If you walked past my classroom, you could smell it from the doorway. In fact, you could smell it from slightly down the hall, past my students’ cubbies, almost to the 5th grade wing. The stench hung in the air, thick and putrid and inescapable. It would simultaneously rob you of breath and churn your stomach. I never got used to it.

And, from September to June, my students didn’t say a single word. They knew where that sickening smell was coming from.

It was coming from Chelsea.


Chelsea was a student in my 4th grade class. She was sweet. She cared deeply about fairness, and regularly offered to help any classmate, no matter how arduous the task. Chelsea didn’t say much, but she had a radiant smile and she worked diligently (if slowly) throughout the day. In fact, everything about her seemed to move at half speed. When she read aloud for me, it was labored but even. She moved slowly and quietly around the classroom, like she was playing a game of statues. It was as if she didn’t want to be seen taking up space.

Chelsea spent most of the day hunched over her desk, her shoulders permanently curled into a C. She didn’t get up to browse the classroom library, or get a drink of water. And she didn’t get up to use the bathroom, which is precisely what we were smelling. Chelsea reeked of urine and feces, all day, every day.

Chelsea didn’t have any close friends in class, and it certainly didn’t help that I cycled our class through seating chart after seating chart, so that nobody sat in close proximity for too long. One time, a kind boy — the “wouldn’t harm a flea” type of kid — was visibly gagging an hour into a new seating arrangement. We changed seats again.

At the beginning of the year, I’d tried to take this problem at face value. I’d ask Chelsea if she wants to use the bathroom.


I’d ask her if she wanted to go to the social worker’s office to change clothes.

“No. Thank you.”

I tried to make a plan with her about using the bathroom, getting her to agree to make attempts or to bring in extra clothes so that she didn’t have to use whatever was available in the office.

No, no, and no.

I was stumped.


I asked Chelsea’s mom about it. This had been a problem for years, so the conversation did not come as a surprise. In fact, Mom entered our meeting with poise, as if she’d had media training.

“Oh, she’s just not good at listening to her body when she has to go!” Mom responded, with a flip of her hair.

I was in my early 20s, and still developing the confidence to speak candidly with families. I think I sat, stunned. Wide eyes. Wordless.

Eventually: “okay. Well, I’m concerned that she seems to does not want to change her clothes afterwards.”

“Oh, of course!” Mom said with a light laugh. “Our family takes lots of road trips! She’s used to trying to hold it and hold it and then… she’s kind of stuck in it until we reach our destination.”

Eyes to the floor. I remember wanting to ask if they ever had a change of clothes for her. I wanted to ask if there was anything else going on. Chelsea is an enormously compassionate girl, who gives her full effort all day at school. She is the human embodiment of kindness and respect. There has to be a reason she sits in filth all day.

Mom was effusive in her praise of me, adeptly switching the topic of conversation. “Chelsea just loves you! She’s having a great year! Her reading is taking off!”

I smiled, unsteady.


I went to the social worker to explain my meeting with Chelsea’s mother. The social worker tugged lightly at my arm, and drew me towards her.

“Next time you meet with that family, I need to be there,” the social worker whispered sharply.

“I think it went okay…?” I lied. I did not feel good about the meeting at all. My worry for Chelsea gnawed at me, relentless and omnipresent, like the stench. My boyfriend noticed that I sometimes looked distant at dinner, furrowing my brow as I stared off into space. “It sounds like you’re doing everything you can do,” he’d assure me. A kiss on the forehead.

Meanwhile, I was haunted by the mother’s casual take on the problem. Road trips?

The social worker whispered again, snapping me back into the present moment. “You can’t meet with them alone. They’re a very… tricky family. There’s a history. Please.”

I nodded.


In class, Chelsea continued as usual. She smiled shyly at my terrible jokes, and laughed broadly when the boy sitting across from her made funny faces. She immediately got straight to work, and resisted all distractions. She was a model student! …but something felt terribly wrong.


We had a second meeting with Mom. The social worker kicked it off.

“Chelsea is a growing girl,” she started. “She’s on the older side, and will be hitting puberty.” Up until that moment, it hadn’t even occurred to me that Chelsea would be going through more changes, changes that can be scary for any child.

The social worker continued, calmly. “We need to make a better plan for getting Chelsea into clean clothes when she has an accident.”

“Oh, I’ll send in more clothes for that basket!” Mom chirped.

“Great,” the social worker smiled warmly. “That’s a great start. Right now, when Chelsea has an accident, she usually comes down and gets a sweatshirt, and wraps it around her waist to hide the stain. However, she’s still dirty. How do we convince Chelsea that she should get changed?”

Mom shook her head. “That I don’t know! She can be stubborn.”

I think I was silent for the entire meeting. I nodded my head to support the proposed plan of giving Chelsea incentives when she gets changed: one-on-one time at lunch with the social worker, getting a new book, some snacks, etc. Sure. Why not.


After I was certain that Chelsea’s mom had left the building, I turned to the social worker, and suggested we file a 51a report: a report of alleged child abuse or neglect.

“Let me handle this,” she sighed. “This family is very tricky.”

I mentioned the 51a to the principal. I was a mandated reporter, after all, and I suspected… something! Right? Something? My mind felt hazy. What was it that I suspected, exactly? I wasn’t certain. Chelsea’s high school aged sisters sometimes dropped by, and they were neat and fashionable, all willowy arms and skintight tank tops. The smell of Juicy Couture perfume trailed behind them. Chelsea hadn’t taken a bath all week, and the horrific accumulation of the stink was enough to make anyone lightheaded. Something was wrong, but I did not know what.

The principal shut the door behind me. Her eyes narrowed, and she seemed overly vigilant, keeping mental track of who passed by the closed window to her office. “Have you talked with the social worker about this?” She asked.

“Yes,” I said. “She said that I should let her handle it.”

“Then that’s what you should do. Don’t you trust her?”

“Of course!” Honestly, I did. I adored our social worker — and she was very, very good at her job. I continued: “But I think we should file. There’s just… there has to be something wrong.”

“This family has a tricky history,” the principal continued. There it was again. “Thanks for telling me. I don’t think we have reason to take further action right now. Please let me know the instant you have reason to believe something specific is happening.”

I shut the door behind me. Our school secretary, who was one of those all-knowing and under-appreciated secretaries you might see in a sitcom, spoke in low tones: “this isn’t the first time. We’ve tried before. They didn’t find anything.” She was always listening.


A few years later, I heard a family member was arrested.

Something had been very, very wrong.


I don’t think I slept much the night I found out about the arrest. It was easy to turn blame inward.

What if I had filed the report.

What if I had figured out a way to learn more about the situation.

What if.

I thought back to Chelsea, arched over her desk, her fisted hand slowly writing out the beginning of a story that, invariably, she would never find time to finish.

I felt profoundly like I had failed her, even though I had satisfied my legal obligation. (As a mandated reporter, I immediately notified my administrator. At that point, it became her responsibility to submit either a written or oral report.) I learned that the social worker and principal had filed on the family before, but nothing had come of it. There just wasn’t enough evidence.

Is the profound sense of failure I felt born from a savior complex? Did I think that I could have saved her? We were all doing our best with all of the information that we had.

…and sometimes people keep secrets.

Sometimes these secrets break us.


I am writing about Chelsea because she’s been on my mind. I am writing about Chelsea because I have been working to forgive myself, for years, and because I worry about the future Chelseas that I meet. I am writing because our systems of support seem authoritative and empowering, but in reality are fragile and broken. I am writing because I have watched these systems failmore than once.

I am writing because teachers everywhere are exhausted, and attempts to disrupt these broken systems can fall flat. There are many other stories I didn’t write about today. There are some stories I can’t write about today.

I pray that Chelsea has experienced healing and joy and love in the years since she was in my fourth grade class.

Helping Others

Teachers and caregivers should be familiar with the warning signs of sexual abuse in young children. This does not mean that we need to assume that these behaviors are always because of abuse — there are lots of reasons! — but, in hindsight, “Chelsea” exhibited many of the behavioral and emotional signs.

RAINN is the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the US. They have listed some warning signs on their website, and offer both a toll-free hotline and a live chat feature on their website to talk.

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