With her feet on its bench, Sarah Leonard perches atop a lunch table on the grounds of the San Diego middle school where she has been teaching eighth-grade language arts for the last year and a half. School let out an hour ago, and her husband of four years, Peter Lund, has arrived and settled cross-legged on the grass. He picks dandelions and flicks them away. Sarah, 33 years old, suddenly shouts greetings to a group of boys passing by, and they laugh in embarrassment, as one of them gives a shy, halfhearted response. She is telling me about her relationships beyond the classroom with her students.
“The hardest thing for me now,” says Sarah, whose jet-black hair shines in the late-afternoon sunshine, “is letting kids make their own mistakes in life. Sometimes I want to save them from themselves. But I have to realize that some of them will do drugs, or make other mistakes, and get hurt. I made lots of mistakes and bad choices too, but here I am in a good, healthy place. I think my role now is to be a confidante, to be someone who can listen and relate to what the kids are going through without trying to control it. Many times, kids come to me with problems that they can’t talk to anyone else about, and I am honored by this. Maybe if they have someone who will listen to them, that is enough.”
Sarah, who drives to school from Pacific Beach, loves her work in the classroom too. Her enthusiasm today contrasts sharply, however, with the feelings that made her quit teaching for good, she thought, after the year of student teaching that completed her credential program in the state of Georgia. In an Atlanta school eight years ago, her supervisors begged her to stay, offering her a full-time teaching position for the following year. But the year of student teaching induced her to leave education for some of the same reasons she had decided to enter it. “I was hyperaware of how vulnerable children are,” she says. “Children always seemed to be in danger, and that feeling became a constant stress when I was teaching.”
And Sarah feared that she might do something to the children like her fifth-grade teacher did to her.
In Atlanta, however, Sarah taught seven- and eight-year-olds, not the eighth graders she teaches now in San Diego. “The children were physical with me,” she says. “They wanted to play with my hair, especially the girls. They want to know all about you. They want to be you.” Sarah says that she has grown in maturity since that time, when she was 25. And her eighth graders seem to her more like regular people, better able to fend for themselves, than the much more vulnerable younger children.
Sarah remembers sitting on her own teacher’s lap in fifth grade. She also remembers that, while she sat there, John Winston’s hands wandered her body to places it seemed they shouldn’t go.
Peter breaks in. “He ruined it for you,” he says, “so that you couldn’t be close to young human beings without having that crap in the back of your mind, like having a cop car behind you.” Also 33, Peter is wiry from racing bicycles, his favorite pastime. He designs them as well, in an attempt to build a business.
“I didn’t know if my boundaries were healthy,” says Sarah, defending her decision to leave teaching the first time. “I got quite attached to the kids, and leaving my class at the end of the year was devastating. I felt like they were mine. The situation scared me, but not because I believed I would actually do something to them.”
“You couldn’t separate what your teacher did from yourself,” says Peter.
Sarah and Peter (the names of all persons in this story have been changed) are starting on a conversation they appear to have had many times before. What comes to my mind, as I eavesdrop on this slice of their private talk, is a phenomenon that occurs with the fear of heights. “Do you remember what it’s like to be near the edge on top of a tall building?” I ask Sarah.
“And you think you’re going to run and jump off, yes,” she says.
“You know damned well you’re safe,” I say, “but, still, this feeling comes on that you’re going to throw yourself over the edge.”
“That’s exactly what it was,” says Sarah. “Like when you try to get your thoughts off a subject, which makes you think about it more. And I didn’t want to push the children away, but, at the same time, when does this become wrong? They sat on my lap during reading hour all the time, or if they were having a hard day or had gotten in a fight.”
On Her Teacher’s Lap
We get up from the table and walk around the school grounds. As we move in and out of the sunshine until dusk, Sarah unburdens herself of being molested over and over in a class full of other children and of how that has affected her since. Sarah says that teacher John Winston, in a San Francisco Bay Area school, held her daily on his lap at his desk during quiet time in the fifth-grade classroom. It began innocently, as if she were sitting on her father’s lap.
“I’ve told two people in my life the details of this story,” says Sarah. “One of them is Peter and the other is a therapist that I saw between ’92 and ’95. And the worst part of it, every time, is telling the details. They are disgusting to me, even though they don’t sound bad from the outside, since it’s not that graphic and it’s not violent and it’s not what some people think is sexual abuse. But it feels like I have this disease living in me. I have never been able to exorcise it, and I don’t know if talking about it makes it bigger or smaller. So do you want me to tell you more details?” she asks in a tone both reluctant and anticipatory.