Hi! My name is Karen Vanderlaan, author of the new memoir, "Show and Tell". I was born and raised in New England growing up on a dairy farm in West Newbury, Vermont. Later, leaving the farm when my parents' split up, I moved to Tennessee where my mother and her partner played music together. My mother's friend, Bunny was calculating and abusive. My pony was my solace, my best friend. After Tennessee, I lived in Mississippi, Georgia, California and then Utah all the while attempting to raise myself.
I now reside in Utah where I have raised three children. I also raise, rescue and train horses as well teach children with emotional disturbances. Since "Show and Tell" I have gained custody of my small grand daughter. Life seems to never be dull!
I would like to share the prologue of Show and Tell:
Ripples. A single pebble dropped in still water triggers an endless series of perfect concentric circles drifting outward toward the end of time. Not so when many pebbles fall. Then the ripples emanating from each fallen stone crisscross, intersect, and alter the course of every other ripple. Perfection is lost in the complexity, but in the multitude of patterns, there arises the chance for beauty as well as chaos.
So it is in life. The actions of one infinitely echo in the lives of others. For good or ill. This is the Ripple Effect, and I believe it is true. How else can I explain my life? How else can I explain even this one afternoon?
A twelve-year-old girl in my middle-school class for children with emotional problems wanted to spend her lunch hour in the classroom. I had just been selected as one of two “Teacher Heroes” by our local school foundation for my work rescuing horses. Embarrassed by accolade, I immediately stored the poster-sized photo essay used to publicize the honor. My young student had seen the poster in my classroom closet and asked to read it.
After lunch, this child became increasingly unruly. Her belligerence escalated as the afternoon wore on, almost to the point that I might be forced to suspend her from school. She – we - survived the afternoon.
After the dismissal bell rang, I straightened the room and picked up the poster to put it away. A mark caught my eye. Someone had smeared a word on the perimeter of the poster and then had attempted to repair the damage, making things worse. It dawned on me that my little student, in holding up the poster, had smudged one word with her thumb. The reason for her misbehavior became clear.
When she arrived the next morning I asked my staff assistant to teach the class while I escorted the little girl into the hall. I said to her with a smile, “I think I know why you were having a hard time yesterday.”
Her little body became rigid and her eyes dropped to her shoes. Then she tossed her head, and with characteristic defiance demanded, “Why?”
“When you were reading my poster yesterday you accidentally -”
“Suspend me if you want, I don’t care,” her words were betrayed by the tears running down her cheeks. My eyes welled up as I put my hands on her small shoulders. “It was an accident sweetie,” I whispered. “Don’t you know you are worth more to me than that poster?”
She raised her head and stared at me; her mouth opened. I hugged her tightly. She laid her head on my shoulder, and I felt her body relax.
Here was a child whose alcoholic father demanded that she remove her clothes and grant him sexual favors. Here was a physically beautiful child whose mother took her to the area of town where prostitutes gather and used her to attract men. Here was a child surrounded by adults who exploited her at every turn and, worse, made her feel responsible for their exploitations.
Only her feisty spirit protected her from further sexual abuse. Each time she felt backed against a wall, her claws came out. She fought everything. She had spent time in a lock-up facility for drug use. Her only protection from her family came from the supervision provided by the State because she never earned her way off probation.
I hated to think that anything connected with me might add to her misery or to the weight of the responsibilities she already carried for the unconscious adults in her life. She gave me one last embrace and we returned together to our classroom.
Big brother said, ”Just wait till you meet her.
She’s the good kid, she’s perfect.”
Isabelle, whose non-father touched her
Whose mother took his side.
No one believed her pain.
Isabelle who is betrayed,
Angry and so afraid – fights back.
Hate filled words are quickly spewed
Fierce defiance – her protection of choice.
Isabelle – still perfect inside
But the world did not know.
It was the end of the grading period, and I had asked my students to write a paragraph about something they had learned that term. While reviewing their assignments, I came to the paper written by the little girl. My heart sank as I glanced at it; she had written only one sentence. I knew she could do better. Then I read her words, “I learned I am more important than a poster.”
I set the papers down and let the tears come. I get so frustrated, knowing that nothing I teach can outweigh the tragic circumstances in which my students live. I question whether my work makes any difference. But, I had made a dent this time.
A young child reached out to touch a story I had shared about horses that I rescued from the meat market. My effort was the conduit through which these animals came to live extended, useful lives. My story, a child’s reach - these simple acts had a profound effect on both of us in ways we could not have foreseen. Ripples.
So it is in my life, too. I am going to make it because I am worth more than some people in my life ever knew.