Gaslighting: to manipulate (someone) by psychological or abusive means into questioning reality.
I had watched my big brother board the school bus every day for the last year. Now, it was finally my turn. The very first week of first grade, my teacher, Mrs. King, fulfilled every dream I had ever had of school.
“All right, children,” Mrs. King said, as she stood at the front of the room in her bright red lipstick. “We have a very special guest today. I need for everyone to come to sit on the floor by the piano.” Everyone moved near the claptrap upright as Mrs. King went to the door. She turned to all of us. “When our visitor comes in, you must be very, very quiet. You must not talk, you must not shout and whatever happens, you…must…not…laugh. This guest is very sensitive, and if you make any noise. Any noise at all, you will scare him and he will want to leave. Does everyone understand?” My mouth dropped open as hush-filled magic fell over the classroom. All eyes stared at the door.
Mrs. King pushed it open. “I would like to introduce you to my husband, girls, and boys, and this,” Mrs. King waved her right hand toward the hall, “is my dog, Rufus.” Stunned amazement fell over the first-graders. We watched in awe as a black mutt about the size of a small beagle waggled in. He was wearing a bright red collar. “Rufus likes to sing and I’ve asked my husband to bring him today to sing just for you.”
Mrs. King sat down at the piano. Her husband dropped the leash and Rufus jumped into her lap. He placed his front paws on the piano keys as she began a rollicking tune. As soon as the music started, he turned his nose into the air and howled with all his might. I clapped my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing as the other children tittered. Rufus stopped long enough to catch his breath, then went in for another turn of phrase. It was the most glorious sight I had ever seen. The class managed to stay quiet until Rufus finished his song, but happy laughter rang out as we watched his wagging tail leave the room.
Mrs. King brought lambs to school that spring. She taught us games and encouraged friendships. I was honored as the first person to lose a tooth. Mrs. King even asked me to walk up and down the aisles so all the children could see the hole in my mouth.
The joy of first grade was overshadowed by the home I returned to every afternoon. “Hold your hands out,” my mother screamed. She had caught me sucking my thumb yet again. My mother hated me, and I deserved every punishment she could dish out. I stuck out my thumbs as my mother covered them in hot pepper oil. “There. That should keep those thumbs out of your mouth.” That night I forgot about the hot pepper oil and sought out my only source of comfort. My mouth burned so badly even licking the sheets didn’t do any good.
At my house, my very existence was cause for reprimand. I stumbled through life and finally grew up. It would take years to understand the relentless terror and despair that followed me into adulthood.
Five decades later, while preparing for a cross country move, I noticed a forgotten old box stuffed in the back of the garage. As I sifted through the contents, a strange thing happened. At the very bottom, I found a yellowed piece of card stock covered in beautifully hand-written script. It was my report card from Mrs. King’s first grade. My hands shook as I picked it up. Did I dare read the detailed commentary? I had not seen it in over fifty years, and besides, Mrs. King had written it before I could read cursive. I had no idea what it said. I was sure the report card would echo the tape running in my head recorded during the experiences of my childhood. “Rebekah is disobedient and can’t keep her mouth shut. When I think of Rebekah, I think of trash. She is the worst pupil in the school. She is so stupid, her work is one gigantic, indecipherable mess. The situation is hopeless. She is a complete and total failure.”
I opened the card. Mrs. King’s swirling hand-writing leaped from the page. “Rebekah’s progress has been very good. For one so young, I marvel at her! She is always interested in whatever we are doing. Rebekah has a nice attitude, a good disposition, and is always happy. She gets along with everyone. She is very capable and has above average ability and tries hard to do her best.”
I sat on the floor in shock. Mrs. King’s glowing review continued from top to bottom of every page. She even kept writing when there wasn’t any more space. Here was an eyewitness to the most distressing years of my life, and the testimony was the complete opposite of my abusive parents. I had carried a cross made of lies through the decades. Only those of you who have suffered in a similar way can understand what a revelation this was. After all, I had suffered, all the books I had read, all the therapy sessions and the thousands of hours of meditation and prayer, struggle and sorrow, everything I had fought so hard for had turned out to be true. It wasn’t me.
I still take out Mrs. King’s first-grade report card and read it occasionally, letting the words soak into the wounded places of my heart. Don’t believe the gas lighters, even if they are your own mother and father. It took fifty years, but Mrs. King’s words confirmed my suspicions. I was a wonderful little girl and in the end, the gaslighters did not have the last word. I did.
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Rebekah Brown, a native of the south, now resides in the Great American West. Surviving a complicated and abusive family system makes her unique writing style insightful as well as uplifting. Rebekah is the proud mother of two and grandmother of four. Her very first novel, The Raspberry House, dealing with narcissistic abuse and every person’s desire to find their heart’s true home will be released in 2021.