Shayla is attuned to everything going on around her. Precisely aware, for instance, of what her brother is getting away with, and whether it’s fair. But she doesn’t like to dwell on the past, whether 5 minutes or 5 years ago.

Her therapist has long tried to get her to talk more about “before” our family, but she’d rather play Clue and talk about friend drama.

So I was shocked when she decided for a “Personal Narrative” school assignment to write about a traumatic event from her earlier life.

There are maybe half a dozen incidents from “before” I’ve heard enough about to have a picture, however vague, of what happened, and one of them is “the earring episode.” I feel myself stalling, so I’ll just tell you. When she was maybe 4, another child or youth grabbed her pierced earrings and yanked them, out or off. The faded scars run down each earlobe from the center toward the bottom. Not all the way, but a clear reddish line. Her recollection, sometimes hazy now, is that the attack happened when she and her brother were in a foster home, where another child there wanted them, and took them. She didn’t get them back, and doesn’t think there were consequences for the other kid, whose name she doesn’t remember.

I’ve never understood why there wasn’t a report on it, but she and her brother didn’t get a very good deal from this foster home; he fractured his ankle and, while he got a cast, there wasn’t much paperwork on that either.

In the way perhaps only a fourth grader can, my daughter decided to write about this trauma only after first considering a narrative about tasting her first raspberry. With two pages of detail including a climax and resolution, I was concerned the fruit story might not go that far. (She admitted she couldn’t actually remember the first raspberry she ate.) But I was worried how she might feel about writing up, and sharing, a story like this.

“Oh, I tell people about it,” she reassured me calmly. Huh.

So she fills out her form.

Title: My ear.
A memorable, unforgettable, important event in your life: My earring getting ripped out.
Moment(s) in time: 1-2 minutes
Emotions you were feeling: Pain, fear, sad, angry, brave, scared.
Surprising beginning question: Have you ever gotten something really important taken from you?


As she works on her form, when she gets stuck I prompt her, as I generally do with homework. What happened then? Were you upstairs or downstairs? General stuff like that. I’m on pins and needles, waiting for a big reaction from her. I talk to her, timidly, about what it’s like to write about a big event that has a lot of feeling. The power of sharing. But she’s in the assignment zone, and is focused on getting this down, the same way she works through a math word problem.

She comes to the moral or theme of the story. That’s easy, she tells me. She writes, “I won’t wear earrings anymore.” She’s pleased to be near the end of the assignment.

“Oh sweetie, this story makes me so sad,” I say.

“The worst day of my life was losing my mom,” she says calmly. “This was the second-worst day.” She’s stating a fact.

I have her share this with her Papa, who tears up as he reads it. “I wish I’d been there to protect you,” he tells her.

She seems pleased, but maybe no more pleased than finishing any other task she wants to be finished with. Still, as she puts together her papers, her trombone, all the necessities for school, she seems cheery and light. Could writing this down help her even if she pretends it’s not a big deal?

If there’s any justice, it will do just that.