. As we walked along the hallway, I noticed two young girls giggling, hanging around in the copy room (where the stencil machines and copiers were situated.)
We arrived at Shaver’s office. He sat behind his desk, I sat in front of it, in a chair facing him, barely able to look at him. Waiting for the ax to fall, my heart thumped like crazy. I was twenty.
Ever so friendly, he began to talk. He said it was good to see me, asked how I was and about my family. He proceeded to praise my teaching to the skies, that he’d never encountered in all his years a teacher as brilliant as I. (Such bullshit!) He assured me he’d be ever so happy to offer me a job at his school.
As I have said, a perpetrator’s modus operandi is to isolate, intimidate, threaten, lie, charm and bribe. He was true to form…
I couldn’t look him in the eye. I gave short answers while staring at his chin. When he was done his chat, we stood, I picked up my books, said good bye, and walked out, heaving deep breaths.
On my way back towards the exit doors, I saw the two lingering girls. Heading over to them, I asked why they were still there. They replied they were waiting for Shaver to get them. My heart sank. I leaned towards them and hissed, “Don’t wait. Go home! Go home now!!” They looked at me in confusion, and didn’t move.
When my dad came home from work that evening, I asked to go for a walk with him. I don’t remember ever previously discussing my trauma with dad but I did during that walk. I was furious and wanted to finally report Shaver. Dad shook his head and recommended I not do it. Why, I asked. “Because,” he said sadly, “you will be blackballed by the Board of Education and will never be able to work as a teacher.” My dad understood the times.
Victims feel guilt for not calling up their abusers. They feel tremendous guilt, not only for themselves, but also for not protecting future generations of victims. I know.
The story is not yet done…
Fast forward to 1996/7. My book Grading the Teacher: A Canadian Parents’ Guide, four years in the making, was published by Penguin Books Canada at the beginning of the school year in September of 1996. It became a bestseller featured by every major national and local media outlet across the country, including Macleans and Today’s Parent magazines, the Toronto Star, and CBC radio and television. The impetus of the book was my experience with Shaver and the need to encourage parents to protect their children.
So. A few months after the book was published I was walking through a Shopping Centre when I was approached by women who had been students with me in that grade six class. Mothers themselves, they mentioned the book, congratulated me and then proceeded to implore me to not ever tell anyone about what had happened in that class.
Obviously victims themselves, they were – as many are – ashamed, and couldn’t face the consequences.
Years ago, I heard through some grapevine, that Shaver had been promoted to principal.
For those of you who know me and those who do not, I have had and continue to have an incredibly fulfilling, creative life surrounded by wonderful family and amazing friends. My husband, who knew about this from almost the moment we met, has been my rock, my strength, my protector, and my promoter.
As difficult as it was to write this post “exposing” my secret, if it’s the impetus for real discussion and truths, then it is worth it. So, yes, you are welcome to forward it to someone who may find it helpful and a good source for important conversation. – Nellie
What are your thoughts and experiences in regards to the points made in this posting? Share in the comments section below…