American Childhood: breaking the code of silence

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

**This post contains discussion of child sexual abuse and religious trauma**


All-American Girl

As I leaned my head full of baby-soft hair closer, Mom gently stroked the wavy, golden locks, reluctant to push her brush all the way through the tresses. I would always cry when we pulled my hair up in braids because it felt as if she wouldn’t stop tugging until every last inch of my scalp was swollen and red. Not that I was dramatic about things–even back then. But that day, she went easy on me.

“We’ll just comb it to the side and put a barrette in, honey. How do you like that?” She smiled at me sweetly as her soft lips leaned in to touch my forehead with a loving kiss, then she turned my little shoulders toward the mirror.

I couldn’t look. I buried my head in her long, blue skirt and cried again. I didn’t care about my hair. Everyone told me that I should be excited about my first day of school, but I didn’t understand why–not really. I had been perfectly happy where I was. Why we had come so far just to go to a school, leaving us nowhere near family and friends was lost on me. No, there was nothing to be enthusiastic about, and I refused to try.

“It’ll be okay, Shelly. I promise. You’ll find new friends, and we will have all kinds of adventures here together. You’ll see.” Mom always tried to be positive.

My four-year-old heart couldn’t quite grasp the concept of new friends being just as good or better than the sweet sights and sounds of the only home I had ever known, but I soon mustered up enough excitement for being allowed to ride the bus for the first time. At least there was that–and my big brother, Jon. He held my hand, promising to look after me the whole ride, and to meet me as soon as school was out. He was my favorite.

I collected myself the best I knew hair did look kind of cute, and my new favorite dress had flowers on the collar, allowing me to have an almost genuine smile. I summoned the strength to soldier on, gripping tightly to my brother's hand.

After a tiring early morning route that sunny, September morning in 1979, we arrived at our new school where a teacher welcomed the group of twenty or more bright-eyed little ones into a cheerfully decorated pre-kindergarten classroom. The white walls were arrayed with robust, green chalkboards and rows of wooden desks in straight lines filled the room. The perimeter of the space was decorated with colorful letters on shiny, illustrated cards hanging in orderly fashion, where every boy and girl wore neatly-pressed clothes and a “yes ma’am” on their lips.