You get to know who you really are in a crisis. This I know for sure. As I write this, I'm in the center of a full-blown, class A, devastating situation—having just gotten an e-mail informing me that the police in South Africa have picked up and are waiting to charge a dorm matron at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.
What a difference a year makes.
This was not part of the dream I had for the school. My number one priority since long before the school opened has been protecting the girls. High-tech security systems, electric fencing, security guards posted at every dorm. Knowing full well that any system is only as good as the people running it, I was still stunned to get a call from Academy CEO John Samuel telling me he had suspended a dorm matron on suspicion of sexual abuse.
He said he didn't have all the facts but that 15 girls had come as a group to register their complaints about mistreatment, favoritism, arbitrary punishments, a random demerit system that nobody understood—and, oh yes, they also thought there was something strange and controlling going on between a dorm matron and one of the girls.
Many years ago, Betty Rollin wrote a book about breast cancer called First, You Cry. That rule must apply to other crises, too, because that's exactly what I did, pacing from room to room in heaving sobs. It felt like my heart was splitting. There was a crew of 34 people waiting downstairs for a daylong O, The Oprah Magazine cover shoot to begin.
I could not do the photo shoot. I had to cancel. Then I tried to concentrate on what to do next. What I know for sure: No abuser ever strikes just one child. My first thought was, How many girls have been affected?
I called Dr. Bruce D. Perry, founder of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston. He and I worked on a plan of action and later that week flew to South Africa. During this whole time, I remembered the lessons from Eckhart Tolle's book The Power of Now: Stay in the moment…don't project…deal with what's happening now. That's how I've been able to get through this while still taping six to eight shows a week. Every hour that I haven't been on the air, I've either been on the phone with the girls or working to build a new team of people to support the dream.
Indeed, since my initial sobbing breakdown, which lasted about 27 minutes, I've remained focused in the moment, steadily moving forward. First with an investigative team. Then with a psychological team to offer support for the girls. Now I'm building an educational team to start anew.
I received an encouraging note from a dear friend that said, among other things, "The times are what they are. They come with the territory."
A year ago I was writing here about my great hope for the school. That hope is stronger than ever. I know for sure there are tremendous challenges ahead—restructuring leadership at the school so the girls will have a greater voice in their own development, and rebuilding trust for them so they will have no fear of ever speaking up.
I received another note from a friend with this wise saying: "Every time a heart cracks…somewhere, something beautiful is being born."
I look forward to the rebirthing.
From the January 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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