Fran and Marcia
As Women’s History Month continues, I am happy and grateful to share stories of women’s education and empowerment by women who are dear to me.
Of course, the first is by Jeanne Hewell-Chambers.
If you’ve ever been in an abusive relationship (and I sure hope you haven’t), you know how it goes: he asks you out, courts you fiercely, wants to spend every available minute with you. He can’t live without you. He can’t wait to see you again. He’s never seen anybody so beautiful. All this lavishing of attention is endearing, proof of his deep love and affection for you – he see you, he really sees you, and loves you like you never dreamed possible.
But before you know it and without even realizing it, you’re isolated from the world around you. When it’s just the two of you – as it almost always is, except when you’re with his friends or his family – you hear a constant barrage of hissings spat at you through clenched teeth and lips curled back over those animalistic teeth – things like “You are the ugliest girl I ever laid eyes on, and you’re just lucky I’m dating you cause if it weren’t for me, you’d never have a date.” or “You are the stupidest, dumbest girl I ever met, and you’re ugly to boot. Sometimes I wonder why I’m dating you.” Day in and day out you are torn down, stomped on, and reminded of your worthlessness, a horrendous experience made even worse to a girl who sees herself only through the eyes of others.
Oh, he’s always sorry afterwards and nice like he was in the beginning. He always promises he’ll never do it again, and eventually he always wishes you hadn’t done that thing or said that particular thing that caused him to have to behave the way he did. It’s always your fault – always – and there is nobody – nobody at all – to counter his words, his slaps, his . . . let’s call it what it is . . . his abuse.
With you he rules with an iron fist, with others, he’s fun to be around, always ready to lend a helping hand, very easy going. He smiles, he laughs, he agrees with everything anybody says. His friends obviously enjoy being with him. You can almost hear them thinking how lucky you are, and deep down inside you know that nobody will never believe you, even if there was somebody you could tell about how he behaves when they are not around.
Though the situation is all too familiar to far too many girls and women, the “you” in this particular story is, as you may have already guessed, “me.”
The Prom is coming up in a few weeks. The Senior Prom. I’ve asked and received his approval on what I will wear – it’s a dress I’m sewing for myself. I’ve ordered the fabric – black with sparkling gold threads forming geometric patterns. The gold sequins I’ll use to trim out the neckline and cuffs give it definition – and just as I start to lay out the pattern, I decide that I like the looks of the wrong side better, so for my prom dress, the wrong side of the cloth becomes the right side, the side everybody will see.
About two weeks before the Prom, I show up in the office where I work fourth period of every day. I go quietly about my work, always alert to any boys who might enter the office because months ago when he – let’s call him Bob because that’s not his real name – walked by and saw another male student in the same office where I sat working, I received my first fist to the cheek. Now I am constantly on edge, trying to do my job without encountering any boys or men, without engaging with anybody, male or female. Instinctively remaining close to open doors, always trying to put as much space as possible between me and anybody else, all the while trying to take up as little space as possible. This particular day, the two school secretaries – we’ll call them Fran and Marcia because those are their real names – wait for me, usher me into a private office, close the door, and ask, “Who’s taking you to the prom?” They are smiling. I tense up. I can’t help it, it’s an involuntary reflex by now – smiles scare me because smiles portend meanness and pain. I tell them “Bob,” strangely unaffected by the question which they surely must know the answer to. Their smiles grow larger. I back up towards the door. They follow. “Oh no, you’re not,” they tell me, and they look pleased. Excited. “We’ve made other plans.” They tell me that they’ve contacted a friend of mine who graduated the previous year. He’s in the Marines now, and thanks to the pocketbooks of Fran and Marcia, he’s already got his plane ticket and his dress blues. He is coming to take me to the prom. He will call me tonight.
I shake uncontrollably. Tears well up. I open the door behind me, backing out. “No,” I say. “No. No. Thank you, but no.” I can’t breathe. There is no air in the room, there is no color. My stomach is one big, painful, somersaulting knot.
“Oh yes,” they insist, “and we’re going to tell Bob right now. Right this very minute.” And with that they each take a shoulder and turn me around gently. Fran holds one hand, Marcia holds the other as we walk down the central hall. On any other day the hall would be a constant bustle of sound as entire classes go back and forth to lunch, but today there is only the sound of stylish pumps clicking against the linoleum. I feel their hands squeezing mine tightly, I see their chins raised resolutely, defiantly, confidently. These are women on a mission, and they will not be dissuaded or denied. The buzz of the lunchroom grows louder. We turn left, enter the open doorway, and easily spy Bob laughing and cavorting with a table full of his friends.
“Bob,” Marcia says as we stop at the end of his table, “Jeanne has something she wants to tell you,” and when not a single word will fall out of my mouth, she says firmly, her chin lowered only enough to make eye contact with him over the top of her glasses, “Jeanne will not be going to the prom with you.” With his fork in midair, still full of round green peas on the way to his mouth, he shrugs and says “Sure, okay.” He is just as nice and agreeable as ever. Nobody will ever believe me if I tell them things he’s said and done to me. His smile, his bright, toothy, friendly smile remains unwavering. Only I recognize the subtle shift of the eyes and the smile, shifts that warn of what awaits me after school.
“There,” they say on the walk back to the office, smiling, still holding my hands but more relaxed now. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” asks Marcia. “I think it went very well,” Fran agrees. I still shake. Back in the office, Fran opens her purse, takes out a set of keys, and hands them to me saying, “Here’s my house key. Nobody’s home, so I want you to go there and spend the rest of the afternoon. Fix yourself something to eat. Take a nap. Watch tv. Do whatever you feel like doing. Just stay there all afternoon, and don’t come back to school today.”
I drive to her house, let myself in, sit in the chair closest to the door, and let the silence wrap itself around me. With only these two women knowing where I am, with the entire afternoon stretching before me, the shaking stops and the tears come – enough tears to put out a burning 42-story building.
I cry for the girl who suspected that something was amiss, the girl whose bones were too young, too inexperienced to know for sure. I cry for the girl who, with so much constant coaching, believed herself to be so totally, thoroughly, woefully unworthy. I cry for the girl who thought everything that happened, everything he said, everything he did was her fault. Eventually I cry for the kindness of Fran and Marcia, for the courage they showed that day in taking a stand against abuse. Fran and Marcia didn’t stand back and wait on me to ask for help, they stepped into my life unbidden. They didn’t worry about the political correctness of their plan, they didn’t worry about being scorned – they simply knew that this girl needed them, needed their support, needed their shelter. And that was enough for them to take action.
So how do I thank Fran and Marcia? I thank them, in part, by introducing them to you in this teensy little bit of my story. Occasionally I thank them in ink on paper sent in a stamped envelope. Mostly I thank Fran and Marcia (and all the other women since then who have held me and encouraged me and nourished me) by supporting other women – and not just abused and violated women, though that surely is a pet cause of mine – but women who sometimes feel alone and in the dark and empty and powerless. I don’t have a checklist or a treasure chest of The Right Answers, but I do know how to listen deeply and without judgment. I don’t have a key to press into a palm, but I sure do know how to make people laugh just when they thought they’d never hear that beautiful sound again. And I can’t pick up the phone to find a replacement prom date, but I can bear witness to women claiming, reclaiming, and proclaiming their gorgeous genius and genuine glory so they can take themselves to the prom. And it all feels like gratitude to me.
Once dubbed a “wonder bra for the human spirit”, Jeanne is a complicated simple red dirt girl fluent only in English and Southern, Charming and Cranky. She feels most beautiful when wearing earrings that dangle and skirts that caper and most at home when making other laugh or holding cloth in her hands.
Married long enough that the mere mention of her wedding anniversary sparks applause, Jeanne has survived two teenagers, a Cesarean delivery without anesthesia, a mugging on the sidewalks of New York, hanging wallpaper with her husband, and Christmas 1993.
Though she’s received many awards and honors for her work as a professional speaker and community volunteer, and though she has a Bachelor of Science in Education and a Master’s degree in Transformative Language Arts, Jeanne’s most proud of the fact that she’s never, ever had to attend a PTA meeting under an assumed name.