A fellow teacher got drunk and told me a secret

Now I feel burdened with this knowledge. What should I do?

Published July 6, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a teacher. I recently went to a lengthy conference and met quite a few other teachers. As teachers sometimes do, we threw a big party toward the end of our time together. I'm not much of drinker, but people were drinking pretty heavily. I went on a walk with two other teachers that evening, one of whom was quite drunk. As we sat talking and looking at the stars, one of the teachers "confessed" that she had been molested by her gym teacher in seventh grade. She spoke of it as though she'd never spoken of it to anyone. At one point she even said: "Let's just pretend that that seventh-grade girl is just standing alone there in the trees." My immediate response was to say that it was dark and lonely in those trees over there, and that no one should have to stand alone in the dark like that, particularly not a seventh-grade girl who was preyed on by an adult.

I got the sense from the conversation that the gym teacher is still teaching at the school (though I'm not certain of this, since she named neither the teacher nor the school). I also got the sense that she hasn't had the opportunity to talk this experience through with anyone. I'm conflicted. I don't know her very well, but I got the sense that she was reaching out for help, even wasted as she was. I've been in situations like this before. For some reason people often unload their deeply held traumas and horrors on me. (I'm guessing that you know how this feels, Cary.)

I want to help her, but I don't have a relationship with her. When I saw her the next morning and said hello, she said good morning, then looked down at her feet. She lives in my city, and I have her e-mail address, but I don't know what I would say. (I guess I would just say: "How are you?" But then what?) I'm also deeply concerned that this guy is still out there teaching, picking up new seventh-graders along the way. And since I know that this is a distinct possibility, I feel a deep sense of obligation to help all those girls out there who might be similarly preyed upon.

I began to ask a question like: "What am I obligated to do?" But that's not really the question. I guess the real question is: "Whom can I help and how can I help them?"

Worried About the Girl in the Dark

Dear Worried,

Whom can you help? First, you can help this teacher.

How can you help her? By creating a relationship with her.

How do you create a relationship with someone? You spend time with them every week or so. You talk on the phone, share meals together, invite each other over to your homes. You introduce each other to your friends and family. You create trust. You make it possible for her to confide in you.

By doing so, depending on what the facts turn out to be, you may then also help others.

Because you have a specific purpose in befriending her, you may feel awkward or false in doing this. You may feel your motive disqualifies the relationship from the ranks of pure friendship.

But this is a natural friendship in the most timeworn way. Circumstances threw you together in classic fashion. In a moment of drunken candor a bond was formed. She got drunk and told you a secret. You now know something intimate about this person; you now understand her personal struggle in a special way. You are already bound together. In a sense, you are already friends.

You have been entrusted with something. So you also have a certain responsibility. That is also what this friendship is about. It is not just about getting her secrets; it is also about their safekeeping.

People who are troubled, traumatized and burdened with secrets they reveal only when numbed by alcohol can be troublesome, needy and dependent. Because of that, you may feel you need to make clear from the start that you do indeed have an agenda. But it's not like you're a secret agent selling her out. At this point she is just a person who needs a friend to rely on, a shoulder to cry on, a person to talk to. You can't really help her until, as you say, you have a relationship. It might be that you would recommend that she talk with a therapist or advisor about her experience. You might feel she needs to go to law enforcement. You may begin to feel that her story is not completely accurate or truthful. But all that is down the road a bit.

For now, you need to take the first steps and see where they lead.

She may be reluctant to take this further. There will arise the question of how to balance her psychological safety with the needs of the community. You may disagree about priorities. It is easy to say, well, if that person is still teaching gym, that person needs to be fired and locked up. It is easier to say such things than to establish the truth and see justice accomplished in a sure and fair way.

But again, that is all down the road.

First, befriend her. Let her trust you. Give her an opportunity to tell her secrets.

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