Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Baby Girl

Yesterday at a Middle School I watched a class deteriorate before my eyes and I lost it. I was absolutely mortified that I became so angry at kids who had no idea how to behave, to have self control or to even remotely demonstrate any self management that I yelled at them to the point I was ashamed. I was upset as that showed I cared and in turn expressed a reaction that was beneath me. I wanted to jump from the window or just walk out as it was not the children that I cared about it was me. I had to stop caring about Nashville kids a long time ago and in turn that was another thing that I was debating: Did I care or was this about me? I knew instantly it was about me and that lent to the shame that while all this was going on I was thinking that the students in Nashville Public Schools are incapable of anything and in turn those students are largely black so is this me being racist or me being a Teacher? I chose the former. I can no longer distinguish the two when I walk into a Nashville Public School.

**Since I wrote this I went to another and the chaos there was surreal and I never raised my voice nor even felt angry.  I was saddened but amused watching one Adult after another thrash about failing to get any control of the class and then I knew that it was not me.  This is how bad it is here. 

After my expressing my displeasure with the kids and myself asking them why they felt the need to treat me with such disrespect that led me to think I was garbage to the point I had to question their motives and my own internalization of this feeling the bell rang.  I knew I was intentionally manipulating the few that might have some empathy and sadly those who did immediately came up after to apologize and ask for a hug.  I was so disgusted with this response and felt it was utterly inappropriate I told them to not touch me and in turn said I need to be left alone to think about my own anger.  Not exactly the right response but later I realized that I had no business being hugged by these children nor should they offer but this is the weird dynamic that defines adult/child relationships and they cross into boundaries of which I am uncomfortable.  Sorry but I am not a relative of this child and hugging and other gestures mean nothing when they will continue with this behavior when the next sub takes the class and the cycle continues.  They need to know and understand that this behavior is unacceptable and in turn they need to learn self management and respect which is not demonstrated by physical contact that reflects intimacy.  But boundaries here in the South are long since blurred and I thought of the weird case that when I came home found this and went - point proven.   They are batshit here and the whole Jesus thing blurs lines in ways that make one run in the other direction.

And this also goes with the whole "you are my babies" and "I love you" nonsense that I have seen repeatedly in my years of teaching.  Again I see and hear this more from those faces of color than I do from white teachers but in Seattle there were great deals of issues regarding boundaries and finding appropriate ways in demonstrating support that did not include expressions that included physical demonstrations of affection.  True we took it to wearing T-shirts and having endless meetings about this issue but in reality it is fairly simple - get the parents/guardians involved early in their Child's success and in turn issues around their failure.  I don't think we pretending to be their school "mommy" or "daddy" is either healthy or a good idea.  It opens up a confused if not blurred line which I suspect was the Cummings issue.  And this was a dude who was active in the Church with the whole bullshit about faith all over social media etc.  This excuse runs rampant here and yes in Seattle we had a ton of Teachers who also crossed lines but they do it here with God. No it doesn't make it better, just stranger.  And you can tell that by that interview the girl is not any closer to a clearly dysfunctional family nor is anywhere in a place where stable adults are working towards her mental and emotional growth.   Well God cares and isn't that enough? 

Elizabeth Thomas' first interview with anyone in the media came spontaneously and without hesitation Saturday evening in Columbia.

I was sitting in a fast-food restaurant when she walked in with two kids she was babysitting.

I've been looking for Thomas out of the corner of my eye since she allegedly was kidnapped March 13 by her former teacher at Culleoka Unit School, Tad Cummins. The Amber Alert for her went out more than six months ago.

Thomas was found in California after a cross-country manhunt for 51-year-old Cummins on April 20. He was charged with aggravated kidnapping, among other crimes.

"Hi, Mary Katherine," I said, referring to her real name instead of the informal Elizabeth. "I'm from the newspaper. I'm glad to see you're looking well.

"I know you're in your pajama bottoms now and a T-shirt, but would you mind if I took your picture? No one has seen you in six months. They'd be happy to see you smiling, knowing you're back home."

Thomas, 16, flashed a grin and responded, "Sure. This is what I wear most of the time, anyway. I've been thinking about calling you. I have a lot on my mind. There's been a lot of rumors about me I'd like to clear up."

I invited her to sit and asked if she would mind telling me what's bothering her.

She told me she did not want to talk about Cummins' case out of respect for her attorney, Columbia's Jason Whatley.

"He's reminded me about not saying anything about the criminal case to the media," she said.

A juvenile court judge placed a gag order on parties involved in her case, including her lawyer and parents.

Thomas' father, Anthony, kept the search for his daughter trending because of his accessibility to talk about the case. Thomas' mother, Kimberly, was facing charges of child abuse while Elizabeth was missing.

"But I don't mind telling you about myself," she added.

Thomas told me she returned to Columbia permanently in July. She said she spent 78 days in therapy in Jackson after flying home to Tennessee with TBI agents April 21.

The rest of our conversation centered on her job, where she's going to school and if she made a mistake by leaving town with Cummins.

Thomas gave permission to use her name in stories about her, even though newspapers rarely use juveniles' identities if they're involved in litigation.

We've decided to use it, when appropriate, considering her name and face were in the newspaper almost daily from March 15 to April 26. We ran the TBI Amber alert poster in print or online everyday until she was found.
It would be disingenuous to exclude the high school junior's name now.

She and I talked for about five minutes. Her answers were short and to the point:

Question: How do you feel about being back in Columbia? Are you happy and feeling well?
Answer: Yes. I'm pretty happy that I'm back with my brother.

Q: Where are you going to school?
A: I am home schooling, and my brother is tutoring me.

Q: What is your life like now? How would you describe your day-to-day activities?
A: I can't really complain right now. I baby sit kids, and I work in Columbia. I am studying at home.

Q: What are your favorite subjects?
A: Economics and science.

Q: What are you hoping to do with that when you're older?
A: I would like to be a medical examiner. That is the science part. Economics is just an easy class.

Q: You have two more years of school?
A: Yes, two years of high school, then lots of years in college.

Q: Where would you like to go to college?
A: I am thinking either MTSU or Vanderbilt. But, right now, it's going to be MTSU.

Q: Your Amber Alert riveted Columbia when it was ongoing. Looking back, what would you like to say to people in your hometown who wanted to see you come home safely?
A: Happy to be back and that people are so accepting.

Q: You're not living with your father and all of your siblings?
A: Not at the moment.

Q: Do you think issues with your father will work out?
A: It's just safer to be back with my brother instead of in the middle of everything.

Q: Are you hoping to be emancipated and handle your own affairs?
A: Yes.

Q: How long have you been back in Columbia for good?
A: I came back and visited for a while. I came back permanently in July.

Q: At first you, you were in Jackson for several weeks?
A: Three months.

Q: Did that seem like a little too long? You were getting therapy?
A: Yes, it was way too long. I should not have been up there.

Q: Your sister told me you were going on "Dr. Phil." Is that true?
A: There have been some rumors. Lots of stuff going around. It might happen. It might not happen. We're all just joking about it right now.

Q: She was just messing around with me when she said that?
A: We're just messing around with each other.

Q: You said there were some things you wanted to get off of your mind. What's that about?
A: It's only been recently that I wanted to talk -- to anyone. There's been some much speculation about me. There are people saying, "She's not talking for this reason. She's not talking for that reason." It's not that. It's just the publicity is affecting people. Everyone just needs to calm down. I am a human being. I can answer things fairly. But people are asking things that are too personal. People are talking to me like they know me. They didn't talk to me before. They didn't try to know me before. They have only liked me since I came back.

Q: You've found out who your true friends are in the last six months?
A: Yes.

Q: Do you regret having left town?
A: I don't regret it, nor do I say it was the right thing to do. It was an experience I'll have to live with the rest of my life. It's good and bad. It's there. No matter what we do, we'll have to deal with it.

James Bennett is editor of The Daily Herald. His column is based on exclusive reporting, old-school storytelling and original commentary on whatever catches his fancy or yours. He was a 2017 Tennessee Press Association first-place award winner for editorial writing and public service. Contact him at jbennett@c-dh.net.

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