When most of us think of our school lunches, we remember gleefully unwrapping sandwiches and scones, always eating the biscuit first and barely giving the apple a glance as it made its way to the bottom of our school bags.
Karen Mills (63), now an Auckland grandmother, has different memories. She couldn’t eat her sandwiches one day – her father had beaten her mother while she was making them and they were speckled with blood.
It’s one harrowing memory among many.
While many would shudder to bring up such horrendous recollections, the mother-of-two and teacher of more than 30 years is using her own traumatic childhood to help other children in need.
Many people in her life would not know these stories, Karen reveals. But through her novel, she is now getting it off her chest.
Tasting Stars tells the story of 13-year-old Rose growing up in Otara in the 1960s – much like Karen did – who, despite a violent upbringing, manages to find joy and her place in the world.
Although a fictional book for adolescents and young adults, for Karen, the premise of the book was her awful reality. Her childhood was so violent, she left home at 14 with nothing but the clothes on her back.
And while she managed to land on her feet thanks to the support of her teachers, she believes some children can never move on from the abuse they suffered.
“As a teacher, a mum and as a compassionate person, I just thought the time is now to tell my story. I am 63 years of age and we have come no further from when I was an abused little child,” she says.
Karen is talking about the shocking statistics that plague New Zealand regarding families affected by child abuse. Last year, police investigated more than 118,000 incidents of family violence.
“I can’t fix the problem, but I can write from a child’s perspective. That’s what we don’t see,” she continues.
Karen was the eldest of six children. When she was still young, she learned from an aunt that the man she thought was her father, in fact was not. The horrific abuse she suffered since she was a toddler began to make sense.
“He hated me because I was someone else’s child,” she recalls, “but he was awful to everyone, especially my mother.
“He got all of us up in the middle of the night once he’d come home drunk from the pub and make us stand to attention in the kitchen like soldiers.
“When I was four, my earliest recollection was when my father was hammering some nails in on the farm and I was rocking my sister in the pram. My father kept banging the nails in crooked, then he turned to me with a loathing stare and he fired the hammer at me. I’ve still got a ding on my forehead from it,” she says, pointing.
It was just one ordeal among many where Karen and her siblings would spend a lot of time often hiding out of fear. They would go to bed fully clothed in case they would be dragged from their rooms and kicked out of the house.
“You would know by the way his car came down the driveway and the gravel would pelt the garage door. You could never lock the door because he would just break it down,” she says of living in constant fear.
“We were kids in the middle, we had no power and couldn’t change it. But you taste stars – you look for the fun and joy wherever you can because it’s those moments that insulate you.”
For Karen, that was going to school. After a particularly violent episode, Karen was sent to live in the garage and it was then she decided to leave her home.
“A lot of the pain in my life comes from me not going back and knowing my younger siblings were still there. But I had to get out – I thought me not being there would help.”
Her school counsellor took her in for a few weeks before two teachers, Jim and Kay Tichener, gave Karen a safe home and cared for her as if she was their own. Tasting Stars is dedicated to these two heroes, she says proudly.
“I had my own desk and a lamp, and Jim would bring me in a cup of Milo and a bikkie. To me, that said, ‘I love you.’ All kids want is for someone to have their back.
“And it doesn’t matter who that person is. It doesn’t matter if it’s not your mum or your dad. Every little person deserves that.”
Karen’s life today couldn’t be further from her upbringing. With the help of the Ticheners, Karen fulfilled a dream of working with children and embarked on a successful career as a teacher. In an incredible move, she returned to the school she attended to teach children going through similar situations to her own.
And she has built the family life she could only dream of with her husband Graeme (53), daughters Dana (36), Abbey (34) and seven-month-old grandson Finn. Now she’s in a happier place, Karen is determined to help children left behind by abuse.
“Abused children feel worthless. They feel they are to blame, that it’s their fault. I think children and young people need to know it’s not their fault.
“They don’t need to be defined by it, that they can change their lives,” she says, defiantly. “If there is one little person I can reach with this story, I’ve done my job.”