At the back of her classroom, she saw the struggles that her pupil was facing. But what could she do?
- Posted on Mar 18, 2019
The first time I saw her, Loretta barely looked at me. It was January 1989 and I had come to her junior high school to serve as its new speech pathologist. None of my students said too much to me that first day but Loretta was quieter than the rest. Dressed in a baggy black T-shirt and jeans, she sat in the back of the classroom, her hair hiding her face. But not even her wild blond locks could completely hide the sadness and need in her eyes.
I’d been teaching for nine years and loved my work. Still, it troubled me to see students like Loretta who seemed so lost. I could barely get a full sentence out of her when I called on her in class. As the semester went on, some of my students started to confide in me, but Loretta always shuffled out without so much as a backward glance. When she was absent for several days in a row, I learned from a school administrator that she had been suspended on a drug violation.
The last day of school came and I said goodbye to Loretta for what I thought might be the last time, praying silently that she would find her way.
The next afternoon I got a call. “Hi, Miss Fry, this is Loretta.”
“Loretta? What a nice surprise! What can I do for you?”
There was a pause. “Oh, nothing. I looked you up in the book. I just thought I’d call and say hello.”
“I’m glad you did. What’re you doing?”
“Just sitting in my room, listening to the radio. No one’s around.”
We made small talk for another 10 minutes, with me filling awkward silences, until Loretta said good-bye. I stared at the phone a moment after putting the receiver down. What was that all about? I wondered.
The next day she called at exactly the same time. And again the next. She never had much to say, yet she kept calling. I began asking her questions about her family life and learned she lived with her stepfather. Complaining about him was one of her favorite pastimes.
One afternoon when Loretta called I sensed immediately something was amiss. A minute or two into the conversation I realized she’d been drinking. She started talking about school. Then out of nowhere she told me that her father passed away when she was only a year old. “What about your mom?” I asked.
“She died two years ago … when I was twelve,” Loretta said.
I caught my breath. “I lost my mom when I was your age,” I said softly. I was an only child, and my mom and I had been extremely close. We’d spent countless hours talking, shopping, and cooking meals together. When Mom died suddenly of complications from surgery it was a devastating shock. I went through high school on autopilot, burying my head in textbooks. It wasn’t till senior year that I finally began to form friendships. Even at the age of 30, I still had a quiet ache in my heart from losing my mother, a fear of getting that close to anyone again.
“I know how it feels,” I said to Loretta, “but I also know that drugs and alcohol won’t make the pain go away.”
Again, Loretta changed the subject and soon ended the call. But a few days later, she called again and told me more about her mother. She was opening up to me, slowly but surely. We continued to talk all summer. I wondered if I’d hear from her once the new school year started since she wouldn’t be in my class anymore. The first day of school, though, she showed up after class to chat. She stopped by each day, revealing more about her difficult relationship with her stepfather, the bad neighborhood she lived in, and her involvement with the drug crowd. Some days I suspected she was high. “Drugs aren’t the answer, Loretta, no matter how bad you feel,” I’d remind her. “They only make things worse.”
Loretta called me late one evening that fall. “Can you come over, Miss Fry?” she asked weakly. She had a terrible cold and her stepfather wasn’t around. I hurried over. “Thanks for coming, Miss Fry,” she greeted me between coughs. She gave me a tour of her small three-room home, then pulled a photo album out of her dresser drawer and showed me old pictures of her mother and father. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the real purpose of having me visit.
Lord, Loretta needs someone to really take care of her, I thought as I drove back home. Then, almost instantly, the thought came back, It should be you, as clear as a spoken phrase. I dismissed it. The idea of all that responsibility was overwhelming. I was young and single, busy with my career, and active in my church. How would I find room in my life for a teenage girl? But there was something else behind my resistance, a darker fear. Did I want to risk getting that attached?
Yet I couldn’t resist Loretta, especially when she seemed so eager for my company. I took her out for a bite to eat after school sometimes, and to school football games. One weekend I invited her to join me and my friends on a camping trip to Lake Kissimmee State Park. As I was finishing up breakfast Saturday morning, I glanced up and saw Loretta perched high in an oak tree. She giggled and waved. It was the first time I’d ever heard her laugh like that.
The more time we spent together, the more I felt a responsibility to this girl who seemed to have picked me out to help her. No longer would I just take off for the weekend without a second thought. Now I’d tell Loretta where I was going and when I’d be back. She’s getting to you, Carolee, I thought.
One cold Friday night in March, Loretta called me from the hospital emergency room, where she’d just been treated for severe bronchitis. “Can I come stay with you, Miss Fry?” she asked, her voice hoarse and shaky. “My stepdad won’t take care of me like you will.”
“Of course you can, Loretta,” I said. When she got to my little house and we unfolded the sleeper sofa, Loretta crawled under the covers fully clothed. “Thank you,” she whispered right before her eyes closed. I watched her sleep for a while, her slow breaths ruffling the hair that hung down over her face. Finally I went to bed.
In the middle of the night, I was awakened by Loretta’s coughing. I turned on the living room lamp and went to the sofa. I put my arms around Loretta’s rail-thin frame and she clung to me. “It’s okay, I’m going to look after you,” I promised. “You’ll be better in no time.” Stroking her hair until she was calm, I realized that though Loretta was 15 years old, she was still a lost little girl who needed someone to hold onto. It should be you, my heart said again, and this time the thought lingered.
That weekend I looked after Loretta round-the-clock, making her soup, seeing that she took her medicine. By the time she went back to her stepdad’s Monday morning, I was looking forward to some time alone. But when I came home from school that evening, the house seemed terribly empty.
Loretta soon recovered from her illness. Then one day after school she stumbled into my classroom, her knees about to buckle under her. “I took some new pills,” she croaked. She could barely keep her head up. Panic jabbed through me. What do I do? I rushed to the school office and got the vice principal.
When the drugs wore off, Loretta was fine but I was terrified. First, because I knew she was getting deeper into drugs. But mostly because I’d had to report to the vice principal what was responsible for her condition, and he assigned her to a disciplinary school for 60 days. Lord, I’m the only lifeline this kid has. What if she doesn’t trust me anymore? I couldn’t bear to think about her hurt and alone, sinking deeper into substance abuse, losing her way again after reaching out for my guidance. I called her that evening. “I’m so sorry, Loretta,” I blurted out. “I never meant for things to turn out this way.”
“It’s okay, Miss Fry, I know you were just trying to help me,” she said.
Loretta had fallen so far behind in class that she had to go to summer school, except she had no transportation to get there. This time I knew what I had to do. I asked her stepdad if she could stay with me so I could drive her to school. Reluctantly he agreed. It was a huge step, having Loretta live with me full-time, if only for the summer. I wanted everything to be just right, which meant finding a place with enough room for her. I went house hunting and took Loretta to see my favorite one. “What do you think?” I asked. She gazed around slowly, then looked at me, her eyes shining. “It feels like home,” she said. That was good enough for me. I signed the papers on the house the next week.
The first week of June Loretta moved in. She had all of her belongings in two large plastic bags—clothes, rock-and-roll posters, a boom box, a softball bat, stuffed animals, even an old box of Legos. I sat her down and made it clear she could not use drugs or alcohol while under my roof. “You can’t stay here if you do,” I said. “Those are the rules.”
It was a struggle for Loretta to break free from drugs and alcohol after using them to numb her pain for so long. She often woke me to tell me she’d had a nightmare. “That’s the past chasing you, honey,” I told her. “The more you feel safe and loved, the less it’ll haunt you.”
Gradually she started sleeping and eating better. Her pasty cheeks turned rosy. And most afternoons she went Rollerblading instead of lying on the sofa listening to the radio.
After summer school ended, Loretta’s stepdad allowed her to keep staying with me. Each day there seemed to be a new challenge. I still wasn’t used to having another human being completely dependent upon me. I’d pray over every little thing. Often some small problem would set Loretta off and she’d run to her room and slam the door. We spent many a night—me sitting on her bed or her sitting on mine—having heart-to-heart talks. My mother and I had talked about everything, and I wanted Loretta and me to have the same kind of relationship.
“What’s gotten into you?” my friends would ask me, incredulous. “You’re focusing your whole life on this girl.” It was true, and the more time and energy I invested in Loretta—the more emotion —the less scared I felt of getting close to her. I had become convinced that she must have been guided into my life and that I was meant to take care of her.
One night after dinner, Loretta forgot to clean up yet again. “How many times do I have to tell you, Loretta? Put your dishes in the sink!” She flew into one of her tantrums, the worst yet, and stormed off to her room. I followed, knowing something deeper was troubling her. Finally she admitted her stepfather used to throw things at her when she didn’t do the dishes.
Loretta looked up at me. “I never want to go back there again,” she whispered. I knelt in front of her. “Do you want me to ask for custody of you?” Her eyes lit up. “Yes,” she said hugging me tightly. “Yes, please, Miss Fry.”
“All right, Loretta, I will. But you’re going to have to stop calling me Miss Fry,” I said, laughing.
Her stepdad refused to give up custody, but I persisted, calling him every week. In the meantime, I tried to give Loretta all the attention my mom had given me. We went everywhere together—hiking, shopping, the movies. I arranged for her to see a counselor. Every night I helped her with her homework. It turned out she had dyslexia and had fallen into a pattern of giving up when an assignment seemed too difficult. “Being learning disabled doesn’t mean you can’t learn—just that you have to work harder. Don’t let circumstances rule you—run your own life,” I told her, remembering how my mom had encouraged me. Slowly Loretta’s grades improved.
Finally, in April of 1991, after Loretta had lived with me for nearly a year, her stepdad consented and gave me custody of her. By July what had already happened in my heart became official: Loretta was my daughter.
Loretta graduated high school and went to junior college, the first in her family to do so. Today she is 25 years old, has a full-time job, and lives in her own home about a half hour away from me. I see her often, and each time I do I marvel at how God brought us together and at how good it feels to give of myself without holding back, to love completely and unconditionally again. “If it wasn’t for you, Carolee, I wouldn’t be here,” Loretta sometimes tells me. I was right—Loretta needed someone. What I hadn’t realized was just how much I had needed someone too.
This story first appeared in the January 2001 issue of Guideposts magazine.