The motivation and energy of the course gave birth to the idea of a research project. I asked the students to assist me in developing a framework, a list of strategies, anything that would be helpful to teachers who are aware of violence in the lives of children they teach, but unsure as to what, if anything, they could offer. Their overwhelmingly positive response challenged me to find ways the research project itself would continue to empower the women informing the work. I was only too aware of the vulnerability of any woman who chooses to re-open carefully closed wounds. We did not enter this work lightly or proceed without utmost care.
I chose to follow the feminist research process clearly outlined by such authors as Kirby and McKenna (1989) and Stanley and Wise (1983). This approach allows me to place myself firmly in the process and requires me to be totally accountable to the participants who inform the study. Several of the women had assisted me earlier in my M.Ed. research and they were familiar with the structure. Each also recalled the strength she found in using her voice to help others find theirs. The experienced students helped the new members to feel confident and together we designed a methodology that suited our needs.
We were twelve in total but we most frequently met in groups of five or six. We ranged in age from nineteen to fifty-five. We were all white women as is the majority of residents in our small town and surrounding rural area. We made no attempt to address minority issues because we did not feel it was our place to do so. However, we feel strongly that this is work that needs to be done. As women in small town Ontario we, too, feel isolated and marginalized. The bucolic myth of peaceful small towns and neighbourly love belies the reality of violence behind lace curtains.
One participant told of her troubled childhood and articulated frequently the protection she felt her abusing father was given because of his position in the community. When Jody became a "wild acting out teenager," the community sympathized with her parents. "I was dressing like I was eighteen (at twelve) and then I was into the smoking and the drinking and the drugging," very young, and I don't really understand why nobody stopped a kid at twelve or thirteen and questioned why they stunk like booze in the morning at school. ... Because of who my father was, everybody around me, everybody in authority, I think, because it was a small town, stuck their head in the sand."
Tammy was abused by her brother and assaulted by a school bus driver, both people respected in her community. When Tammy finally, after years of silence, shared her secret with her mother, she was told to continue the silence because the appearance of family unity was most important. Carrie, abandoned by her mother, was abused by an uncle. She struggles as an adult to fight demons of flashbacks and fears that her father too participated in her childhood terrors.
Date rape, alcoholism, neglect. These are common themes. So are concerns about the ability to be a good parent and deep worries about how the school system fails as a protector of children. Jenna was gang-raped at thirteen. Neither her parents nor her teachers were able to help her deal with the aftermath of the horror. Their silence taught her that her reality was invisible. At first, she rarely spoke. But though this young woman did find the strength to charge several of her assailants, she experienced another kind of silencing in court. Because she was unable to continue repeating her story over and over, separately for each perpetrator, the last two were released without penalty. Jenna fears her "weakness" has given these men the freedom to attack another child.
These are only a few stories, and their selection is not intended to deny the reality of anyone else's experience. The truth is that such stories are found all too readily in our communities and children such as Jody and Tammy sit in our classrooms every day. Indeed, these three stories are included here precisely to expose times in these women's lives when schools could have made a difference and didn't.
What do these women think we teachers could do? I will discuss here just three of their many suggestions: teacher training, continuing of contact with personnel, and women's studies courses in secondary school. As we talked and drew out common themes, we recognized easily a dozen other recommendations.