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True confession: I vanity search myself. All the time.

What this says about my nature, I’ll leave to my next therapy session. Among other reasons, I Google myself periodically to make sure there’s nothing untoward attached to my good name. Most of the time it is harmless narcissism.

Then, last fall, someone hacked into my professional website. I had to rebuild it from the bottom up.

What was the first clue of this violation? A vanity search, which revealed my site and all its links were going to a free payday loan operation. So, while I’m aware that excessive self-searching is on par with repetitive mirror checking and compulsive stove knob checking (to make sure the burners are off, for the uninitiated), I’m defending the practice.

In all this Googling, I realize I am very findable. If someone were to stalk me, it would be an easy assignment. I wouldn’t think much of this except some of the people I’ve tried to find have no known online presence. Are they technophobes or savvy? It’s always possible their alter-egos rule the online world.

My uncontrollable Googling took a dark turn when I began searching for particular people, including the bad doctor. I hadn’t thought of him in a while. The last time was during my latest ill-fated attempt at therapy. 

And here’s the thing: I Googled him and right away I learned he lived within walking distance of my house.

How do I feel about this?

Like someone tackled me from behind, knocking all the air from my lungs, and when I get up to look in the mirror to check for damage, I see the ignorant, vulnerable and gullible 12-year-old me in the reflection. For a moment. Here’s another thing: I allowed myself to travel through the range of emotions and then I let it pass.

He is an old man now. How harmful could he be?

I am a grown woman now. How vulnerable could I be against an old man?

I did a little more digging. It looks as if he has turned around his life. But, who knows? His outward life appeared fine then, too. Family man. Accomplished in his field. The comforts of the upper middle class. This kind of thing is kept hidden, especially among the well-heeled. But it’s what I want — need — to believe.  That he is reformed.

What I still wonder are these things:

  • Is he aware that what he did to me and others was wrong?
  • Was he drunk/high when he did those things?
  • Did he do those things to his children?
  • Did someone do those things to him?
  • Was this a compulsion that he could not control then and continues to fight daily?

I don’t suppose he wonders how I am. I’m guessing he wipes his brow in relief from time to time that I kept my mouth shut.

Further research on the old boy showed that he has lived in my shadow for all my life. We’ve basically migrated along the same path around this metropolitan area. Coincidence? It has to be. He has made no contact with me since the ’80s.

Maybe he Googles me? and others? It’s something to consider: How much of what is precious to me is accessible to bad people?

While I no longer fear him, I fear his kind. I am a middle-aged woman who still harbors a serious doctor phobia. I delay physicals and ignore health symptoms as long as possible to avoid the clinical environments and naked probings of such places. When I can control the gender choice of doctor, I do. When I am ill enough, I give in.

The important thing here is my children, one still an innocent, the other with one foothold in adulthood but still sheltered from such things. How findable are they on the Internet should some twisted freak conduct a search? How much do they know about what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to other trusted adults in their lives? It is my job to make sure it is clear to them the course to take not only if they suspect something but also to speak up right away.

Even more important: Parents need to act on the courage of their children. Doubt later. Punish a lie later. Act now.

– April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Child Abuse Prevention month 

Sight unseen

Earlier today the news flashed across Twitter and Facebook: a 14-year-old middle school student in a nearby suburb shot himself to death in the school bathroom. Suicide. Friends of the teen told police the boy was depressed and bullied by his peers. But police and school officials say they have found “no evidence of depression or bullying.”

Where to begin on this one? It is my hope that by saying they have found no evidence that nothing obvious has come to light — yet — or that some other reason will make itself known. Why does a 14-year-old commit suicide? I hope they are not saying that because outward appearances don’t suggest it, that it didn’t exist. Depression — and in many cases –bullying are often secretive monsters. Sometimes they prey upon their victims sight unseen to outsiders. I say these things with no pretense of being an expert. I say them as one who has walked the road.

Each and every young person who takes his or her life is a tragedy. This story and its scant details take me back.

First, I travel to my fifth year of private school in Detroit. Toward the end of the school year we had a new boy in our class. Super cute in my opinion, with sandy hair and freckles and stylish clothes. He looked like an extra on the set of “The Partridge Family.” But something was off with this boy. He reeked of neglect. Even goofy fifth-graders picked up on it. One day after school, as we were messing around in the schoolyard waiting for our rides home, this boy methodically marched into the middle of the street, tossed aside his book bag and spread himself prone on the pavement, facing skyward. We watched him do this, suspecting a joke or a trick. We watched with alarm as the driver of a station wagon slammed on the brakes and shouted out his car window at the boy, who refused to move. We continued to watch, and probably shouted and screamed enough to call a few teachers to the schoolyard. One of the male teachers pulled him to his feet and dragged him to the sidewalk. I remember spending extra time on the phone that night, whispering into the receiver to my friends while compulsively twisting the curled phone cord around my fingers.

Did that boy really want to get hit by a car?

Did you hear him say he wanted to die?

Why would a kid want to kill himself?

In my innocence, I think I developed a crush on him. I reasoned that if I became his friend, I could make him not want to kill himself. (That is a story for another day and the beginning of a lifelong attraction to sorry souls.)

Which takes me to another place, one in which I befriend a man when both of us were embroiled in our divorces. We often took long walks to air our grievances, curse our former spouses, and I thought, prop each other up emotionally. I thought wrong. On a warm September afternoon he helped me return a truckload of borrowed furniture. We took particular pleasure in tossing the chairs and tables carelessly into my ex-husband’s condo, and on the way back to my apartment, truck windows rolled down, the wind whipping our hair into our faces as we laughed and laughed, I felt glimmers of hope for life after divorce. We promised to meet for lunch the following week. Two days later he hanged himself in his basement. For a long time, I couldn’t get out of my head the idea that I’d lent him a length of rope at our last meeting, which we used to secure the truck gate and which he kept. Everyone said it was a fluke, that rope is rope. You can’t wonder about what rope he used. He would have found a way.

Depression is a tricky thing. There are varying degrees. Many people are obviously depressed. Others are functional, smiling their way through the day while slowly dying on the inside. Bullying too, is elusive at times, as many victims suffer deep shame and take measures to hide it or justify it.

Depression is the stray black dog that follows me through life. I can’t outrun him. I learned to stop feeding him, though, because he’s on the move. Here today, gone tomorrow, back again next week. I have the wisdom at this age to know nothing lasts forever.  Most fifth-graders and most 14 year olds have not reached that understanding. How do we stop this from happening to our young people? How do we look beyond the obvious to the demons sight unseen?

The politics of divorce and death

English: Still shot from 1914 silent film, Sho...

Still shot from 1914 silent film, “Should A Woman Divorce? ” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Mom, you should talk to dad.”

This is Girl from the West — a young woman made tall by high heels, and made to look in charge with hair pulled into a tight knot atop her head — greeting me as I arrived. After a few minutes of small talk, she nudges me toward a man I barely see or speak to since our parting nearly 15 years ago.

So I inhale, exhale, square my shoulders and walk to the front of the room, wrapped in a little more insecurity than I would like. I feel a bit like a child summoned to the front of the class for tardiness.

In the hour I spend there, with my current spouse and Girl from the East nearby, I am not able to snare my ex-husband, because that is what it feels like, a hunting expedition. I try to part the sea of people between us. He keeps himself inside tight circles, enclosed in embraces and engaged in intimate conversation. It’s been our dance for years. Was he avoiding me? I don’t know.

While siblings, aunts, uncles and neighbors greet me, his longtime partner ignores me. I leave feeling a little confused.

It’s all so confusing. My ex-husband’s mother died this week. The woman who once was my other mother, who served as one of Girl from the West’s main caretakers through those precious and needy years, which also were in some part the divorce and single parenting years, the remarriage and second child years, and the polite wave and small talk at school concert years.  She did more for all of us than we probably deserved. I don’t think I ever thanked her.

What are the rules in a situation like this anyway? What are the boundaries?

Only twice in the last decade have I had this much contact. Six months ago we gathered under a park pavilion on a sticky summer afternoon to celebrate Girl from the West’s high school graduation. It seemed on that bright day that all had been forgiven. Six months before the party, I’d had coffee with her, when we came as close as we ever would to closure.

In the black hours before dawn when Girl from the West received the call, when she could not process the sudden death of her grandmother, who’d been ill but recovering, and between fretting about her making the long drive across the cold, dark city, I wondered about my role in all this. It seemed like a selfish, but necessary, thought.

In the end, I let my daughter write the role for me.

At the funeral, I sat in the back with the other ex-spouses. We attended all the rites, but kept to the sidelines. Silently, I thanked my first mother-in-law for her selfless duty. I asked for forgiveness.  After all, she cared deeply for my child and did so much to give her a good life. My ex-husband, for whatever I think of him and how distant we are, is now a man without living parents.  I acknowledged the gravity and inevitability of that, too.

At the end,  I finally connected with my former spouse. I stopped trying and it came naturally. We had eye contact, we embraced. He wept. I felt his pain. I felt a compassion buried for almost two decades. I discovered my own grief.

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Reflections

I scan the crowded room for a familiar face. It’s a big room, outfitted with the type of couches and chairs that swallow you whole, heavily ornamented light fixtures, and emotionally neutral paintings. At the front is the box surrounded by floral sprays on stands. Nestled between blooms and leaves are little white cards delivering personal messages. Some of the bouquets have gold and silver script letters labeling the deceased: dear father, beloved husband, dear son.

Beloved. Why is that a death word? Do we ever say that in life?

Is it the flowers or the picture collages that make it hard for me to swallow? Here before me is a Cliffs Notes pictorial of the parts of a person we will miss: the chubby cheeks lacquered in pureed yams, the diaper-clad butt and dimpled knees of babyhood; the gap-toothed smile of elementary school portraits, the sand castles and sunburns of summer days at the beach; the parade of sports team pictures and scouting banquets; the proms and weddings; the chrome-wheeled muscle car parked in mom and dad’s driveway; cheesy tourist shots; hugs and kisses, suit-and-tie days, and, oh, that dear sweet first-born child. We gather like flowers the good parts that happened before the end days, when only scraps are left. Absent are pictures of the medical clinic waiting rooms, the son and daughter crying themselves to sleep, the unhealthy habits, the bar fights, the bad tattoos, the post-chemo haze, the last days in hospice care.

We die and if we are lucky, no, strike that, luck has nothing to do with it. We are born and we die. No one knows why the bastard molester alcoholic chain smoker lives to  100 and the selfless sweetheart is hit by a bus at 22. If we live our lives well, and by that I mean we give from the heart, and give all we have, and think of others before ourselves, and let our lights shine, we will touch lives. Maybe many lives. Maybe millions. Maybe only one. When it’s our time, maybe we blow out of here on a cyclone blast so powerful it brings our survivors to their knees. Not that we want to hurt anyone. But with loss comes pain. If you do nothing in life to make anyone miss you, you miss the point of living. The goal is to love.

And that right there was last Friday’s lesson.

Out of this world is another good person who touched my life and so many others. A person I’d long forgotten until I heard the news. As I left his funeral, I remembered another service many years earlier:

This time a small room, no bigger than a vestibule, with furniture slightly more stiff than the people. When I approached the survivors, I said what we usually say at these things. They said in return, ”Don’t be sorry. We’re not. She was a miserable old shrew every day of her life and now she’s gone.”

Mortified, I didn’t know where to direct my eyes. I looked toward the full box of tissues on the table, the chairs which bore no weight, and the lone basket of carnations.  How could anyone say such a thing at a funeral? Eighty-something years on this rock and all she gets is an unattended wake arranged by duty-bound, bitter survivors?

Forgive me if I sound preachy; it’s not you I’m telling this to but me. As I hurtle toward 50 my biggest fear is that I’ve not lived enough, not loved enough, not done enough of anything with 100 percent of my self. I dole out small portions, saving the best for something in the future.

My second biggest fear is coping with the increasing frequency of funerals of my contemporaries. Apparently I am at that age.

LIfe and death remain a mystery to me. One is a gift. The other a lesson.

 

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Untended marker


My heart is heavy with ache sometimes in the summer, when memories of my maternal grandmother are as sharp as the juicy wild berries we picked from the overgrown lots near her home.

Summer memories are a mix of sweaty neon-colored metal cups filled with root beer floats; the hum of the oscillating fan perched atop her ice box; the creaking wooden swing in her yard that made our stomachs flutter; and the bulbous concord grapes dangling from the vine on the back fence.

The deep-purple bulbs fooled us into tasting them every time and then, repulsed by the thick skin and hidden seeds, we leaned over the wooden fence and spat skin and guts into the alley before she caught us. At a certain point in the season we moved into her cool basement, where there was a chalkboard on the wall and an extensive comic book collection to keep us away from the boiling pots on the gas stove. It was canning time, when grandma magically transformed those foul grapes into sweet preserves.

Tradition is the only explanation for the basement kitchen, a standard feature in my Polish/Italian neighborhood. Although my house did not have one, the hub of many a friend’s home was the basement kitchen, often ruled by a wooden-spoon wielding matriarch who spoke little English, stood about five feet tall, and was universally feared. My grandmother was one of those diminutive matriarchs guided by family tradition.

Although grandma probably never heard of the Confucian practice of filial piety, she devoted herself to ancestor worship. She lighted votive candles in church to pray for the sick and the dead, created alters in her home for the departed, dedicated Masses on death anniversaries, and much like the canning process, once a summer we accompanied her to the cemetery to tend to the family plot.

Edged in wrought iron fencing and shrouded by a forest of mature trees, the cemetery’s clipped green lawns and upright tombstones are an anomaly to the urban ruins outside its gates. On those summer mornings, before the full heat unleashed its wrath upon the concrete and brick landscape, my grandma coaxed us into her air-conditioned Chevrolet jammed with flowers, gardening tools, and a tin of cookies and card games to keep us occupied. She navigated those winding cemetery roads that rolled past rows of tombstones and mausoleums until we reached the right spot on the hill. There, grandma spread out an old towel, kneeled, and whispered several rounds of prayer before she began gardening. I waited, swatting flies and squinting against the sun, staring up at the spaces between the branches, where blue poked through dappled green, and wondered what it was like to be under the ground, inside a box.

We talked about the people under the stones, their lives, how they died, and how we all were part of a long, interconnected network.  This is where I first learned of the concept of a “half sister.” No matter how many times grandma explained the same mother, different father thing to me, I envisioned a girl sliced own the center, her bones, muscle tissue and guts exposed. That was no kind of sister I ever wanted.

Seventeen years ago this week, my father’s funeral procession followed the curves of those same roads, past the hill where my grandmother tended to her family plot, and stopped near a massive elm so tall it poked at the clouds. It occurred to me that every stone in this place was the bookmark to a story. I fingered the anti-anxiety pills wrapped in tissue that grandma handed me at the hospital a few days earlier. “It’ll help you sleep,” she whispered. I kept them in my pocket, the inner stoic smirking at my ability to rise above pharmaceuticals. I thought about taking them during one of these long days between death and burial. Would I fall asleep and remember everything?

I stared up at that big tree over the open grave, tilting toward the heavens, bearing silent witness to an endless parade of sorrow, and remembered all those summer afternoons swatting flies while grandma planted petunias and hummed to herself.

Following the graveside service, I turned my back on that tree and the hole beneath it. I got in my car and drove away. In 17 years, I’ve never been back. I think of my grandmother and her traditions. She rests under that hill, almost seven years gone.

I’d always followed the philosophy that our legacies are in our progeny, and the things we owned and created and sometimes neglected. My father doesn’t live under that plot in the cemetery, he lives in the starry night sky he watched with interest, along the river beds where he fished, in the travel journals he kept for decades, and the silly cartoon drawings that revealed his political leanings.

I stay away with the excuse that the cemetery is in one of Detroit’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Even with an armed escort, do I want to come upon that untended marker? Would the weeds and dust trigger guilt and a sadness I’ve tucked away for 17 years? Would I feel nothing?   Would I search for pills like those rolled in the tissue paper that I ultimately threw way? Would I wonder why tradition means so little to me?

 

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Feathers

It’s funny how the blogging world seeps into your blood. On any given day, you might be walking along the pavement between gas pump and cashier when you come upon a ratty pigeon feather on the pavement. Instead of kicking it aside, stepping on it, or even acknowledging that a bird out there is less one feather or perhaps is a bird no more, you think of a blogger who celebrates feather encounters. You grab your camera and take a picture of a foot and a feather and post it on the Internet. That’s the kind of thing bloggers do.

The feather lightens the load strapped to this 102-degree day manifested in furry, sticky, dense air and the slow and weak sunset holding no promise of relief.

So I go home and take a cold shower and slick back my wet hair, lay down under the vents pumping cool air into the room, and ride on the big, scary wave that is life now. It’s not that anything terrible has happened. It’s that nothing is the same. Not one thing. And I have to be OK with that because like bird feathers, things don’t stick forever. They break loose and drift away. As I glide along the river toward sleep, I wonder if it’s possible for a lone feather to give me enough altitude to fly away for just a little while.

 

Full circle

Caricature of the graduate

I went to my 30th high school reunion and I didn’t get eaten alive.

Not only did I survive, but I also walked away with a smile on my face. That the smile was mostly vodka-induced and not steeped in reality is a story for another day.

In the three decades since I marched to “Pomp and Circumstance” and walked away from the hell of high school, I’ve had an irrational fear of attending any reunion.

For reasons I can’t quite articulate, I felt if I were to attend any reunion at all, the 30th would be the one. The reunion is no longer a one-evening event; it’s an itinerary from which you can choose your level of involvement. I chose the informal bar night. The price was right and I had an exit strategy tucked in my pocket.

Filled with enough false bravado to fuel five teenage boys at their first middle school dance, I sucked in my stomach, ordered a cocktail at the bar, took a deep breath, and stepped onto the patio.

I survived the abrupt halt of conversation, all heads turning, and the first of what would become the evening’s refrain, this time from the mouth of a busty redhead with a cigarette dangling from her mouth: Who are you? Did you graduate with us?  

It was at that moment that I realized how far I’d come. There was a time (in high school) that if someone said that to me it would have simultaneously pushed all my buttons, triggering anger, disappointment and despair. Now? Someone else’s bad behavior is a reflection of that person and not a measure of my worth. I answered her in a light and breezy tone with a smile on my face. She shrugged and turned away. Everything was OK after that. I am OK with me, just as I am. I don’t need her approval or anyone else’s to be here.

Sometimes being in a room full of people who remember snippets of you at your worst is more excruciating than helping jog the memories of those who didn’t know you at all. I gave up trying to convince one person that I was not goth in high school, just depressed.

Back then I didn’t have the maturity or perspective to understand that the extreme dysfunction of my family life bled into my social interactions.  I was angry and inappropriate. I used alcohol and drugs and outrageous behavior to cope. Every day was a struggle of fear, hopelessness, free-floating anxiety and self-loathing. My only friends were other social misfits or rebels. We spent most of our time as far away from our idyllic suburban landscape as possible, preferring the gritty neighborhoods of Detroit.

In the years since high school I’ve slowly overcome my crippling anxiety and shyness. I’ve come to understand that my past does not have to color my today. I’ve mostly accepted that I will never be a sunny blonde, long-legged, of the proper lineage, and have a button nose. I am me, good or bad, big nose, wide hips and all. Over the years people have loved me for it. Imagine.

I treated the night like a cocktail party of strangers with possibility. Here’s what I learned:

  • Very few people still look really good 30 years after high school.
  • Shared experiences are priceless. I didn’t have any with the people at this gathering. While I had great cocktail party conversations, there wasn’t a bond between us that erased the years and reduced us to hugs and laughter. I realized how much I had missed of mainstream teenage life.

Of course I had my people and our memories. They just weren’t at this partyI don’t know where most of them are in this world or if they are in this world. (In fact, a good number of them are dead; I had a phone call in April telling me of two deaths this year.)

  • I walked away a bit smug at all the free drinks bought by men, who as boys, would not give me the time of day, and who wouldn’t quit until they figured out why we didn’t connect in high school. What a fun guessing game.  I was a bit rattled that some of them were so forward until someone told me most of them were out-of-towners traveling solo and reunions are famous for the hook-up potential. Oh.

Reunions are a step back in time but they also are a chance to affirm — to yourself — where you are now.  I don’t spend a lot of time with people my age. It was good to see the familiar signs of latefortyness on those around me, to know that even if I wasn’t like them at all back then, we had some things in common now, if only because we are parents, spouses, have aging parents, underwater mortgages or fears of aging and death. No longer are we the future; we are dangerously close to being the past.

What pleased me most of all was that my exit strategy never left my back pocket. I stayed until last call.

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Moving on

I made a clean break from a long-term relationship. Not a romance. Not a binding contract. Not a coffee buddy. This was a business relationship that blossomed into a friendship. The lines blurred, making it difficult to get away.

We met in the late ’90s, when I was newly divorced, newly relocated, and in need of a pick-me-up. He was starting his career and looking for clients.

We clicked immediately, sharing the same humor, taste in music, and life philosophies. I trusted him fully with all my needs in his area of expertise. An appointment stretched for hours past the booked time as we drank coffee or beer and talked. It was the perfect relationship. He invited me to his parties and events. We knew each others’ darkest secrets. I really thought the only thing that would split us up would be my move out west.

Then, things changed, as they always do.

He jumped from one storefront location to another, citing personality conflicts. I followed. He was losing friends as well as partners, slipping slowly into a morass of his own making. I stood by him, supported him, encouraged him to stay positive. Then, he became estranged from his family for reasons that seemed trivial to me. I listened but started to feel put upon. I couldn’t get a word in most times.

It was then I realized that it had been a long time since I’d seen the breezy, funny guy I met in the late ’90s. He was moody and distant. He was slow in returning calls, late for appointments, stopped listening to my requests. His workplace was dark and empty. He excused himself repeatedly during business appointments. He was intensely angry. His hands shook when he worked. His eyes were glazed and unfocused. I slowly admitted what I’d suspected for a while: He was on something when I was paying him to perform a service. I considered that I would have to find someone new. The last time I saw him, I told him how much I cared about him, how worried I was, that he needed help to get his life back, that he deserved better.

What I didn’t say is that I would not be back, that I deserved better, too. I didn’t have the heart. As with most things, if the person isn’t well and isn’t ready to get well, then he isn’t going to listen.

The last few times I paid him for his work, I felt ripped off and angry. I questioned my loyalty and my failure to disengage from relationships turned toxic. It was time to break things off.

But how? Our suburb is like a small town. We live within blocks of each other. It could be awkward.

Not knowing any other way, I let time pass and did nothing. As I thought about my next move, the winds of fate delivered into my open hands a coupon to a similar business with glowing recommendations.

Nervous as a cheating lover, I picked up the phone and punched in the numbers. I made an appointment.

On the appointed day, I stepped into a bright place with happy people at the ready. People who remained at their work station, who did not make excuses or have suspect behavior, who engaged in polite small talk. I walked out a satisfied and peaceful customer.  My worst fears were not realized.

I think I understand better now the need for professional boundaries.

My feelings are a mix of relief, of sadness over the loss of a friend and professional relationship, and the realization that nothing lasts forever.

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Here we go

This is another post in observance of Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month.

At the bus stop with a group of parents waiting for the big yellow bus to return, the topic of a classmate comes up. One of the parents learns of the puppy-love friendship between Girl from the East and the son of his best friend. We talk briefly about the boy, how he’s sweet and quirky. A future Conan O’Brien type, we say.

The bus squeals to a stop. The doors hiss open. Girl jumps out and races toward us.

Other parent, to Girl from the East: So, I hear you are friends with Little Conan.

Girl: Yeah, he’s really funny.

Other: Oh, he’s funny all right. That kid cracks me up.

Girl (through explosive giggles): I know. He always wants to touch and hug.

The other parent and I trade mouth agape, wide-eyed looks, turn to Girl and ask again: WHAT?

Girl: He’s always wanting to touch and hug.

Oh.

That kind of funny.

Here we go.

Time for the first of many, many, many talks.

_____

I laughed when that happened, but inside I knew that it is time to sit her down and have a talk about the right and wrong types of touching and hugging. It’s never too early. I need to show her that I am comfortable talking about these things. The hope is that she’ll feel comfortable enough to come to me with questions and concerns in this area. Make it clear to your kids and make a promise that you will keep that if they ever come to you with a report of something happening in the wrong touching/hugging category that you will act on it. You will not dismiss it in any way or call it a misunderstanding, an exaggeration, or an illusion. Good people will understand a parent’s concern. Better a few moments of embarassment than a lifetime of pain. We all know when something goes over the line. Kids know. We know.

Thank you.

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