Our family’s Esther was an 11-year-old girl, a petite and doe-eyed child with a profound sense of physical and temperamental modesty. She attended a large urban middle school, and this was her first year moving from class to class, her first year of boy-ask-girl school dances, her first year changing clothes in a locker room.
This story’s Haman was an unlikely candidate — another 11-year-old girl named Nadine, loud and brassy, who towered over our Esther. While other girls in the locker room self-consciously changed to gym clothes, hastily and with eyes cast down, Nadine undressed with a striptease, exposing herself to others when the P.E. teacher was out of sight, and commenting on other girls’ bodies.
Nadine’s behavior shocked her classmates. Too embarrassed to react, they responded with silence, and since Nadine mistook silence for consent, things became even worse. Over time, she began to make obvious sexual advances towards others, including our Esther, and began to touch and fondle smaller girls. She would shove littler kids into corners and onto the floor, trying to grope their bodies, loudly singing provocative rap melodies all the while.
The more disturbing Nadine’s behavior became, the deeper her classmates’ silence grew. There seemed to be nowhere to turn and no one to talk to, since the teacher patrolled the locker room only to hustle kids out to the playing field. And not one child wanted to confront the disturbed girl for fear of drawing attention to herself.
One evening, however, while taking a bath, our Esther called out to her mother for a towel. Her mother knocked on the door, and discovered her child sitting in a tub full of water, fully clothed, rubbing soap over herself and weeping.
“Mommy,” said our Esther, “I’m going to dress for bed, and then I have a story to tell you.”
Esther’s terrible tale did not come out all at once. Her story was revealed slowly and with reluctance, because victims are just as fearful of going to an authority — even a loving one — as the Biblical Esther was of approaching her king and husband. Only bit by bit did the truth come out that evening, like peeling the brittle, clinging layers of an onion skin to find something below that can only bring tears to your eyes.
We trembled with rage and pain for our child, and our first impulse was to act the part of Ahashuerus by publicly humiliating Nadine, and then hanging her from a high gallows. Instead we decided to be our Esther’s Mordechai, true counselors and friends.
To this Esther we said, “Let’s put an end to this problem first thing tomorrow morning. We will go together to talk to your principal and teachers.”
Our Esther demurred. “I can’t tell anyone again,” she said. “It’s too embarrassing. No one will believe me. And, when Nadine finds out who told, who knows what will happen?”
Who can argue against these truths? Each painful retelling might bring back the same horror as the experience itself, and the dangers of being disbelieved or more severely victimized were real.
On the other hand, how else to stop the terror for herself and her classmates?
Our Esther found her courage, and the next morning confronted her first Ahashuerus — a principal who immediately conducted an investigation and removed Nadine from the scene, to the jubilant relief of dozens of girls. Esther became their heroine and confidant. There were countless other Ahashueruses that followed in the weeks and months to come, administrators, teachers, police officers, and of course her classmates. Other children were emboldened, and also came forward telling similar tales to their own parents and teachers.
And what became of our little Haman, Nadine? Efforts of police and social workers revealed that several of her mother’s serial boyfriends had entertained themselves by abusing Nadine, and she was immediately removed to the safety of another home.
In the end, this is how we discover if our children have learned to redeem themselves. Indeed, the truest therapy for this Esther has been knowing that she spoke out not only to save herself, but also to save her classmates, and even to save Haman.
Lisa Morgan writes on Jewish family issues in Los Angeles. All names, including the author’s, have been changed.