I know that Child Protective Services can be demonic. One afternoon, I came home from work to see a nice lady patiently waiting at my door.

My then-7-year-old son, whom I’ll call Coatikit, has top-of-the-chart ADHD (which admittedly he got from me) and he has always been what can charitably called a drama queen (see last answer, sigh). He had been crying when he had gotten on the bus that morning, claiming that he was afraid his mother would yell at him (why, not even he knew by the time he got home) or maybe give him that dread punishment: A (single) Whack On The Butt. And they really had to check it out. Of course, I was terrified beyond belief, as the nice lady had the power to walk out with Coatikit and Tigercub that very afternoon.

Luckily, the nice lady got Coatikit’s number immediately, (and, completely off the record, validated The Whack On The Butt.) But scared as I had been, in a way I was glad she had checked it out–and the following explains why:

Lonely child

Tiger lived in an ongoing nightmare at home: no heat; no hot water; food availability was random at best; and her abusive parents were mentally ill and alcoholic. She would have immediately have set off modern alarms; but in 1975, when she came to school unkempt and in dirty clothes, the other kids mocked and the teachers sneered.

One afternoon in 7th grade, one of the nuns took her aside and, in a kindly way, attempted to help Tiger out.

Bathing and clean clothes, she said, were essential things. She was immediately completely embarrassed, and tears came to her eyes. She flinched. Sr. Katherine was nice; in all Tiger’s school career, she would be the only teacher who cared enough to even address the issue. Despite wishing she were anywhere else in her shame, Tiger became hopeful. Surely this nice grownup would scold her parents; make them fix it.

“We don’t have hot water, or any heat for that matter. But I can take showers in the summer when it’s hot.” Their boiler had broken a few years ago and never been repaired. Tiger felt horribly guilty, because it had been “her job” to watch the water gauge, as she played in the basement. She was too ashamed to admit this to the nun.

“And we never have money for the laundromat.” Cigarettes and booze, yes; but not non-essentials. Her father ate at his drinking buddies’ houses, and her mother ate anything and everything she could get her hands on. Plain grits and rice were fine; anything to fill her up.

But Tiger was a growing eleven-year-old guilt, and she herself was always hungry. As she brought some of the grits out to feed the dogs (who eventually starved to death from protein deficiency–mercifully, Tiger usually had peanut butter) she sympathized. There was one weekend where there was some cabbage to fry up with the grits, and Tiger felt she was at a feast. Once a month, when Tiger’s father got paid, he would bring Tiger home a Whopper from Burger King, and she would wolf it down in ecstasy, keeping an uneasy eye out for her mother, who would wheedle some of it away.

Similarly, she was sometimes literally “on the rag.” But not all the time; when she went to pick up the cigarettes, she could usually ask for a little extra for Kotex.

She made it sound pathetic, which was easy, as it was all true. *helphelphelp,* she thought. But it was the ’70s; the nun had grown up in the ’40s; and Tiger was dirty.

“Well, you can boil a pot of water on the stove, and wash in the sink,” was the prompt answer. “And you can wash out your clothes the same way. You’re a very bright girl, Tiger.”

Tiger cried. She felt hopelessly inadequate. She was very bright, and she knew that what the nun was suggesting was quite doable. But as she sobbed, she was angry.

“But that’s not my job. They’re my parents. They’re supposed to take care of me.” Wasn’t that fair? All the other kids had hot water, food, and clothes.

“Well, I understand that,” said the nun. And she did; but what worked for the poor in the ’40s would work forever. It didn’t occur to her that for a child of the 70s, surrounded by ordinary assumptions and expectations, her advice was akin to suggesting that Tiger could solve her food problem by fishing in the polluted Hudson and laying wires for squirrels in the Park. “But you have to take care of yourself.”

There was nothing Tiger could say. Her cheeks burned, but she knew the nun was right. It was her job, and it was her fault that the boiler had burst. She could have done this all along, and it was her fault for whining. Her father washed in the sink himself, as he had to go to work; he had occasionally scolded Tiger when he randomly noticed her state. But after all, as he would continually remind her, it was her fault the boiler had burst.

Bad enough, thought Tiger miserably, that the nuns were disgusted by her obstinate failure to come to school in the same crisp cleanness of the other kids, with their pressed clothes and shiny hair. But she nervously covered her forearms, hugging herself. Sr. Katherine was the nicest nun in school. If she saw the bruises from her mother’s cane, she would know that Tiger was actually a very bad girl to deserve to be beaten like that.

She was completely humiliated. Every time she saw the nun after that, she averted her eyes. Sr. Katherine knew one of those horrible secrets: It was her fault she was dirty. But at least she didn’t know the other one.

She was bad; she was lazy, and she was greedy. It was always Tiger’s fault.

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