By Susan DuFresne.
Last year around this time of year, I wrote Beyond the Edge: Climbing Mt. Edreform. This time of year is always a time of reflection for me, because not only is it the end of the year, but you see,
New Year’s Eve is my birthday and it always brings back memories of childhood trauma.
I have vivid bad memories of my dad driving me to the old-school dentist every year on my birthday in his highway patrol car. The drills back in those days must’ve required the dentist to use their body weight to drill through a tooth. He was huge and I can remember him pushing and drilling until I screamed in pain. What kind of parent takes their child to the dentist each year on their birthday?
As the oldest of 4 siblings, I was the built-in caregiver. On New Year’s Eve, I was asked to clean the house and care for the 3 younger siblings while my parents went out to party. Inevitably they came home drunk, fighting and yelling only to wake up my brothers and sisters. It was me who broke up my parents fights, often getting hit in the process. It was me who comforted my siblings back to sleep. There was no protection and little escape from the trauma. There were no safe adults to turn to for help back then.
Three months prior to my birth, my dad married my mom who was 6 months pregnant with another man’s child. My “dad” tried to choke my mom the night of their wedding. Cortisone and adrenaline filled her body and mine. On New Year’s Eve I was born with atopic dermatitis – an allergic response triggered by stress hormones. This stress response continues today along with other immune system and metabolic health issues attributed to trauma. Some days the itching is truly unbearable. But with it comes an unrelenting lifelong itch to search for safe adults – and to be one – for the children in my integrated kindergarten classroom. There were only a few safe adults in my childhood – and like many children from families of abuse and addiction – they were not my parents.
I learned about the ACES [Adverse Childhood Experiences] Study by developing a professional and activist relationship with Jim Sporleder, former principal of Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA. ACES has an inventory and a program that includes a cultural shift and training designed to support children of trauma. The story of transformation of Sporleder’s school to a “compassionate school” is told poignantly in the documentary Paper Tigers.
Moves within district, workload increases, and challenging behaviors have kept me from acting as quickly as I would like on ACES. When I recently answered the questions in the ACES Score, I scored a 10/10. That doesn’t mean I am an expert in this field. It does explain why I am excellent at noticing the symptoms, and why I am a strong advocate.
Is there hope? How did I make it this far after all the childhood trauma?
Much like the rural town of Walla Walla, I grew up in North Dakota, spent most of my time outdoors – despite the severe weather, which can change 100 degrees in 24 hours. Often it was safer outdoors than in my home due to my parent’s alcoholic rages and abuse. Outdoor play, imaginary play and playing board games or baking at friends’ homes, reading to learn and for joy, and art were my only times of peace. It is these peaceful experiences that guide my response as a teacher of children who’ve encountered trauma. These experiences gave me resilience.
Authority – but not safe adults – surrounded me. I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion different from my father’s. I grew up across the street from the King County Jail. The sheriff didn’t help me. I lived one block from the conservative public school and three blocks away from our family’s Catholic church where the child-abusing priest used public humiliation as a means of control. The Bishop – knowing of his abuse – placed him in charge of the state’s Catholic childrens’ camp, Camp Dominic Savio. 13 miscarriages left my mom in a constant state of grief and depression. When my parents’ marriage was ready to break, the priest didn’t step up to counsel them. Needlessly to say, this priest didn’t help me or my family. Continuous grief and depression over death are their own kind of trauma.
I worked for the mayor in high school. He fired me for innocently telling the truth about my below-minimum wages to the State Wage and Labor Board when they stopped by to ask us some questions. The mayor wasn’t a safe adult. All of these adults were fellow drinkers with my family. They knew of some of the struggles. None of the adults in my life at that time reached out as “safe adults” to intervene. It wasn’t until high school that a safe adult reached out to be a positive influence in my life – one teacher and coach, Mr. Sorge. Mr. Sorge was as close as I was going to get to a Jim Sporleder back then.
Dealing with addiction and abuse were not topics of dinner conversation in America in this era, limiting my search for safe adults, but Mr. Sorge noticed. That’s all it takes sometimes to make a difference – one noticing teacher. One day, when the trauma must have shown in my expression, Mr. Sorge asked me if “everything was okay”. He began to take more notice. In my small town he asked me to babysit for his children. He asked me to be his T.A. He checked in with me and began coaching a girls’ track team, encouraging me to join. His behavior was always appropriate and positive. It gave me hope and helped me see adults who behaved safely towards each other and their children. My trauma didn’t stop. As it is with alcoholism, it escalated throughout the 17 years I lived with my parents. But though I needed more, Mr. Sorge made a difference. What this does for children of trauma is to build our resilience.
My grandmother was also a huge resilience builder in my life. She gave me unconditional love. There were other adults who were kind, but few really stepped out of their comfort zone to help. One future co-worker saw my talents as an artist and gave me a scholarship to attend the International Peace Camp’s Art Camp the summer of 1968. This boosted my confidence and led me to take some art classes at university and a work study program as secretary in the UND Art Department. Experiencing repeated moments of joy with a few true friends gave me resilience. These are the important resilience pieces that kept me afloat.
I have long since dealt with these issues via professional therapy. But I don’t write this personal story for sympathy, but rather, because children of trauma need a voice. We can’t undo these traumatic events, however we may be able to prevent new trauma and increase their resilience.
This trauma impacted me greatly in school. I took many risks that put me in harm’s way, taking dares and breaking my arm three times between 1st and 2nd grade. I became very shy, had no self-confidence, and spent my time trying to stand up to injustices towards others, but not for myself. I had no sense of self. Self-actualization was impossible as I couldn’t develop a sense of self surrounded by so much authority, fear of real physical and emotional abuse shut me down. I complied. I colored within the lines. I followed the rules. Except when I was disassociating. I “daydreamed” to shut off my feelings. I managed to get A’s and B’s, mostly in an attempt for safety. But the A’s weren’t good enough and I was still punished harshly.
Finally in my teens, I began to rebel, but not without paying the price of addiction through more risky behavior. Addiction derailed my completion of college and trapped me in the co-dependent behavior of attempting to rescue addicted family members. It led me into a marriage without first having a strong sense of self. I lived passively in my marriage, not really developing as a full individual until my 40’s.
I never lived up to my full potential until much later in life after divorce and therapy. I often asked myself how I managed to remain sober for over 40 years.
Some might think a person always has a choice. I would argue that some children are so severely traumatized and have so little resilience, they aren’t in a state to exercise free will.
They are stuck. Frozen. Submitting – or so dissociated they aren’t cognitively able. For me, resilience allowed me to get sober and to stay sober. To break the chains. You can read more about how resilience helps children overcome Adverse Childhood Experiences [ACES] here.
I’m sure today after struggling for the children in my classroom and finding information on ACES that I did so because of resilience – resiliency built due to my grandmother, Mr. Sorge, and a couple of women I worked with while in high school.
One safe adult reaching out to a child who experiences trauma can be the difference between a life doomed to addiction, gang involvement, and even death by risky behaviors or suicide and/or homicide.
As a teacher I know of and have had children of trauma in my classroom each year. Always, their behavior is their cry for help. Like me, children sometimes experience trauma prior to birth. Drugs, alcohol, violence, domestic disputes – all trigger stress hormones to children in utero. New research shows these stress hormones have an impact on the mental and physical health of children that can last a lifetime.
Thank you Mr. Sorge. Words can’t express the depth of my gratitude, but perhaps my life as a teacher and EduActivist can.
Readers, look for how this story impacts my life as a teacher and EduActivist in the next post. Read about how trauma has impacted many children over the years in my classroom and how I continue to meet their needs. Join me and my classroom in this journey to create Compassionate Schools.
Do you know anyone who suffers/suffered from childhood trauma? How did/does it impact them in schools? How have you been involved in developing their resilience?
Susan DuFresne is a kindergarten teacher and activist in the Seattle area. She teaches both general education and special education. Susan has worked in high poverty schools and continues to organize direct actions for social justice. You can follow her on Twitter @GetUpStandUp2.