A few weeks ago I left my daughter at Vacation Bible School. Walking away from her caused me to crumple in the van, a mess of panic with flashbacks and fear. She was entirely safe. But my heart was in agony.
Nothing out of the ordinary had taken place. On Monday morning I had walked my daughter to the back pew of a crowded sanctuary, finding as I neared that her group leader for the week was a male. Seeing him before she did, I grabbed her hand and backtracked swiftly to the registration table. “Mama,” she exclaimed, “where are we going?” Keeping my voice light, and hoping the buzzing in my body wasn’t visible to anyone else, I replied, “Oh, I’m just going to see if you can be in the same group as your brother.”
“I just think you’ll like it better if you’re with him.”
She shot me a look. She is my daughter, and she knew my words didn’t add up.
They didn’t add up. She knew that I knew she was thrilled to be alone, apart from her brother. And I knew that she knew that I had been her champion in this just moments before. But I couldn’t say, I’m sorry, I saw that your teacher is a man, and, well, I simply am too afraid to let you stay. And so with feigned lightheartedness, I tried to convince both her and the VBS director that moving groups was a great idea.
But I cannot convince on a lie. In the end, I swallowed my screaming insides, walked her to the male leader, and said goodbye.
Was She Safe?
Now, writing this feels strange to me. I know some of you who read it will think it’s odd that I’d have a problem leaving a child at VBS, and others of you will be incredulous that I’d even dare.
Either way, I want to be clear. I would never have left my daughter if I didn’t know in my heart of hearts that she was safe. But my husband and I were both confident that she was not in any danger.
I am familiar enough with the workings of my heart to distinguish between a reaction to reality, and a reaction triggered by the trauma in my past. My response on this Monday morning was clearly of the latter vein.
Did I Ask Questions?
After I said goodbye, I walked to the registrar and asked difficult questions. Who is this teacher? Why should I trust him? Will he ever be alone with my daughter? What is your policy about bathroom trips, or journeys down a hall? Do you screen for sexual predators? I cringed because I didn’t want to sound sexist, or weak, or full of issues. But that is my reality: I trust men less readily than I do women in situations like these, and this is a present issue in my life.
“He’s a wonderful man,” the woman smilingly assured, “a chaplain. A good personal friend.” Her mind was working, and I could see compassion dawning in her eyes. She went on to speak of his personal qualities, and then of the church and military policies. They weren’t enough to quell my fears, but they were a start. I left her table and slipped back to the hall to observe the teacher on my own.
How Did I Know She Was Really Safe?
I suppose we can never know if someone is perfectly out of harm’s way. Predators are users of convention. We think of predators as nabbing a child off the street and taking them to secret places, but actual history shows us this scenario rarely takes place. Instead, childhood sexual abuse usually occurs in locations deemed secure: a church nursery, for example; a locker room, a child’s own home, yes, even a Vacation Bible School’s back right-hand pew. And of course, a predator can be anybody, but usually is someone trusted and known. He or she may be a doctor, an aunt or uncle, a babysitter, a teacher; and certainly, pastors and chaplains can fit the bill.
On this day, I eyed the man for a long, long while. How can we know in a moment that someone is trustworthy? How do we make a judgement call? Why do we ever leave our children with people we don’t know? What is it about institutions that make us feel secure? I could feel right about this teacher, and still be dead, dead wrong.
But as long as she’s been alive I’ve erred on the side of security. I’ve kept her out of the nursery, I’ve refused invitations to play at others’ homes, I’ve kept her manically close. And of course, we ought to err on the side of security. But there are times when our choices are threatening to be made not from parental wisdom but rather from fear, and in these times we must make difficult decisions. What kind of a risk are we willing to take in order to embrace and bequeath freedom?
I’d like to say I’d never risk the well-being of my child. And of course, I never purposely would. But then again, in simply living on this planet, we risk our well-being, and that of our children, every day. We are always making tough calls.
Instincts are not perfect, but because I know that my gut is highly attuned to this sort of thing, I do trust my instincts deeply. I also trust the Holy Spirit’s voice in my heart. This man was a safe person, and I knew it. So I turned and walked away.
But it still felt like one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.