October is a favorite month of mine and is known for many things: crunchy, colorful leaves underfoot, apples, pumpkins, sweatshirts, bonfires, football, breast cancer awareness and anti-bullying campaigns.
Forgot gym suit at home. Fever and vomiting. Need lunch money. Sprained ankle from falling down stairs. These are a few of the phone calls one expects to receive occasionally regarding a middle school child. Never, ever did it occur to me that I would get a call from school telling me that my daughter had been set on fire, I had no idea how to respond. If it had been any of the aforementioned reasons, I had pat responses ready for those calls. Instead, dumbfounded, I leaned my body against the kitchen wall where the phone was hanging and listened as the compassionate voice on the other end assured me that she was fine. That was the part my befuddled brain grabbed hold of: that she was fine, the rest was just details. I was told that a boy had brought lighter fluid to school, poured the fluid over her long, blond, frizzy curls and set her afire, but she was fine. The woman was combing the burned hair out of her head while she was speaking to me. In a calm, comforting voice she told me that there were no burns on the scalp or neck or face, that she was fine. When I untangled the knots from the phone cord, I hung up the receiver, leaned back against the wall in a stupor and thought, “what do I do now? They said she is fine, so I guess I don’t need to go get her, but gosh, I do want to check on her to make sure. I’ll just buzz up there, make sure she is fine and be on my way.” I seriously almost did not go see her simply because it was not a scenario I had ever rehearsed in my head and I didn’t know what to do! October is ANTI-BULLYING month and this is a glimpse of how bullying affects people. It makes the parents of the bullied completely astonished, flummoxed, aghast and horrified.
When I arrived at the school, the teacher who had phoned me was just finishing combing the charred hair from her head. There were no burns anywhere! With lighter fluid in her thick, frizzy hair it is amazing that she was not burned and had no inhalation signs. My darling girl said that she heard the boy tell another boy what he was going to do to someone and she was trying to get through the crowd to go get help, she didn’t know it was going to be her in flames moments later. She said there was a “whoosh” of noise as the hair took fire and that angel wings were batting her head to put the fire out. She assured me she was fine. She seemed nervous and kept looking at the big, round office clock. After being doused with an accelerant and torched, the thought that worried her was that she was going to be late to class. She was sent on her way with a pass excusing her tardiness. I visited with the principal to find out what should happen next. I was told that the boy had already been arrested, the school had filed charges against him so I would not need to do that and that the on-site liaison officer had removed him from the premises. There would be a trial that I would be allowed to attend and I should expect a call from a Victim’s Advocate who would tell me where I needed to be and when. I left the school stunned.
As Paul Harvey says, “and now, the rest of the story….” My first visit to the county courthouse was with my mother by my side. We sat on a wooden bench in the hallway waiting for our turn to enter the courtroom. I fidgeted while trying to appear calm and nonchalant, as if sitting outside of a courtroom was an everyday occurrence for me. My mother provided a distraction by offering me mints, tissues and newsy tidbits about the family. We both jumped when a young boy was escorted past us, the metal of his shackles clanking as he shuffled by with his arms hanging forward to where his hands were cuffed to the chains. My mother grabbed my hand and I held on tightly as we watched him being led into the courtroom we were waiting to enter for the hearing. Heat rushed through my body and I needed to gulp for air as I realized this was the monster who had set my girl afire.
My mother and I were invited in. It was not a stately courtroom like I had imagined, more like a classroom with church pews; there was no aura of American justice or majesty. We sat and listened as the judge read the name and the charges and declared the date of a trial. I was unable to take my eyes off of the boy. I thought my boring eyes would somehow be able to see what was going on inside of his being and give me an explanation for his orneriness. I was disappointed, my eyes saw no answers. I inhaled to shore up my courage, took my mom’s hand and rose to leave. We were stopped by the kind lady from Victim’s Advocacy who told me she would be calling me with further details. We walked out of the second-rate courtroom, our heavy footsteps on the old marble floors echoing the leaden beats of our weary hearts.
The days passed without any comment regarding being set afire except for occasionally when the frizzed ends of hair would not cooperate and cuddle in with the other springy curls or if she was recounting to someone how it was “really nice for the angels’ wings to bat out the fire”.
The Victim’s Advocate phoned to provide me with details for the day of the trial and informed me that as the “proxy victim” I would be allowed the chance to speak my piece before the judge.
I stewed and fretted and fussed and finally knew exactly what I wanted from the judge. I wanted this boy’s life to be forever changed. I wanted this boy to be horrified by his action of that day. I wanted him to hear how fortunate he was that angels had batted out the fire before serious harm had been done to his victim. I wanted the judge to have the courage to turn this boy’s life on end and present him an opportunity to live a life he never imagined, a life that would free him from his unfortunate situation. Community members who knew the boy had shared with me bits of information regarding this young man’s circumstances. He lived alone with a mother who was extremely unstable. He had a history of bad behavior. My hope was that this act of pyromania would open doors for him. I carefully searched for the perfect words, crafted graphically descriptive sentences and practiced reciting my plea for the judge.
The fateful judgement day arrived. My dear sister and I sat side by side on the pew bench in the nondescript courtroom eyeing the hapless mother at the end of the row in front of us. She clung to the man who was seated beside her. I don’t know what his exact role was, but he worked sometimes at my school visiting “difficult” children. She frequently sent us hateful glares that we pretended to not see. I felt like my nervousness caused a thickness to the air and wondered how anyone else was able to breathe properly. The judge entered. The boy was ushered to a seat at a small wooden table perpendicular to the pews. He maintained a cocky tilt of his head, grinned at his mother and avoided eye contact with me. The judge called the session to order, the charges were announced and I was offered the opportunity to speak. Looking back on this moment, I hope I sounded more like the stoic Perry Mason or the passionate Eli Stone than the spurned Ally McBeal. I stood on weak legs with knocking knees, inhaled deeply and started my carefully prepared speech. When my mouth opened no words came out and a parched tongue was glued to the roof of my mouth. The judge watched me expectantly, the kid nonchalantly, the mother hatefully, the man from school sheepishly and my sister encouragingly. The look on my sister’s face, her confidence in my ability to speak my mind allowed me to try again when all I wanted was to collapse on the pew and pretend I did not have volumes to say regarding the monster who set my girl on fire. I inhaled a deep, ragged breath, wet my lips as best as possible with that parched tongue, opened my mouth and described for everyone to hear how fortunate this boy was that my daughter did not have serious repercussions from his act. I said that although she was not injured the possibilities for extreme injury caused by his actions were there. Burns to the head and neck are extremely dangerous and I described in detail why they are and how lucky she was (and he was) that none of those things happened to her even though his actions could have caused that severity of injury. I wanted everyone within earshot to realize this was a very serious offense. Next I told the judge my opinion of the options available to this boy. I said justice would be that he be held accountable for the severe action he chose that day, without considering that she ended up being fine despite his effort. I said that it would not be suitable for him to be detained in the Mary Davis Center with other juvenile delinquents who could give him more ideas of crimes to commit. I looked directly at his delusional mother and said it would be an injustice to send him home with her to continue to live in a situation which brought him to this place at this time. I pleaded with the judge to give this boy a chance at a new life, a different life, a life that would encourage him to become an upstanding, responsible member of society. I begged the judge to allow this young man the opportunity to reside at Arrowhead Ranch where boys learn responsibility, community, family, loyalty, and how to live a worthwhile life. Looking directly into his eyes, I gave this judge a successful option. I presented this judge with the challenge to change a young man’s future. Then I succumbed to my wobbly knees and plopped onto the bench next to my sister where we sat stoically until the end of the trial and listened with grave sadness as this judge took the coward’s way and sentenced this boy to a life of imprisonment living with an unstable mother in an unstable environment that would stunt his future and never present him with the opportunities this situation could have provided him. Evil flourishes when good men don’t stop it.
A sad day for all.