The steel bars clanked shut with a loud, resonating thud. Half the class jumped, startled by the harsh, foreboding sound. Prosecution Alternative for Youth’s jail tour had commenced.
“Well, the shock and awe factor is working,” a lean James Dean wannabe spoke from the back of the line. His stonewashed jean jacket flipped up at the collar to portray an untouchable demeanor. A nervous chuckle rippled throughout the group, revealing a stark edginess.
As we walked down the hall, grown, adult men clamored over each other like monkeys at a zoo to be seen through thick glass windows. Some whooped and hollered while others released long, drawn-out catcalls, banging on the glass and animating rude gestures to gain our attention.
Sarah, another female in the class, sidled up next to me and whispered in my ear. “I feel like a piece of meat.”
“Me, too,” I concurred, shivering at the perceived moral filth I heard echoing off the walls.
Another teenage boy with tattoos running up and down his arms piped in. “Watch out, ladies! It looks like these men haven’t seen a woman in a very long time.” Cocky chuckles and demeaning remarks from the other boys in the class followed his snide remark.
The guard at the front of the line, heading our jail tour, spoke next. “Gentlemen, the ladies aren’t the ones who should be concerned, here. These guys aren’t whistling at them.” The smug look on the guard’s face radiated to the back of the line, throwing everyone off their game.
“I don’t understand,” I whispered at Sarah. My innocent upbringing fought with what I had just heard.
Almost immediately, a unanimous “Ewwwww!” swelled over the rest of the group.
“You can’t be serious!” a male voice opposed the repulsive information just given.
“I’m very serious,” the guard responded.
“That’s disgusting,” Sarah chimed in. She wrinkled her nose and deferred to me for a second opinion.
“Ohh….” My words trailed off.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
“So, you attended the classes court ordered by the judge,” Greg verbalized.
I leaned back on his couch and nodded. “Yeah, and, if that wasn’t enough, I had to sit through a two-hour spiel where they showed us a hundred and one different weapons that had been confiscated from their prisoners over the past several years, all the while telling us there were two hundred or more different ways we could die—or rather yet, be murdered—by another inmate. It was a lovely program!” Sarcasm dripped from my every word.
“But, it prevented you from having to go to trial, correct?” Greg focused on my reaction.
“Yes, but for not being a criminal, I sure felt like one after that.” I sulked at the memory, sliding further down in my seat.
Greg’s face softened with a smile. “Understandable. Did Mrs. Davis leave you alone after that?”
I took in a deep breath and mulled over his question for a long moment. “For a while, I suppose she did,” I finally responded, “but that didn’t stop me from wondering where she would pop up next. She was very unpredictable.” I could feel my blood pressure rise with the very thought. “The judge’s ruling didn’t satisfy her grudge against me. She wanted to make sure I suffered and lived in fear, so that continued to be her obsession.” I felt a pout contour my cheeks and enhance my sour expression.
“Again, very understandable. Sadistic people are like that.” Greg offered a sympathetic grin.
“Sadistic?” My brow creased. “I’m not familiar with that word. What does that mean?” I hated sounding uneducated.
Greg gently scratched at the side of his neck, looking toward the ceiling while searching for the right words. “A sadistic person is someone who derives pleasure from your pain or humiliation,” he explained. “They’re not like normal people, because they truly enjoy making others miserable. They believe it gives them power. It’s really a form of control.”
I eagerly nodded. “Yeah. That would be Colleen. Our lives were like a game to her. The harder it became for us to function, the more she seemed to consider herself a winner at something.” I sighed deeply, realizing I had been holding my breath.
“That’s not a surprise,” Greg acknowledged. “You were merely a pawn in her subterfuge. By what you’ve shared with me, I feel pretty safe in saying it wasn’t your imagination. People like that don’t generally operate within the same set of boundaries or rules. You can’t let your guard down for even one second.”
“You have no idea how good it is to hear you say that!” I proclaimed. “For years, I felt like I was going crazy. Some people probably even thought I was paranoid; but every time I relaxed my awareness of any and everything around me, BAM! She’d strike again.”
“That’s very normal,” Greg confirmed.
“Well, it’s about the most UN-normal feeling in the world,” I countered. “No one can live 24/7 on such high alert. It’s exhausting!” I quickly deflated my lungs for added emphasis.
“Your fight-or-flight response was never intended to be sustained over years,” Greg affirmed. “Your body’s natural response to danger is to protect you; and the hormones released in times of emergency are only meant to help with acute, short-term stress. If you’ve been living in constant survival mode for many years, I can imagine the toll it’s taken on you and your nervous system.”
“Even now, I feel like I’m sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting for the other shoe to drop,” I confessed.
Greg chuckled. “Now there’s an expression you don’t hear every day, but I get ya,” he smiled. “When trust has been broken, and personal boundaries have been repeatedly violated, it’s hard to get back to a place where you feel safe again. Hard, but not impossible,” he stressed.
I returned his smile. “Good to know.”
He set his notepad on his lap and thought a moment. “So, what did you do after the judge closed your case?”
I thought a second, then answered, “I guess I focused on my studies. It was the only thing I knew I could control, so I concentrated on getting straight A’s.”
“And did you?” The twinkle in Greg’s eye let me know he already knew my answer.
“Mostly,” I grinned. “An occasional B crept in every now and then, but I stayed on the honor roll my entire seventh- and eighth-grade years, despite Colleen.”
Greg crossed his arms and nodded affirmatively. “Impressive. Quite the feat.”
I shrugged. “My teachers thought so.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
“You only get out of life what you put into it.” Dad’s words pushed me to perfection and drove me to excel in all I did. Every fiber of my being played his life code over and over like a permanent sound bite. If I knew I could do better, I changed my current goals to become better.
Eat. Sleep. Study. School. Eat. Sleep. Study. More school. The gist of my seventh-grade lackluster life wrapped itself into these five words. To listen to my teachers, however, my life exuded color.
Mr. Statler, my science teacher, beamed. “Hope, your grades are astounding. Keep this up and I can see you attending Harvard someday—maybe even Yale. You have a way of thinking outside the box, that’s for sure.” He toyed with his mustache as his head moved up and down with enthusiasm. “Yep. I’m keeping my eye on you, Girl. You’re going places. Can’t wait to see where you end up.” His smile reflected a deep belief in my abilities.
I lowered my eyes, feeling my cheeks turn red. “We’ll see.” I wished I could believe in myself the way Mr. Statler did.
Mrs. Warrick, my English tutor, also spoke into my life. “Oh, Hope! I read your assignment the other day, and I was so impressed with your essay. Your insight on the assigned topic was so deep and profound for someone your age. You have a real grasp of what it means to connect with your audience, and you write with such a rare passion. It’s refreshing to see a young person committed to out-shining the norm.”
I responded with a quiet “thank you,” still not sure how my work could be looked upon as anything more than ordinary.
Ms. Hardwood, my history and homeroom teacher, played into this bout of educational admiration, as well. She shook her head in awe, saying, “You made honor roll again this semester. I don’t know how you do it, Kiddo. It takes special dedication and someone extra special to keep her grades at this level. You are one determined student. I’ll give you that. I’m really proud of you!”
I grinned at the kind words and nodded at her sincerity. “Accolades are nice, but greatness has to be earned,” I reminded her. “I don’t expect them to be handed over on a silver platter.” Maybe that’s why learning had become my life—and probably why I felt like I didn’t have one.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
“You need to get your nose outta those books,” Jenna declared, gingerly prancing around the foot of her bed. Swinging a skimpy neon orange crop top over my workbook, she vied for my attention. Sitting on an oversized bean bag, I casually glanced up, trying to ignore Jenna’s giddiness. “Put your pencil down, Silly, and look at this totally cool shirt I found for you to wear at the amusement park this weekend.” Her perky voice bubbled. “Can it be any cuter?” She pressed the bright colored shirt against her chest, turning this way then that, demonstrating its undeniable shortness.
“It’s something,” I admitted, not sure what to make out of my classmate’s exuberance.
“Oh, Hope, you just have to wear this number at our youth outing on Sunday. Gavin won’t be able to keep his eyes off you.” She fluttered her eyelashes and danced around some more, pleased at her suggestion.
“Oh, stop it,” I countered. “Gavin doesn’t even know I exist. To him, I’m just another girl at school.” A girl who needs protection from bullies and unrelenting tyrants, but nothing more, I decided. Tucking a worksheet into the crevice of my workbook, I clapped the book shut.
“He will if you wear this,” Jenna tempted, dropping the shirt onto my lap as it fell from the hanger. “I’ll let you borrow it. It goes perfect with that cute lil’ white jacket you have—and those matching capris. It’ll be perfect.”
I stood and held the shirt up for inspection. “I guarantee Gavin won’t be looking at my cute outfit if I wear this.” I scrunched my forehead, viewing my reflection in Jenna’s mirror. “It barely covers a thing; and, let’s not forget, this is a church outing. Modesty is important.”
Jenna rolled her eyes and headed back to her closet. “Always the practical one,” she joshed. “Your jacket covers everything. You’ll be fine.” She dismissed my reluctancy with the wave of her hand. “Besides, the bright color says, ‘I’m fun. I know how to do something other than study.’” She turned, eyed my book on the floor, then smirked.
“All right. All right. I get your point. I’ll think about it,” I gave in. “Is that good enough for you?” I scrunched my nose in derision, showing off my playful side.
She smiled, whimsically shrugged, then began scooting hangers across the top bar in her closet. “It’s a start.”