Mothering a child orphaned by violence — A teacher's tale

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Mothering a child orphaned by violence — A teacher's tale

BY ALICIA DUNKLEY-WILLIS
Senior staff reporter
dunkleywillisa@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, February 24, 2020

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It happened two decades ago, but the Saturday Aunt Viv became mother to a total stranger orphaned by gun violence and ousted by her biological family, is enduringly fresh.

Fifteen-year-old Cassandra was the mysterious new child in the educator's grade 10 class who showed up well into the academic year and who, unbeknownst to the young teacher, was literally on the run from ruthless thugs who had threatened to wipe out more of the already hurting family if they remained in their then West Kingston-based home.

The heart-rending sobs and tears of the teen in the hollow of the classroom of the rural school would be the unorthodox introduction. Neither had any idea then that their lives would be fused and that the newly married teacher would become the only lifeline in the teen's fractured world.

“I went to the class and she was just there crying. I went over to her and I said, 'What is wrong? Are you OK?' I couldn't start the class because she was just crying loudly and uncontrollably. So I said to her, 'If you are not talking to me, step outside and get your composure and come back inside' and she was still crying so I asked another little girl what is wrong with her and she said to me, 'Miss, she is crying because of her mother; her mother is looking for her',” the veteran educator recounted in an interview with the Jamaica Observer last week.

“So I said, 'If your mother is looking for you let your mother know where you are' and the little girl said, 'No, Miss. You don't understand, her mother is dead',” she recalled.

But Aunt Viv only learned the full extent of those memories and what exactly took place on the day the teen learned of the death of her parents through last week Thursday's edition of this very newspaper, as the young woman could not bring herself to share the details of that summer day back in 2000.

“What I read today I was hearing some of it for the first time because I could not get her over the years to really open up and tell me exactly what happened. She would just cry,” Aunt Viv told the Observer.

“So that day I managed to get her outside and I hugged her and I said, 'Let's just talk at the end of the class'. She put her head on the desk and at the end of the class she told me her mother is dead, her father is dead and she started crying, so I didn't get much out of her. So I said to her, 'Take my number and if when you get home you feel you need to talk, call me'. We began talking, but she would not tell me exactly what happened because once she mentioned the incident she would begin crying,” Aunt Viv recalled.

Cassandra, in an earlier interview, described to the Observer the sheer trauma of being told “yuh madda an yuh fada dead” by a schoolmate just as she exited a classroom where she had written her end of year exam. She raced some seven miles to her inner-city home to find her mother, who had been shot 15 times, and her father three, dead.

Speaking with the Observer on Thursday, her adoptive parent said healing was a long, hard process.

“I went to the principal and I told him about her and I said, 'Sir, we have a tricky one on our hands', because there were days I couldn't get her to do any work. There were days when she was bubbly, but she never wanted to talk. I would say, 'Let's talk to the guidance counselor', but she didn't want to talk. I think she was fearful that somehow those persons who hurt her parents would have gotten to her so she became quite fearful,” she recalled.

A further catastrophe in the life of the teen who was thrown out by her relatives and almost molested by a neighbour who took her in afterwards was what changed the newly married young teacher's family structure forever.

“I remember the Saturday morning she called me and she said 'Miss I'm going back to Kingston' and I said, 'No, you can't go back. Who is gonna take care of you?' She said, 'Miss, I don't know but I can't stay where I am' and she started to share what was happening,” Aunt Viv reflected.

“I said to her, 'No you can't go back to Kingston and she said 'Miss, I don't have anybody' and I said 'But you have me', and she said 'The only way I can stay is unless you take me'. So I said 'Come', without even thinking,” the educator said with a chuckle.

“I never called my husband; my little girl was about a year-and-a-half. I just said, 'Come'. Honestly, in my heart I didn't think she was going to be staying with me. I just wanted her to come so we could talk. But when I gave her directions to my house she came with all her suitcases, all her clothes and so on. I couldn't make her feel uncomfortable because I was saying how can a child who has gone through such a traumatic experience be now sent back to a place that would cause her so much misery and pain, so I took her,' she told the Observer.

She was ridiculed by some and questioned by others, but she was also encouraged, Aunt Viv shared, noting that financially the family also struggled. When her own sister died and she had to take in her children, the burden became heavier but parting with Cassandra was not an option.

“I was saying how could I allow her to go, what if I died? I would have wanted somebody to take my daughter and protect her and give her the best possible life. It was very hard during those years. I was about 27. My husband is a year older than I am and he was in the army. So, for the week, it was just the three of us so there were days when she would have her breakdown and there were days when we could sit and talk,” Aunt Viv told the Observer.

There were other changes too.

“I stopped celebrating Mother's Day during that period because it was so painful for her. Once it approached Mother's Day she would just go into this phase, she would be moody, she was just sad and then once it got around to the time for her mother's birthday and her father's, it would be another sad time. She gave me an idea as to what life was like in an inner-city community, so I could not afford for her to have a repeat right there in my house. I had to show her another way,” she shared.

“What I tried to do was help her recognise that there was love in the world and that God really, truly loved her. So we would have devotions and I would talk to her about forgiveness and overcoming. I realised it made a difference. When I read the story this morning I cried. I was even sharing it with my daughter and she said, 'Mommy, we didn't know all of that',” Aunt Viv told the Observer.

The orphaned teen, now a 35-year-old wife and mother of two, sang the praises of her foster mother during her recent Observer interview. Those praises, the God-appointed foster mom said, must also be shared with the institution at which she still teaches, for it absorbed the cost of tuition fees and textbooks for the teen to help alleviate the family's financial burden.

She, in the meantime, has this appeal for people who encounter children orphaned by violence: “It takes a lot of patience and it takes a lot of sacrifice. It forces you sometimes out of your comfort zone. There are nights [when] they are going to be crying and you will have to get up out of your bed to go and hush them. It takes patience and God's strength and guidance, but it is something I would encourage others to do because the children need somebody to look out for them because many of them are living in some horrible situations.”

“As educators, as adults we need to look out for them and whatever we can do to make their lives easier, help them. It's not easy to get through to them because some days they don't trust you either because even though you are helping, many times they feel as if you are going to fail them at some point too, but you have to keep going on,” she urged.

No one was ever held for the murders.

Exploring the issue of children orphaned by violence with the Observer last week, associate clinical psychologist Deborah Smith said it was paramount that a sense of safety be fostered as part of the healing process for such children.

“The feeling of safety is very important because once you are exposed to a life-threatening situation you are going to feel unsafe and like you are in danger all the time,” she pointed out.

“Don't be afraid to seek help from mental health professionals,” Smith added. “We are here to help. Whether a counsellor or psychologist or psychiatrist, please don't be afraid to come to us.”


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