Once again, I was in the assistant principal’s office.

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked again.

Once again, I shrugged and looked away.

He was suspending me for the third time, for skipping classes.

It didn’t bother me at all. I’d learned to shut down my feelings anytime I needed to.

While you were growing up, during your first 18 years of life:

1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often ... swear at you, insult you, put you down or humiliate you? Or act in a way that made you afraid you might be physically hurt? If yes, enter 1.

2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often ... push, grab, slap or throw something at you? Or even hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured? If yes, enter 1.

Last weekend, I watched a documentary, “Paper Tigers,” about an alternative high school in Walla Walla, Wash., where the problem teens were sent. In the beginning was a scene of desks that had been thrown around in a classroom in a fit of rage.

None of the programs or curricula were working to reform these kids. They all scored high on the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) questionnaire.

3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever ... touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? Or try to or actually have oral, anal or vaginal sex with you? If yes, enter 1.

4. Did you often feel that ... no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? Or your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other or support each other? If yes, enter 1.

The ACEs study, done in the 1990s, revealed a troubling truth about what happens to children who grow up in unsafe environments and how it contributes to some of our society’s greatest challenges, such as violence, chronic health problems, drug and alcohol abuse, risky sex.

But the study also revealed a shining gem: all of the risk factors — behavioral as well as physiological — can be offset by the presence of one dependable and caring adult.

It doesn’t need to be the mother or the father. It doesn’t even need to be a close or distant relative.

That stable, caring adult can be a teacher.

6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced? If yes, enter 1.

8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or used street drugs? If yes, enter 1.

In Walla Walla, officials decided to make the school trauma informed. All the administration, counselors and teachers cared about and loved these troubled teens. Even the detention monitor they hired offered a listening and concerned heart to the students she watched over.

“Against the harsh reality of truancy, poor grades, emotional pain, and physical violence, answers begin to emerge,” the Paper Tigers website explains. “The answers do not come easily. Nor can one simply deduce a one-size-fits-all solution to a trauma-informed education. But there is no denying something both subtle and powerful at work between teacher and student alike: the quiet persistence of love.”

Several times while watching the film, memories of my high school experiences came and went: cursing at a teacher, sessions with the school psychiatrist, being lectured by the truancy officer.

And I wonder how different those years would have been if, as in Walla Walla, teachers and administration had not asked, “What’s wrong with you?” but rather, “What happened to you?”

Luanne Austin lives in Mount Sidney. Contact her at

RuralPen@aol.com, facebook.com/ruralpen or care of the DN-R.

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