‘You deserve better’: How a class on healthy relationships changed her life

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Kyleah Smith (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Kyleah Smith (Emma Lee/WHYY)

One in three American adolescents is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner. To 20-year-old Kyleah Smith, domestic violence felt normal — something that happened a lot. But a class helped her realize that healthy relationships are possible.

There I was, sitting in a class about healthy relationships. “Oh great,” I thought to myself.

The class in question was part of a program called STAR, which stands for Students Talking About Relationships. It’s an initiative of the nonprofit Women Against Abuse.

My school, El Centro de Estudiantes, was always making us take a lot of classes, like mindfulness and yoga. I thought this class would be just like that — not all that interesting to me.

“I don’t need this class,” I thought.

My relationship was fine, I was sure. Our fights seemed normal. Sometimes, my boyfriend would push me, but I thought nothing of it.

One day, in the class, the facilitators started asking if we knew the warning signs of an abusive relationship. That was intriguing to me, so I started to pay attention.

Christian Hayden was one of those facilitators. I visited him recently at his office in Center City. We talked about how I’ve changed from when he first met me.

“Do you remember the moment that kind of switched it for you? When the light kind of flipped on?” he asked me.

I do remember. It was after one of those classes, and I went home and we had a fight. It just clicked. I didn’t do anything for him to start hitting me.

I look at things differently now. Like the night on the couch at his mother’s place.

We were watching his favorite show, “Supernatural.” I wasn’t too intrigued, so I got on my phone to check Instagram. After about 10 minutes, I put my phone face down. He looked at me — really angry.

Then, my phone vibrated and flashed.

One, two, three, four times.

He picked it up. I wasn’t trying to hide anything, so I didn’t panic.

He unlocked my phone and read the message out loud.

“Hey, sexy. I like your pictures and I think you might be the woman of my dreams.”

“I don’t know who that is,” I said, “or why he’s messaging me.”

He threw my phone at my face, busting my lip. Then he climbed on top of me and wrapped his hands around my neck.

He said, “Lie to me, and my grip will get tighter. Who is this man?”

“I don’t know!”

I tried to shout, but he was cutting off my air.

His hands got so tight that I couldn’t feel my face. I started to get light-headed, and started to pass out.

He let go just in time, and I woke up. He looked at me, anger still in his eyes.

He grabbed me by my waist and threw me back into the living room. I’m about 134 pounds, so I really went flying across the room.

I kicked him between the legs with all I had. He fell to the floor. I don’t know where my strength came from, but I got up and ran out the door.

We went on like this for a while, and I hoped he would change. But that relationship class made me realize that my boyfriend was dangerous. The teachers were talking about scary things.

Sometimes, you get beaten, they said. Beaten really bad, and you end up in the hospital. Or, you could even die from a beating. I knew I didn’t want to die, because I have a daughter. So while I hoped he would change, I also started to understand that if he didn’t, I would have to leave.

My story is not uncommon. One in three adolescents in the U.S. is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner.

“You know, I had an eighth grader tell me one time that I was too late, because she had already gone through this, to talk to her,” Hayden told me. “It’s kind of heartbreaking, but at the same time, it’s why we do the work. We know young people are less likely to talk to adults about what’s going on.”

These days, I’m happy. My new boyfriend shows me what it’s like to be truly cared for and loved. He appreciates me and reminds me every day that he’ll never hurt me in any way.

I received a special gift from him on Valentine’s Day that I’ll never forget. It was a promise ring. His promise is to love me through my flaws, and my ups and downs. He lets me know how beautiful I am, and that he’ll never hurt me.

If there’s someone out there dealing with an abusive partner, I just want you to know that you don’t deserve that. It isn’t your fault. You deserve better. And if you don’t think you’re pretty enough for that guy or girl you like, look in the mirror. Take a good look at yourself. Find something you like about yourself and say your compliment to yourself out loud.

You were made perfect.

Kyleah Smith, Anne Hoffman, Katie Davis, and Sandy Fleurimond collaborated on this story for Philly Audio Diaries, a program that teaches young people how to tell stories and record their lives. Philly Audio Diaries is part of CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia. The program is made possible with support from The Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia and from The Philadelphia Foundation.

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