Ch. 6 Dark rings under her eyes
Sitting opposite the striking, confident young woman; I could still see the beautifully presented girl with the dark rings beneath her eyes who had sat in my class six years ago. I never knew why those dark rings were there. I would ask her regularly and she would smile and say she was ‘fine’. Some days I saw the bubbly child I had taught in Year 8 shine forth, but then, a shadow would pass over her eyes when she thought no-one was watching her. She would not share her pain. She would not let her grades slip nor her façade of confidence and success. She was at the top of her classes and she was destined to follow either her mother or her father into a respectable and lucrative profession. I thought today she wanted to tell me her success story.
“Thank you for meeting me.” She began formally. I smiled and wondered again what this unexpected coffee invitation was about. “You used to ask me all the time if I was okay… you used to smile at me and make me feel safe. I never missed your lessons. They saved me.” This gush of words was leading somewhere so I nodded and smiled; this time very gently. “I am ready to tell you now.”
I waited for her to sip her coffee. She was so elegant and the name on her business card that she had politely given to a demanding client as we had walked in, told me she had achieved the professional career she had been heading towards.
“At the start of Year 11 I was up late studying. It was the first time I heard them. I was supposed to be in bed but, well you know how assessment tasks are… I heard them. I heard my mother pleading with him to stop. I heard her tell him ‘no’, over, and over again. I heard him call her names I didn’t know he knew. I was frozen. These were my parents. My respectable, upstanding citizen parents, my always sit together at school events parents. My never miss a game I played parents. I asked Mum the next day if she was okay. She said she was ‘fine’. She smiled and gave me a kiss and said have a great day darling girl. Then she picked up her brief case and went to work.”
There was a tear in the bottom of her eyes but she kept talking. “I never heard them again. I still do not know if he was just quieter or it stopped. My mother never admitted to anything. It was her secret. I started staying up as late as I could so that he would fall asleep before me. I started needing help with assessments late at night so Mum wouldn’t go to bed. I got so tired and you always noticed. I wanted to tell you but I was so ashamed and so scared. Mum did not want anyone to know. She didn’t even want me to know. I was so terrified of what would happen.”
“So,” I said, “why now?”
“Last week she left him. She sat me down with brother and she said that she was leaving him and that she had to see a doctor. My brother cried and said, ‘At last.' He knew too. We had all held silence for so long. I feel so guilty and so ashamed but I had to tell you. You got me through you know, you reminded me that I could be okay somewhere. You gave me the strength to help Mum now.”
I was so humbled by her story and so sad. She had sat with the pig-dog at her feet day after day and no-one suspected that the pretty, smart girl from the beautiful home with the respectable parents had lived in fear. Dark rings under her eyes were not just from studying hard.