I was on the phone with my husband when the school nurse called. I left him on hold while I took the call.
Our first-grade daughter, Molly, was complaining that her “privates” hurt, the nurse told me. Then she put Molly on the phone.
“Mommy, my vagina hurts,” Molly said.
“Hurts how?” I asked.
“Well, my teacher wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom yesterday, and I really had to go, and when I wiped, I think I scratched it. It hurts when I stand up.”
“So it feels like a scratch?”
“Yeah, like a long scratch.”
I knew I needed to cut her fingernails. They were pretty long. It was certainly possible that she’d scratched herself. I didn’t understand what the teacher not letting her go to the bathroom had to do with it, though. Maybe she had an accident, I couldn’t tell.
“Are you going to be okay?” I asked. “Do you need me to come get you? Do you need me to bring you new underwear?”
“No, I’m okay,” she said.
So, I promised her we’d cut them when she got home. And I said if it felt like she had a scratch, I’d take a look at it. Then we hung up.
When I clicked back over to my husband, I said, “That was weird. Something about her vagina hurting, but then she also said Ms. Jordan wouldn’t let her use the bathroom. Not really sure what that was about.”
He jumped in and told me that the night before, she’d said the same thing about her teacher not letting her go to the bathroom. I was out, as I usually am on Wednesday nights. Earlier in the day, Molly had gone to play at her friend Penelope’s house. When my husband went to pick her up, she’d been dressed in Penelope’s clothes. This wasn’t that unusual. They often played dress-up over there, and we’d have to return her clothes the next day. It wasn’t a big deal, except that evening at bath time, when my husband was trying to sort out whose clothes were whose, Molly repeated to him several times that the underwear she wore was her own. And then there was the matter of a stain in her underwear that surprised him.
“It looked like more than streaks,” he said.
Molly has been accident-free for years. She’s one of those kids who, once potty trained, didn’t have issues. When my husband asked her about the underwear, she gave him a story about her teacher not letting her use the bathroom. The story confused him, too, and he made a mental note to mention it to me when I got home. He didn’t.
I got the story over the phone right after I spoke to the nurse.
So, there it was: a call from the nurse about pain in Molly’s “privates”; a strange story about not being able to use the bathroom; clothes changed at a friend’s house; a bizarre repeating statement from Molly the night before about how she swore the underwear was her own; and, suddenly, my hackles went up.
In my mind, I began to scan everything I knew about Penelope’s family. Her mom is super nice (or is she?), always smiling and so kind. We can’t communicate very well. She speaks Vietnamese and not much English. I speak English and not a lick of Vietnamese. We’ve found that we communicate best in Spanish, a language neither of us speaks very well, but we have more words in common there than in any other language.
The dad, I don’t know much about (that’s not good).
The older sister, a nine-year-old, is so responsible and always so polite. (But maybe too polite? Is all that goodness and politeness an attempt to hide something? Is she trying too hard to be good? Is something happening to her at home?)
The older brother, a 12-year-old, is probably the sweetest pre-teen boy I’ve ever met. He waves and smiles from the back of their car even more than the girls do. (Is it fake?)
And Penelope, herself? Well, she’s Molly’s first best friend. They’re inseparable at school, and they beg to play together after school almost every day. But I have noticed that Molly is way too concerned about Penelope getting mad at her. She stopped eating the school lunch and insisted that I pack her lunch or Penelope would get mad. And on the day we slept in and I had to drive Molly to school, she cried that Penelope would be mad if she wasn’t on the bus.
The mind-scan of Penelope’s family told me nothing solid, of course. All I knew was that my daughter wasn’t telling me the whole truth. Something wasn’t right.
I called the school nurse back and told her I was coming in. I wanted to talk to my daughter. I wanted to look her in the face and find out what had happened that she wasn’t telling me. The nurse said she was glad I called back. The story was strange to her, too. Just too messy and unclear.
“The RN is here,” she said. “Maybe you can talk to her.”
I went to the school, and the district RN, a woman named Mindy, happened to be on campus that day for eyesight and hearing screenings. But she had been in the office and overheard the phone call.
“It sounded a little off to me,” she said.
Nurse Mindy and I went into a private conference room to chat before I pulled my daughter out of class.
The first thing she said to me when she closed the door behind us was, “When we hear the beating of hooves, we should think horses, not zebras.”
I had never heard that saying before, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. I couldn’t think straight. A panic was beginning to rise in me. Something had happened to my daughter, something she was afraid to share. I could feel it.