My first voice student was a girl named Katie. She was twelve years old, with stringy brown hair that reminded me of my own and a voice that wasn’t quite there. But I had hope, and I had the dreams of a new teacher.
I met her through the youth group I was co-leading during that time. She was quiet and hung to the back, which also reminded me of me. So when her mother asked if I could help her learn how to sing, I decided it could be a fun project. How hard could it be, right?
The plan was that we would go back to my apartment after youth group on Monday nights to have a lesson, and her mother would pick her up from there. I went through all of my vocal music, picking out different things I thought we could try out. At that point in my life, I had had both piano and cello students, but no vocal before.
Katie and I went back to my house the first night. I checked her range, because I was pretty sure that was the first thing I should do. She flipped through sheet music. We decided to try out “My Heart Will Go On.” It was the big hit song of the time. I let her sit on the bench next to me while I plucked out the notes. After we sang it through a few times, she stopped me.
“What happened to your arm?”
I stopped playing and looked down. No one had ever commented before. I was surprised she had even noticed.
“I was…sad,” I answered, unsure of how to explain it to a twelve year old.
She thought about that for a moment. “I’ve been sad.” Rolling up her sleeves, she held her arms out to me. They were more marked up than mine.
Panic flooded my head. What was I supposed to say? Did her mother know? Was this lesson counted under my mandated reporter status? What was I supposed to do?!?
Katie interrupted my rush of thought. “Why were you sad?”
I took a deep breath. I had to choose my words carefully. “I…My life was not what I wanted it to be. I was confused. Hurt.” I didn’t tell her I had been in the hospital when it happened. I didn’t tell her they couldn’t cure me, that I had had to cure myself. I didn’t tell her what I was getting over. I left those details out. She didn’t need to know.
“My dad died,” she replied. And once she started talking, she didn’t stop.
I ran my fingers up the scars on my own arms as she told me her story. Her dad had been epileptic. One day, they went to the store to get a few groceries. On their way home, he had a seizure behind the wheel. The car went off the road; it went down an incline and smashed into a tree. He never woke up from the seizure.
Katie was in the backseat.
She tried her hardest to wake him up once the car had come to a stop, shaking him by the shoulders and poking him in the chest. But his head was bleeding. He hadn’t had a seatbelt on; he never opened his eyes again.
“So,” she finished. “I guess…I think it was my fault.”
“Well, he was…and I was…I was okay.” She started to cry quietly.
Survivor’s guilt. “Katie, that’s good. That’s good that you were okay. You know that, right?”
She shrugged, sniffling as she stared into her lap. “I’d rather he was here than me. I wish I had died.”
“I’ll bet he would say just the same of you, if he was.”
Her brow wrinkled as she considered that.
“I’ll bet he loved you.”
She nodded. “He did. And I loved him. Very much.”
“Katie?” I whispered, closing the sheet music.
“He wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.” I laid my hand lightly on her arm, and she didn’t pull away. I traced the cuts that marked her skin. Some of them seemed fresher than others. “No matter what. I don’t think he’d want that.”
“You don’t know him.” She snatched her arm away from me, cradling it in her lap. “You didn’t. Know him. You never will.”
“But I know that a parent is supposed to love you, protect you. So he wouldn’t want to see you hurt.”
“How did you stop?” she asked, pointing at my arms.
I didn’t have an easy answer. I didn’t know how to explain why I stopped. “Because…” I paused and then started again. “Because I realized that it’s more important that I love myself than that I fit precisely into the world. I am important. I have a place.”
Katie stared right at me, tears streaming down her cheeks, but she said nothing.
“It didn’t matter what had been done to me; it didn’t matter what had happened in my past. I am not those things. I’m just me. And if I don’t love myself, who will? Does that make sense?”
She nodded silently.
“So…I guess what I’m trying to say is that your dad loved you, and he would want you to keep loving yourself, even though he isn’t here. It wasn’t your fault. What happened was not your fault.”
Her head was resting on my shoulder, her own shoulders shaking with quiet sobs.
“For real. You couldn’t have stopped what happened. And you shouldn’t have to carry it. It doesn’t make you a bad person. You are worthy of love; you deserve it. We all do.”
Katie sat up, pulling down the sleeve of her sweatshirt and using it to wipe the tears and snot from her face. I ran to the bathroom and grabbed her a box of Kleenex. “Do you love yourself?” she asked. “More now than when you…hurt yourself?”
“I do,” I whispered, and I realized that I actually thought it was true. “Knowing it wasn’t my fault was so, so important to me I think. To helping me to stop. Because it’s okay. To love yourself. It’s okay to stop. It’s okay to be…okay. But you have to want it, I think. You have to want to stop.”
After a minute, she asked, “Can we go back to singing now?”
Something occurred to me. “Wait one second.” Running out to the kitchen, I dug around in the junk drawer until I located a black Sharpie, and I brought it back to the music room.
“What’s that for?”
“Hold out your arms,” I ordered.
Cocking her head, Katie raised an eyebrow at me. “Why?”
“Just do it,” I prodded. She held out her arms. Uncapping the Sharpie, I took first her right arm and then her left and wrote the word LOVE on them, across the cuts, in fancy cursive. “Do you know what this means?” I put the cap back on the Sharpie.
She shook her head.
“This means that you love yourself more than you love…hurting yourself.” As an afterthought, I took the cap back off and held the marker out to her. “Would you write it on my arms for me? So we can match?” Solemnly, she took the marker from me and complied. Her hand shook slightly, but the word came out clean on both of my arms. When she gave me the marker back, I recapped it and set against the music stand of the organ. “You have to stop.” I touched her cuts again, and the word, love. “No matter what, he wouldn’t want this. He would want you to be okay. He would want you to love yourself.”
“He would want me to love myself,” she repeated.
The doorbell rang. She pulled on her coat and left my music room to meet her mom.
I got a phone call the next day from her mom. After she left my house, Katie talked to her mom about what she was feeling. Every Monday after that for a long time, she came back to my house for lessons and we would talk. As the Sharpie wore off, she asked me to write the words again. I asked her each week if she had cut anymore. But her cutting gradually dwindled off until she had stopped completely. Until she realized that it was okay to love herself.
One day she came to see me, and she had written the words herself. I knew then that she would be okay. And in the time after that, for the years that I knew her, she did not cut again.
Instead, she wrote love on her arms.