Her name was Marlene. I vividly remembered her name, because Marlene is my Mother’s name. She and I were in the third grade. I was eight years old and the year was 1968. My family had just moved to Fresno over the previous summer, from the farming community of Conejo. I was actually happy to be in Fresno, because we were now much closer to extended family.
Marlene was not really my friend – she was a loner and a bit different from the other kids. Although she always did come to school well groomed, she wore clothes that looked handmade and old-fashioned. The dresses were well below her knees and often had lace along the edges, which was not at all in style at the time. Her hair was dark brown, thick, curly and wild. Her teeth were crooked.
What connected the two of us, was that we both arrived at school before all of the other kids. Sometimes on these early mornings, we would sit on the edge of the sandbox that was in the playground and talk.
Towards the end of the school year, our teacher asked us all to write a report about an American Indian tribe of our choice. I have Cherokee in my heritage, so I chose Cherokee. On the day the report was due, I proudly went to school with my completed report. My mother dropped me off, and I went and sat down on the edge of the sand box with Marlene.
To make small talk, I asked her if she had completed her report and what tribe she had reported on. Marlene looked at me sadly and with a look of an interesting resignation. She began to talk.
First, she told me that she did not finish the report. For the very first time, she told me that she was a foster child, and living with a foster family. I had no idea. Although I had heard of foster children, the idea was still foreign to me. It was as if she just could no longer keep her secrets, and her story just came tumbling out.
Marlene spoke deliberately and very clearly, enunciating each word. I noted that her speech was much more like an adult than a child. She also carried herself very purposefully, as if she had no fear and childish playing was beneath her. Again, much more like an adult than a child, she was very serious.
Marlene had been a foster child ever since she could remember. Every home that she retained a memory of offered some form of abuse. She moved into the home she was currently living in at the beginning of the year. She started by telling me that the night before, her foster mother made her clean the house instead of completing her report. Of course, I was aghast. Don’t all parents make homework a priority? She continued by telling me of months of beatings, starvation, humiliation and other devastating abuses. My insides were churning. I asked her if there was someone she could tell. She said that she had a social worker, but that her foster mother only made appointments with the social worker during times when she was at school. She said that, in the beginning, she did tell the social worker, but the only thing that came of it was another beating. I asked her if she wanted my help, if I could tell our teacher, or help her in another way. With a look in her eyes far past her age, she responded, “No.” She explained that the system was far greater than we were. That even if we tried, our efforts would only end in more pain and danger for her. For now, she was learning how to manage the situation with her foster mother and did not want any more problems. She was getting better at recognizing the triggers for her foster mother to beat her in the first place, and how to minimize the beatings when they did happen.
For the first time, we talked and talked in the deepest of ways. We connected so intimately because we now shared a horrible secret. As we talked, I asked her endless questions, and she seemed more than willing to tell me everything. At first I was in shock, but knew that I should not show it. Next, I prayed to God for some answer as to how I could help her. God’s answer was simply to listen. It did not seem like enough.
When school was about to start, Marlene looked at me intently and thanked me for listening. Her face seemed more at ease. I never told anyone at all. I carried her story with me for the rest of the year, and really for the rest of my life. I cried for her and others that were in her position. I prayed to God for her safety and asked God to help where I could not.
Marlene was the first person that told me her life story. After Marlene, person after person, from children to teenagers to adults to seniors, would somehow find me and sit next to me and tell me the most intimate details of their lives, their hopes, fears and secrets. I felt so ill-equipped, and that I did not have anything to offer them. I didn’t know how I, a child, could heal or help them or fix their lives. Sometimes I would even be angry, wondering why these people were telling an innocent child these heinous stories, because sometimes the stories were beyond horrible. Finally, when I was about twelve years old, I realized that I was being given a huge gift. That every person that was willing to talk to me and share with me, was trusting and teaching me something. I knew that it was important for me to understand what other people had to go through, what they were dealing with, and how they were struggling.
I was able to clearly see how much relief and release people had by being able to tell their story to someone who cared, and who was listening – without solutions, but also without judgements. This was the contribution of my early years, humanity to me, and my ear to humanity. As a result of this experience, it became crystal clear to me that listening IS a tool of healing, and in itself can lead to break-throughs, to release of pain, to the ability to forgive and forgive again.
THE GIFT OF BEING A LISTENER IS ONE TO BE TREASURED!