When I was very little, my mother tried to kill me twice. I’ve had PTSD since the first murder attempt. Because my own mother tried to kill me, I came to believe that anyone could kill me at any time for any reason. The terror of someone killing me often occurs in groups of strangers.
I’ve read that people can help abused children by letting them know they are not the cause of the abuse. Nothing explained how to do this. I finally understood how to help abused children during a Toastmasters meeting. Toastmaster Tammy opened a door to my understanding of how another Toastmaster had helped me.
Toastmaster Tammy gave a speech that set a personal record for using uh’s and um’s. (I loved the AH Counter role.) That record is not important. Mistakes do not determine value. Meaning determines value. Toastmaster Tammy’s speech had enough meaning that it changed my understanding of my life.
Toastmaster Tammy spoke about Toastmasters clubs, using the word “welcoming” several times. The repetition of “welcoming” flashed me back to the first time I walked into that meeting room. Toastmaster Mary Jo stood up, shook my hand, and enthusiastically welcomed me to the meeting. Her greeting was so significant that I wrote about it in my journal, using the word “enthusiastically” to describe it. When Toastmaster Tammy used the word “welcoming” in her speech, I realized that I remember Toastmaster Mary Jo enthusiastically welcoming me into a group of strangers whenever I feel anxious about a group of strangers.
Mary Jo gave me what I now call a “mainstay memory”, a memory that gets me through my anxiety about groups. I don’t even have to consciously go back to that night. The memory just automatically comes to me on its own. The memory of Mary Jo comes and the anxiety fades away. My realization about what Mary Jo did for me ended a worry I’ve had since the early 1970s.
I lived in Chicago back then. At the laundromat one day, I started my laundry and sat down to read. To my side sat a little blonde girl, all by herself. A Filipina woman with three little girls came into the laundromat. As the woman did laundry, the girls played. They had so much fun they sort of tumbled around the laundromat. They passed me several times and I started talking to them as they tumbled by.
The little blonde girl sat watching, a sad look on her face. I could see the effects of abuse in her eyes. After the Filipina girls tumbled by and I talked to them yet again, I turned to the little blonde girl and said, “I like you, too.” She sat up straight, her eyes opened wide, the sun came up in her smile, and she ran off to play with the little Filipina girls.
I never saw the little blonde girl again. I wanted to see her eyes again and to see her smile again. I wanted to know if my words lasted past that one day in the laundromat. Because of Tammy and Mary Jo, I know they did. I know I gave that little blonde girl a mainstay memory. I know she repeatedly heard my “I like you, too” the way I repeatedly hear Mary Jo’s “Hello!”
We cannot completely end child abuse, but we can ease its effects. We can do what Mary Jo did for me. Smile and say enthusiastic hellos to children we see throughout our day. Mary Jo’s “Hello!” came into my adult ears, but it was my child heart that felt the welcome. Giving abused children enthusiastic greetings would let them know that someone in their world welcomes them.
My experience proves that the people giving welcomes don’t have to be central to the lives of abused children. My experience also proves that feeling welcome to someone somewhere will give abused children the ability to open up their own worlds. The little blonde girl in the laundromat demonstrated that when she ran off to play with the little Filipina girls.
Prove good intentions by saying hello, smiling, waving goodbye, and moving away. If you have time — as I did at the laundromat — say a few words to spark a smile. Adjust my recommendations to your culture. My worst responses have been stares from children and indifference from parents. My best response was the sun coming up in the little blonde girl’s smile.
Paula M. Kramer
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