By Cary Chandler
On July 2, 1998, I was sent by my parents to The Family Foundation School- a “therapeutic boarding school” for “at-risk” teens in Hancock, NY. (www.thefamilyschool.com) This essay is about my first month living there. I have changed the names of people to protect their privacy.
Two nights before I am sent away my boyfriend and I vandalize the town Middle School. We pry open a window in the gym and move through the school, forging a trail of chaos. We write hateful messages on the dry erase boards in permanent marker, riffle through desks and break or pocket whatever we can find. School is out for the summer so there isn’t much left to take. When we are satisfied with our mischief, we steal an American flag from a classroom and burn it in the street.
I had received the phone call at my boyfriend's house:
“Cary, it's me,” my mother said on the other end of the line. “I want to take you to look at this school in New York and then after we'll go shopping.”
My mom handed me a pamphlet about the school a few weeks earlier: “You’ll love it,” she had said, as I read at the kitchen counter, “they have a really great art teacher.”
I had run away several days before and was sleeping at various friends houses— sometimes crawling out of their windows before their parents got up.
I am tired. I am so tired I sleep through my friends trying to break me out of my own house. I sleep through them yelling my name. They have a ladder up to my bedroom window on the third floor when my mom calls the cops. I sleep through the cops arriving, through my friends scattering.
The next morning I grab the backpack I always carry with me and get into the car with my mother and grandmother.
The car ride up is long, through miles and miles of cow country. I sleep through most of that too. I wake when the car turns off of the highway and bumps onto a dirt road, a narrow lane with trees and fields on either side.
Where the hell are we?
“Did you bring your toothbrush?” My mom suddenly asks without turning around.
What does it matter? It’s not like I’m staying.
We park and I step out onto a dusty parking lot. I see a blue and yellow sign facing me with stick figures holding hands, enclosed in a circle. Carved around the circle are the words: Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and Love.
Looking up at the building, I suddenly know my plan of taking art class all day and smoking cigarettes out back probably isn’t going to work. I let out my breath and follow my mother and grandmother up the stairs.
There are two men on the stairs fixing a broken railing. They look at me, and then at each other— I hear them snicker.
We enter the glass doors out of the sunlight and into the fluorescent whiteness of a doctor’s office— or insane asylum. A woman with short brown hair and sharp blue eyes approaches me in cold confidence and takes my hand, “Welcome to The Family School,” she turns to my mother, “you can get her things now.”
My senses become hyper-aware; everything starts to move quickly. My mother is going back to the car.
The woman is leading me through the office, into a hallway, into a room. The door closes behind us. Two girls about my age are waiting there. Somebody snaps my picture with a Polaroid.
“Take off your clothes.”
I just stare at her.
“Take off your clothes,” she insists again.
“What?” I do have a voice after all.
“Take…. off… your… clothes.”
It’s as if her words control my actions. My fight or flight response is broken. I can’t even protest. I unlace my worn, loved, Doc Marten 16-holes and take them off. I unbutton my black designer pants covered with zippers that don’t work, pull them to the floor and step out. I take off my sparkly gray tank top and red cardigan and stand there in my underwear. I am skinny. My head is shaved except for my bangs. The words NO FUTURE are tattooed amateurishly around my upper left arm in fresh black ink.
The woman pulls out the elastic on my underwear and looks inside. “Fine,” she says, the elastic snaps back. Then my mother comes to the door with a duffel bag.
“Cary I’m sorry,” she is sobbing. The two girls hand me school— appropriate clothes from the bag— I dress.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t know what else to do.” I am crying too, but can’t say anything. They give her my old clothes, but I stand there holding my boots.
“Give them to your mother,” they command, “give her the boots!” I throw them at her feet, and she is gone.
I am sixteen.
I later learned that my induction to The Family School— known as the “intake” process— was one of the easier ones. They had two girls to “buddy” me because my mom had informed the school that I may be difficult or become violent. Kids whose parents are completely terrified of them hire “escorts” (usually two strong guys but a woman will accompany them if the child being escorted is female). The escorts break into the child’s room, often while they is sleeping— sometimes in the middle of the night— and abducts them. The child is handcuffed and forced into the back of a car and then driven to the school.
These escorts earn several hundred dollars in cash per trip.
Two girls introduce themselves and begin sorting through my backpack. Anna is a short, cute, Asian girl, a bit on the chubby side. Christina is athletic, maybe Hispanic, with long dark wavy hair. Anna is in my “Family” and will be my “Buddy”. Everyone, I learn, is placed with a Buddy for the first three months at the school.
Practically everything in the bag is held up in question. Cigarettes, a lighter, a black rose my boyfriend had given me, headphones and a walkman, a peppermint Schnapps nip.
“Is this alcohol?” one asks in disbelief.
“Umm… yeah.” I answer in my pointing-out-the-obvious-tough-girl voice. Anna and Christina look at each other and place the nip in the “No” pile along with everything else.
When they finish going through my things the girls gather up everything and walk me into a bathroom where they give me a lice prevention treatment. I have to use the bathroom but there is no stall. They insist on staying in there with me.
“I can’t go with you here watching me,” I say. I pull up my pants.
We walk through the hallway of the tiny one-floor school and out the door that leads over to the common space building.
“Do you like to do drugs?” Christina asks.
“Yeah,” I emphasize the word, because I think I am so bad-ass.
Actually, I am about-to-pee-my-pants terrified.
The Family School stands on a hilly plot of land that spreads out over several acres. The school and the Family buildings are at the bottom of the hill; in front of them is a small pond. Behind and above them are the soccer fields and the dorm buildings which are plastic and plywood trailers. The trailer I slept in is the furthest away from the school, almost at the top of the hill. At the very top of the hill is the school chapel, beyond that are the woods.
The Family building is divided into six families— they added a seventh while I was there. Each “family unit” is set up with couches, chairs, and a rarely used television. The most time however, is spent at the tables.
The tables are all set up in a U shape. There is the head table at the bottom of the U where mostly staff or the “parents” of each “family” of kids sit. Students sit along the wings. The set up is designed specifically for “Table Topics”. Table Topics are at the heart of how The Family School runs. One student is called out to stand at the opening of the U, facing the staff table and all of the other seated students. Above the staff table on the wall are listed the Seven Deadly Sins, each in its own frame:
Pride. Envy. Gluttony. Lust. Anger. Greed. Sloth.
The student is then allowed to “take their inventory”: an admission of the action(s) which they were brought up for- and the naming of each of the sins which prompted them to do it. Then they can apologize. If the inventory is to everyone’s satisfaction, the student can sit back down and perhaps even be taken out of the corner or off of their “sanctioned” punishment, but usually this does not happen so easily. Hands are almost always raised and students and staff can berate the student: saying why they don’t believe them; that they are “full of shit” and a “liar” and a “drug addict” and an “alcoholic”. Then further action is decided by the group.
When I walk into the Family Five room the tables are the first thing I notice. And then I notice the boy sitting in a chair, facing the corner of the room, in his socks.
“Why is he sitting in the corner?”
Like a baby.
“He tried to run away,” says Anna.
We walk over to the couches and the reality of my situation hits me at last. I crumble into sobs, place my head in my arms and crouch, doubled over.
Everyday I wake up in the dorm in my bunk bed with the other eleven of the Family Five girls. I have gotten to know their personalities; who are senior students, who I’m not allowed be alone with. I have learned to use the toilet in front of them. We go to chapel every morning. We eat breakfast quickly without Table Topics and go over to the school building where we have classes. We break for lunch, Table Topics, and then go back to classes until five o’clock. Sometimes I go over to the school early with Anna to help set the tables in each family. At five o’clock all of the students form a circle in the main entrance in the school where one of the head staff members leads us all in Grace together. After dinner and Table Topics, we are herded off to evening chapel, and bed.
My first Table Topic happens at lunch. Lunch time is a time to deal with minor problems or issues that arise in the Family. I come to realize that it is also a time for some staff members to exercise their power over the students— just because they can.
“Cary,” Jon-the-staff-member says, after he is finished eating, “stand up.” He points.
I get up and walk to the head of the tables. They have cut off my bangs and are making me grow my hair in so now my head is becoming a spiky light brown fuzz ball. I am wearing the clothes that my mother sent up in the bag of things. Lame clothes, clothes I hate. I look at Jon. He is enormously tall and awkward with large features, somewhere in his late 30’s.
“So Cary,” he stares me down, “what do you think of The Family School, so far?”
“Come on, you can’t get in trouble for being honest. Just be honest.”
He waits. Everyone is watching me.
“I think you’re all full of shit.” My tough-girl-voice begins to break at the end.
Jon hesitates before speaking. “Okay,” he says, “thank you for your opinion. You can now sit in the corner for cursing. Take her shoes.”
I am in the corner— just weeks after arriving. I am also now upgraded from “Buddy” to “Shadow”. I can not go anywhere without my Shadow. Anna carries my shoes around for me. Any free time not in class I will be sitting in a chair facing the corner. I will eat all my meals in a chair in the corner. When I am ready to “take my inventory” I can come up to the table and tell the Family why I was wrong and apologize.
I stay in the corner for a long time.
It is July 29, I have been at The Family for a little less than a month— it’s my seventeenth birthday. I am still in the corner.
I wait outside of art class at 5:30 for Anna to escort me to Circle Up. I hold my shoes for her. She’s late. I can see everyone just a few yards away, circling. They start to say grace. Finally Anna comes. I hand her my shoes and we run to the group and then over to dinner.
During dinner a staff member comes in to announce that all the girls must go over to the gym. Anna and I and the rest of the Family Five girls go over and see every girl in the school filing into the gym and sitting on the floor. There are several female staff members there. We take a seat and wait for everyone else. When the gym is quiet, a huge terrifying red headed woman who I don’t know addresses us in a booming voice:
“Someone has vandalized the girls’ bathroom here in the school building.” She is irate.
Silently we blink back at her.
“Someone has snuck into the girls’ bathroom that we all use and has desecrated it- right under our noses. We have evidence that this happened in the time between Circle Up and dinner this evening.”
The red-headed giantess and some other female staff members have us all line up and take turns walking through the girls’ bathroom to see the damage for ourselves. They keep us surrounded. One staff member stands outside of the bathroom, one in the bathroom, arms folded across her chest, watching us, and one outside the bathroom door to watch us file back into the gym.
It is my turn to walk through. I walk in. I do not see any vandalism. I look around. The walls are white, the sinks are intact— everything is as it always is.
“There!” The woman points to the floor, “And there!” she cries. I follow her finger and see that there is soap on the floor. Someone has pushed the soap dispensers over and over again spilling pink gooey soap everywhere.
“Now try to open the stalls!” She shouts at us. I walk over to one of the bathroom stalls and push. It is locked from the inside. Someone has crawled underneath and has locked the bathroom stall from the inside.
This is what they call vandalism?
“Next!” Shouts the woman and we file on, out of the other door and back into the gym.
Once every girl has had a look and we are all sitting down again the red head addresses us: “Somebody here knows who did this.”
They are going to think it was me.
The Table Topic begins. A student raises her hand.
“Yes?” a staff member calls on her.
“Well,” she starts, “I think maybe it was the new girl over there.” All heads look around. “The one in the corner,” she continues, “I heard it’s her birthday today.”
They are all looking at me. Another hand goes up.
“Well, I know that if it was my birthday and I was in the corner, I would be really angry too.”
“Yes, good point,” says the red head, “Cary, why don’t you stand up”.
I stand in front of a hundred or more girls and staff.
“Where were you between circle up and dinner?” she inquires.
I swallow and clear my throat, “I was waiting for my Shadow to pick me up,” I say.
Anna raises her hand, “Umm… I was taking a test and I was late picking her up,” she admits.
I can’t believe it— betrayed by my own shadow.
“So,” says the red head, “you would have had time to vandalize the bathroom in between art class and circle up.”
“What?” Her eyes become slits.
“I mean,” I say in my most polite voice, “I didn’t do it.” I start to lose it, tears blur my eyes.
“Do you have any witnesses?”
“No. Well, only Alex, the art teacher.” The art teacher, the quiet Russian man, has gone home for the day. Tears slide out of my eyes.
“So you’re in the corner, it’s your birthday, you’re angry, and you have no witnesses. I see.”
Another hand goes up. It is a girl I recognize. She is tall and pretty and has a white-blond pony tail.
“Well, I just want to say that I was sitting in the chapel last night, praying,” she emphasizes, “and I sensed this evil presence behind me. So I looked around and it was her.” She flips her ponytail and looks at me. I think I hear a group gasp. “And,” she adds, “I was in English class with her and I saw her doodling on her notebook- and it was really dark, weird, doodles.”
You have got to be kidding me.
“I didn’t do it,” is all I can manage to say.
“If you didn’t do it,” someone says, “then why are you crying?”
I can’t answer. A hand goes up.
“Well maybe…” the new girl in Family Four says, “maybe she didn’t do it.”
Quiet. Then someone shouts, “Aren’t you new, too? Maybe you two are in it together!”
Someone tells the other new girl to stand up— she is interrogated.
Still, an hour later, neither the Family Four girl nor I will admit to the deed. Two male staff members enter the gym.
“Cary, will you come with us?”
I go out into the hall.
“Listen,” one of them says, “we just need to know if you did it, that’s all. You can tell us the truth.”
I’ve heard that one before.
The guys are young, they seem nice. I am shaking but say, “If I wanted to vandalize something it would have been worthwhile. It would have been the chapel or something.”
One of them sighs. “That’s what we thought.”
For a moment I feel believed— they will fix everything.
He sends me back in to the lion den anyway.
The next step of the staff is to try to break us physically. We are not to talk or utter a sound. We are made to run laps around the gym for another hour or two until somebody admits to the crime in the bathroom. I don’t.
They tell us to go up to our dorm rooms and get our toothbrushes. The hill is quiet— all the lights in the dorms are off. The rest of the school is in bed by now.
When we come back down and they have found buckets for us (not hard to come by at The Family). We are told to fill up the buckets with soap and water and to scrub the gym floor with our toothbrushes. We scrub on our knees while the staff pace between us. A girl in my family glares at me and hisses, “Why don’t you just come up for it!”
I just scrub and cry silently. Eventually they send us to bed.
It is lunch time Circle Up, a few months later. I am in the corner again— or still. The staff member who leads us in grace says, “I have an announcement.”
Two young girls, about ten years old, walk into the middle of the circle with folded hands, looking down. They are the grand daughter of the owners of the school, and her friend. The little blond grand daughter says, “We want to apologize because a couple of months ago when we were here visiting, we put soap all over the floor in the girls’ bathroom and locked the stall doors. We’re sorry.”
A general “thank you” mutters from the crowd. Grace is said and people start to walk away. As the circle disperses the short woman with the mean blue eyes marches swiftly past me and says, “Sorry about accusing you,” but she doesn’t look me in the face.
The incident is never mentioned again.
I attended The Family School for two and a half years. I wasn’t allowed to talk to my parents for six months and I didn’t see them for over a year. I was in the corner often and even banished to my own “Family” (“sub-Five”), isolated from the entire school. After many hours of physical work and emotional punishments I decided to follow the rules. I eventually found a spiritual path at the school and vowed to live a clean and sober life so I could go home. I graduated in December 2000 with a high school diploma.