The email came from my son’s former gymnastics school:
“We are heartbroken and shocked” it began, and went on to tell two decade’s worth of local families that the man who coached their sons, working with boys as young as 4 and as old as 18, had been arrested for sexual assault of a minor, a relative. This man was also an elementary school teacher.
Stories like this are so common in our society, it’s easy to shake your head and roll on by the video or Internet post. But this time is completely different for me, because this time, for the first time, I know this man.
My son began taking gymnastics from Coach when he was four years old. For the next five or six years he spent two hours a day, four to five days a week working with Coach and the boys’ gymnastics team. They had team parties, competitive meets, sleepovers on the gym floor with the team from a neighboring school. And I knew this man. I worked with him on team fundraisers, I met with him in his office to discuss my son, I told him that I was so grateful that he was my boy’s coach, because he had really taught him self-discipline and commitment. I praised this man to others, lauding him for his ability to be firm with the boys, while still allowing them to have fun.
And while he has only been charged, and the road to conviction is long, if this is true, if he did sexually abuse children (most likely his stepsons, who were gymnasts as well) then I am suddenly put in a position that I have never found myself in throughout twenty years of parenting–I am a mother who can not trust her own judgement.
Because I didn’t know. I didn’t suspect. I didn’t have a “feeling.” And I am devastated by that.
And let me interject right now, and be very clear that our son was never alone with this man, and was absolutely not victimized by him, and thus far they do not think that any of his students or athletes were. However, it could have happened. I could have let it happen. If you’re a parent, sit with that for a moment. You could have let a predator have access to victimize your child. Does it turn your stomach? Because it’s been turning mine since I first got the news.
And all of the sudden I’m a lot less critical and righteous than I’ve been in the past, because from now on when I look at those women who allowed their children to play at the neighbor’s where they attacked, or who married the man that raped their daughter, or who didn’t realize that their uncle was feeling up the kids under the dining room table, I will see me. I will see that while I have two college degrees, and four kids, and I live in a pristine subdivision where we walk our dogs and hold neighborhood picnics, I could still be taken in by a predator. I could still make decisions and choices that left my son vulnerable to something so horrible I can’t even think about it without feeling physically ill.
But as much as my foundation as a mother has been shaken, this event has also shaken my foundation as a human, because I’m of the mind that in this day and age, we are fueled by fear–so much of it that we wrap ourselves in guns, and barely let our kids out the front door. We become experts in background checks, and nanny cams, and we teach about “bad touches” from the time they’re old enough to say the words. But I’ve always tried to temper that fear that surrounds us with common sense–if they’re in a school or a sport where the adults are licensed and given background checks, then it’s fine. When they’re with people whose children I know and whose houses I’ve visited, then it’s fine. When I know the person and feel good about them, then it’s fine.
And now, it’s not.
Now the world I created for myself and my children is a lie. He was licensed, he was background checked, I knew his children, I knew him, I felt good about him. But it wasn’t fine.
I’m not sure where this all leaves me, both as a mother and as a human being. I do know that I now have a newfound empathy for parents who unwittingly put their children in harm’s way. I do know that I won’t ever assume someone is safe for my kids simply because he’s been background checked, or works for a school district. I won’t be so quick to scoff at those parents who don’t allow their children to attend sleepovers. And mostly, I won’t be as secure in my own judgement. Maybe this is a good thing, maybe not, but my world changed today, and unfortunately, I did too.