A teenage girl showed up at our house unexpectedly a few days ago. And I mean unexpected. I hadn't heard from her in over eight years. That might not seem like a big deal, but this was no ordinary child. No ordinary situation.
I had connected with this girl we'll call "G", when she was seven. I volunteered on my lunch breaks at our local school, reading with children who needed help. Although she wasn’t one of my reading partners, G and I started a friendship, a Big Sister of sorts. G’s life was different, and G was different. And I wondered if I’d be of any help.
I told myself I could get through to this girl, who seemed to live in her own little make-believe world. She was living with her mom and dad at the time. And I soon realized why she retreated to her fairy-tale world.
Call me clueless at age 47. G's life was one I'd never witnessed, and I couldn't grasp why nobody was helping her.
This girl fell through the system's cracks. If I wouldn't have seen her lifestyle with my own eyes, I'd never have believed it. And although the time we spent together every week was important, I felt she was living in quicksand, and I didn’t have the strength to pull her out. Her family life was a mess, and slowly, this child who had so little already, lost everything.
That she hadn't lost her mind is a miracle. It all came to a head one night when I was at the police department, waiting to speak with a detective with G and another family member—at 10:30 on a school night. It was just another night for G.
When we were finished, the detective took me aside. "You are being sucked into a mess. I think you're over your head, and you might want to get out." Oh boy, did I want to get out! But I'd have just been another person in a long line, abandoning G.
The situation was eventually taken out of my hands. G was moved out of our area, getting bounced from one place to another. Our relationship was cut. And over the years I’ve wondered what happened to her. And what kind of life she had.
On Sunday, a strange truck pulled up to our house. And out stepped G.
She'll be a senior in high school next fall. My jaw would've dropped hearing how her life has gone these past eight years, but it didn’t, because unfortunately, her life continued to be as awful as I’d feared it would. But as I hugged G, I knew. She's a fighter, a survivor, and yes, she might have some emotional battle scars that make her unique, but if any of us had lived her life, we would too.
I have her phone number, I know where she lives now, and I'll be in touch. I want to know she'll be okay in (yet another) new school, having to deal with yet another new set of students.
When I was in school, my parents instilled in me to treat others as I'd want to be treated. I might not have ever bullied anyone, or picked on them, but you know what else I didn't do? I didn't reach out to those children that faded into the school walls, who walked silently down the hallways, hoping to blend in so nobody would notice they were "different."
I didn't take the time to know or understand them. And now I ask myself this: If I was going to be a senior at G's school this fall, how would I treat her? I’m afraid I know the answer.
And because of that, I want to stand with G on the gymnasium stage and tell her fellow students "This girl is a survivor. She may seem different from you, but please do not tease or ridicule her, and please don't ignore her. She is stronger than you'll likely ever be. And she deserves much more respect than she'll probably ever get.”
Because none of us want to look back on our life and ask ourselves "What if that was me?"