Seeing without speaking
In class Thursday I was particularly haunted with the picture above, JHunter's visualization of silence. While my interpretation of “Bouquet of Eyes” varies from hers, I am grateful for the push towards looking differently at a subject that I thought I had adequately explored. It is this new interpretation that I will use now to speak toward my own experience with being silenced at my summer job.
This summer I had the misfortune of learning that silence can sometimes be a group phenomenon, and it is in these particular instances when the absence of voice can be the most dangerous. From June to August I worked at an overnight camp for underprivileged youth, like I have for the past three summers. The counselors range in age from 17-21, not much older than the children we watch over. It is difficult for me to talk about what happened this summer in a composed way, because the happiness and welfare of the campers was and still is my utmost concern and to see that threatened was infuriating.
During this summer’s first session of camp, a camper named Kendra* was placed in my cabin. Kendra was eight years old, weighed 108 pounds, and still wore diapers. Nowhere on her health forms had this information been noted by her parents. She also came in with clearly too-small clothes, bruises that she attributed to an angry mother and the idea that “camp was a place where you come and look at each others’ bodies.” Both concerned and disturbed, ever-cognizant of my role as a mandated reporter, I immediately approached the camp nurse and my boss, where I received the answer “officially reporting these things is too complicated, let’s just not worry about it.” Again, horrified, I reached out to my boss’s boss to get help for Kendra. There, my job was threatened because by coming to her I was “ignoring the chain of command” and I was told to shut up and fly right. In the past, I had seen cases of abuse be discovered at camp. And by properly reporting them the camp staff was able to make really positive change in the children’s home lives, and I wanted the same for this little girl. It was horrifying to know that my management would choose silence over doing the right thing just because the official processes were “too complicated”. Afraid for my job, I felt I had no choice but to drop the subject and hope they would come to their senses. I’d never felt so useless in my life. I slept in a cabin with this child knowing that there was something seriously wrong at home and that I couldn’t do anything about it.
Unfortunately, it didn’t stop at Kendra. There were countless other situations – ignored safety procedures, expired food, a child who threatened suicide. And witnessing these situations? Countless pairs of eyes that could only watch the tragedy unravel silent, fearful and unable to act on their own. And then there were those that turned a blind eye.
In the end, Child Protective Services was called. I was fired. But if it hadn’t had been me, I’m not sure that anyone would have spoken up. I’d like to think so, but I’m honestly not sure. As a group of inexperienced youth we were easily silenced. We all knew we were lucky to have a job in the current job market. We all didn’t know that we were being paid 1/3 of minimum wage. Our inexperience and ignorance seemed to make youth a particularly silence-able time in our lives. It then makes sense that, as demonstrated by my classmates’ experiences, we are the group that gets taken advantage of most often.
It still shocks me how easy it was to silence us, a group of 30 outspoken individuals. It is easy to think that this inaction may have been caused by the division of guilt. “There are so many of us who see the problem, someone will do something, it doesn’t have to be me.” This may commonly be the case with emergencies or crimes: single, isolated incidents. But Kendra served as a constant reminder of who our silence was hurting, and also, as it was her that incriminated her own mother, the power of raising your voice. If she could do it, so could we. So we had no excuse, really.
I am still haunted by the children that slipped through. Still haunted by the fact that 30 pairs of eyes were rendered nearly useless by a silence imposed on us by adults we trusted. I feel like I did a lot of growing up this summer. I no longer take what I am given without question. I am lucky to go to a school when silence is viewed as “selfish” and we are encouraged to speak our mind. Because, as became painfully obvious to me this summer, silence can be a very dangerous thing.