The principal shook my hand to assure me.”You did the right thing,” he said. Somehow I wasn’t convinced, but I accepted it, and tried to put it out of my mind. I walked down the hall, back to class. I was 13, I think, and wondering if I was going to see that little boy again. I never did. I was his “reading buddy”, and I had set into motion with only a few words, his removal from the school.
I was always good at reading, and one of the few children in my class who had a strong aptitude for it. At the time I was reading mostly fantasy. Tolkien was a bit of a challenge, but I got through the Hobbit and then, later, the Lord of the Rings. I was excited about the prospect of using my reading skills to help another person, and so when we were first told about this “reading buddy” program our class would be doing, I was supportive. We were all going to be paired up with children just learning basic reading skill, and were going to assist them to be more competent. Sure, it doesn’t take much skill to help a child read a book that only has a handful of words on each page, but anything that involved reading was a happy prospect for me. You see reading comprehension and vocabulary was singularly the area I most excelled. It was a welcomed diversion from dreaded mathematics and geography.
The first time I met my new little friend, I was remarkably comfortable. It was really the first time I had had any extended interaction with a younger kid, since the school practiced a form of segregation during recess, and because older kids just don’t talk to younger kids. I had no siblings growing up, although, I did very much want a brother when I, myself, was very young. I was impressed with how well he handled the material, and I mostly just provided encouragement.
He was a pretty outgoing little guy, after a while, and he lived on the same street that I did. The odd time, we’d end up walking back together from school and talking. I can’t recall much of anything that we talked about, really… I don’t recall much of anything of him at all. And I can’t say what his exact words were when he told me about how his father touches him.
I was surprised and yet somehow remained nonchalant as I asked him questions to try and clarify what exactly he was talking about. I don’t even remember those, but I remember saying good bye to him. I turned back to watch as he walked along the street, now only a few houses down from his own. I walked on home, in my mind a sort of conflict was developing. I didn’t really know what to do. “Could I just be misunderstanding somehow? Could it be nothing? He didn’t seem scared, or traumatized or anything except a normal little kid. Maybe it was nothing,” my mind ran through the possibilities and tried to rationalize. I let him walk back home… A decision which may or may not have been prudent.
I didn’t ask for anyone’ advice that afternoon. The next day, at school, I had decided in “better safe than sorry” fashion, to go speak to the principal. I told him what was said to me, and his face grew increasingly grave as I spoke. “You did the right thing,” he told me. Was I convinced? Maybe not 100%, but I wanted to believe I was doing good. I wondered why it had to be me that would be put into that position. Later that day, I saw the principal talking to the child in his office, right as the police walked through the front door. How I just happened to be there at that moment, is another mystery, and yet I did. That was the last time I saw the boy. I was assigned to another child as their “reading buddy”, and the program was ended shortly later.
I didn’t really know what was going to happen to him, and I can’t say at what point I began to feel the weight of the decision I had made. My mother, upon my telling her the story, once I had gotten back home that day, was not explicitly supportive. Rather than reassuring me, she mentioned the consequences of the event, and the possibility I had over-reacted. How much of the uncertainty that followed was a result of that, I’ll never know.
Him and I developed a relationship, even if it was a superficial one. He looked up to me, and he trusted me. I didn’t make the decision to phone the police, but I did make the decision to tell the principal. I can only imagine that the principal himself spoke to the boy afterward, and felt certain by what he was told, that crimes were taking place. The idea the entire event could have been some misunderstanding is absolutely horrifying, but it’s not a valid argument for silence.
It was so many years ago now. I can’t remember his name, or even his face really…. I can’t help but wonder what became of him, and if his life truly was improved by the choice I made. I wonder if he felt betrayed, sitting in the office (a place nearly completely associated with bad behavior), and being questioned. Wherever he is, I hope he is well, and that I did do the right thing, like I was told. I think there’s a strange compulsion we sometimes have to deny the reality of something too terrible or burdensome to accept. It would have been easier to just rationalize what I was told, and forget about it… And, in fact, I have forgotten it. Yet between quickly casting it from my mind, I repeated those words to the principal, and so transferred that burden onto him. I’m not sure then, why I still feel the entire chain of events rested solely on my own actions.
Did I do the right thing? I hope so… I hope so… But isn’t it a strange thing to hope for? I still want to believe that maybe it was just a misunderstanding, but it not being one is the only possible way I can feel vindicated for turning his life upside down. It was a burden that seemed to great at the time, and perhaps remains one today.