Leslie's Story: How Witnessing Violence Distresses Kids and Experiencing Love Changes Them
"Gotcha!!" The outburst came from somewhere in the back of the room, followed by hushed protests. It was reading hour and the kids should have been silently reading their books (or at least pretending to). Jennifer didn't have to lift her eyes from her own book to know who the culprit was.
Leslie. It was always Leslie.
Taking a deep breath and summoning all her patience, Jennifer marched across the classroom. She stopped by the last desk in the row and once again questioned the wisdom in moving Leslie to the back. But it was a lose-lose situation. If she placed her in the front, she distracted every kid in the class. If she put her on the side, inevitably all eyes would turn to watch her shenanigans. At least with Leslie in the back, most of the kids had a decent shot at undistracted education.
The little girl's eyes were fixed on her book, feigning innocence (or deafness).
"Leslie!" Jennifer said it more forcefully this time, bending down to the girl's level.
Leslie lifted her eyes to the teacher slowly as if it pained her to do so. "What it is, Ms. Henning?" The girl's impatient, just-try-me attitude sounded so out of place on an eight-year-old.
Nothing bothered Jennifer as much as disrespect. As she fought her rising anger, she tried desperately to see beyond Leslie's rudeness. There's always a reason, she told herself. She cared about Leslie, but it was so difficult at times. As she took a calming breath, she tried to imagine how in the world Leslie had gotten like this...
1:06 a.m. (The night before)
Leslie woke up suddenly to the sound of shouts in the other room. She groaned, wishing for the thousandth time that her walls were sound-proof. Better yet, that she was rich. If she had enough money, she'd run away with her younger brother, Jaxson, and never look back. It probably wasn't a great plan since she was only 8. But dreaming of a better life helped numb the fear... sometimes.
The sounds of slaps, punches, and kicks made her body ache. Sometimes she heard Mom moan or cry, but mostly she was silent. The names Dad called Mom made Leslie shudder. She didn't know what they meant, but she could tell they were bad. Really bad.
At least now, he did most of the hitting at night, when he thought she and Jaxson were asleep. They rarely were but somehow listening to it was better than seeing it and listening to it. This way, she could almost pretend it was a dream... until the morning. She hated seeing Mom's eyes in the morning. Mom covered up most of the bruises and cuts with long sleeves and pants, but her eyes told the truth. They were dead. Bright green eyes that used to sparkle with excitement now looked hollow and empty.
Nowadays, Mom found it hard to take care of herself, let alone two little kids. So that left Leslie to take care of herself and her brother. She had become pretty good at getting herself and Jaxson ready for school. She picked out their clothes, brushed her own hair, and combed Jaxson's. She scrounged around the kitchen for some food and usually found at least enough for Jaxson. If she got them both out to the bus stop on time looking half-way presentable, she was doing well.
Leslie had to admit: she enjoyed going to school. It was an escape from the constant nightmare that home had become. But it certainly wasn't perfect. Adults, like Ms. Henning, still told her what to do, and, like Dad, they raised their voices when they were angry.
Kids annoyed her for a different reason. They laughed and played like they didn't have a care in the world. She felt like she was 10 years older than anyone in her class. No one understood her. Did any of them have to function as the mom at home? No. They all had great moms and dads. She saw them at the school concerts cheering their kids on and giving them big hugs. How she longed to be loved like that...
But she wasn't. And so anger, irritation, and fear drove Leslie to be wild, loud, and obnoxious. Most people at school saw Leslie as a trouble maker, and that was fine by her. Nobody messes with a kid like that. And it proved to her what she already knew. Adults don't care about kids. They just yell at kids like her. She didn't exactly make it easy on Ms. Henning, but no one had ever made life easy for her...
Leslie stared defiantly up at Ms. Henning. She was already scheming up a response to whatever the teacher would say. But something changed in Ms. Henning's face, something she'd never seen on an adult's face before. She'd seen anger plenty, sympathy sometimes, and apathy even more. Understanding? Never.
"I have something for you."
Ms. Henning's gentle response was so unexpected, it deflated Leslie's retort. Before she could recover, Ms. Henning was walking back to her desk. Leslie stared as the teacher reached into her desk and pulled out a small box. She walked back to Leslie and set it on her desk. "I'll explain after class."
Without another word, Ms. Henning returned to her desk and opened her book. Confused, Leslie lifted the lid off the box. Inside laid a small brown leather book. She undid the ribbon and opened it up. It was a journal. How interesting. Leslie didn't try much at anything in school except for writing. She loved to invent stories, usually where she lived in a place far, far away. She wrote of princesses adored by the king and queen. Peasant girls who discovered they were royalty and were whisked away to the castle. She wrote so much that she often got behind on all her other homework. Ms. Henning always told her to stop writing and focus, so Leslie figured the teacher hated her writing. But here was this book.
On the inside cover was written a simple note: "To a very special, imaginative, and beautiful girl." Could it really be for her? Before she had any more time to think, the bell rang and kids began to file out for recess.
After she had seen each kid out the door, Ms. Henning quietly made her way back to Leslie. She sat in the next seat over and reached over to touch the journal.
"When I was a little girl, my mom gave me a journal like this. It was the best present I ever got. I wrote in it all the time: when I was scared, happy, sad, mad, or frustrated. When I wished life was different, I wrote; and when I felt like no one noticed me, I wrote. It got me through a lot of hard times."
"I know you like to write Leslie, and you have a lot of skill. You might be a writer someday if you keep it up! And you know what the best writers all have in common?"
For the first time ever in school, Leslie had a hard time speaking. But Ms. Henning waited, and Leslie found her voice.
"What's that?" She asked shakily.
Ms. Henning smiled, "They have stories to tell. And I believe you a lot of stories to tell. Maybe they're not all great ones, but that's the best thing about stories. All the heroes have to go through hard times before they win in the end. Your story isn't over, Leslie. It's just beginning."
Tears were forming in Leslie's eyes, so she didn't dare look up. Her words were hardly more than a whisper: "Thank you, Ms. Henning."
The teacher smiled and patted Leslie's hand. "You're welcome, dear. I hope you know that you can talk to me about anything. But if not, write it down."
There are four things we want you to know:
1. Witnessing intimate partner violence is devastating to kids. Even if children are never the actual recipients of the violence, it changes the way they see the world. Not all kids respond like my character Leslie; there are a variety of effects. Witnessing violence can make children timid or volatile. It can make them fearful, anxious, or suspicious of adults. It can lead to troubled relationships in the future and a general lack of trust. If you're in a violent relationship and have children, please know that it affects them too.
2. Troublesome kids always have a story. Every kid has a story for that matter. But the children that are the most difficult to deal with often have the most difficulties to deal with. Researchers estimate that 10-20% of children are exposed to intimate partner violence. This scenario is common and likely affects more than one of the kids you come into contact with.
3. Simple acts of kindness and love can go a long way. Gifts, words, or actions that are specific and caring may reach even the toughest child. While it's hard to crack their tough exteriors, persistent kindness can do it. If you're successful, you'll likely find a hurting, but amazing kid underneath. We all have the opportunity to care for and support survivors, but it starts by looking. Question your assumptions. Don't judge by first appearances or behavior only. Take the time to get to know a child. Show them that you are there for them and will listen. Be the consistent support that they aren't experiencing at home. You'll be surprised by what you discover.
4. At the Iowa Victim Service Call Center, we are here to support ALL survivors. If you are a child witnessing violence or an individual experiencing it yourself, you're not alone. There is help out there for YOU. Our advocates know the resources all across Iowa and can get you in contact with someone in your area. Or maybe you just want someone to talk to. We're here for that too. Give us a call, any time, day or night, at 1.800.770.1650, or text "IOWAHELP" to 20121.