Nothing much seems to have changed in Stockbridge, MA since back when I lived there almost two decades ago. The Red Lion Inn still stands strong with the comfortably worn Lion’s Den, the downstairs bar that I swear has not changed the carpet or décor since 1972.
There is the Stockbridge Pie. Deep inside the ancient cemetery is perhaps the only example of New Englanders being buried layered out not in rows but in a slowing filling in circle of concentric rings. The historical society yet maintains the Dutch house on the corner, the candle store yet sells candles that stink like Yankees and inherited money, and the botanical garden remains by the four corners outside of town and has occasional events leading up to the huge harvest plant sale.
One thing that is gone is the reform school I escaped from.
This was years ago, then the internet was still new and information not as plentiful. I had just graduated from [redacted] and was back home cooling my heals. Some friends had gone to graduate school, others law school, and several more had gone to Gotham in search of fame and cafe shop work. I had returned home and needed to make money, having exhausted my supply over the years preceding on various vices including books and food. I had exhausted so many avenues, sent out many a resume, and rarely made it past the phone screener. I had gone from the thrifty student who believed in academic thought, the arts, and deep conversations with people unlike me, to tossed back into the horrible world where no one gives a shit about you, your conversation, or the nuances of applying post modern identity lenses to explode the Grand Narrative of history in order to allow for the stories of under represented groups, sub-groups, and marginalized societies.
And then I got an interview with a school as a social studies teacher. Again, I could continue what I had started in college, to return to learning and ideas and keep pushing my abilities in order to perhaps one day fold myself back into academe, this time as a professor. The only car on the road our family had at the time was a rotting 1969 Cadillac my grandmother had left us when she died and I drove that car to my interview, in exactly the wrong direction I wanted to go.
New York was in the other direction. All my friends were already having internships turn in to jobs or were already past their “try out New York for six months” and had moved on to new adventures now out of my reach. Whatever fellowship I enjoyed in college was gone and I was again, alone.
The consolation was the autumn colours on the drive. The countryside was resplendent that year as I have not since seen it with yellows and deep reds exploding across the thick forests, copses, and closes. The school was outside of Stockbridge, but seemed close enough that I would be, at least in my mind, spending a lot of time at the Red Lion Inn, perhaps volunteering at the historical society, perhaps meeting some new friends and perhaps a lover or two. The school was housed in part in a huge mansion. As a student of history, I was not unfamiliar with the palaces and edifices of the new Rheinland of the Hudson Valley, the resorts of the Catskills, or the grand structures of Montauk and the north shore of Long Island back when that was a gentile escape from the hot streets of Gothem.
However, I did feel that this house was sick. Not the flaking paint, not the rough unkempt edges of a house on the cusp of ruin, I had seen many of those too and within them yet burned some interesting and creative rotting decadent descendants like of a Rokeby or Villa Valley or Wilderstein. This was the sickness of a house pressed into service as a school, but as I was fast to learn, not any ordinary school.
It was a reform school.
I was very disappointed by this revelation given to me in full detail only at the interview but very excited to be thrust into teaching at a private school that would allow for some semblance of collegiate colleagues and a modicum of college life albeit in a more responsible way as I would now be the one to grade the term papers and set deadlines.
A very high level overview was given about the complex systems intended to reform the school’s charges. I was assured that I need not learn it all at once. I was not up to such a challenge but I was desperate to work and start paying off the impending student loan payments that were ever looming closer. I had some scant experience. I had taught at summer programs at college, but that was because they paid better than being reunion minders or kitchen keepers, but these programs would not prepare me for working with troubled youth, some of whom were but a few years my junior. I was promised by my interviewers, a woman who I will call Ms. Peacock and a man named Professor Plum. Professor Plum was an older man (back when 35 was older) with a beard and some girth and a warm spirit that lit up the room and who would become my mentor and guide in this troubled and confusing place. He was my only real person I met there. The position was to be filled immediately, Ms Peacock said. The previous Social Studies teacher had vanished in the night or had joined a Jansenist sect or jumped in the river shouting “Lenore” before sinking under the dark waters or some such calamity. There was no one to provide the three or four classes they needed to fulfill the coming academic year, and that it was already coming to September, and would I be interested, and could I start next week. Process of elimination. I was the only one to actually follow through with the in-person interview… If I remember correctly, which after all these years, I may not.
I took the job. While it was not in the area it was a job, and I needed to start paying off my school debt. Not that, as it turned out, after they deducted room and board and taxes, that I had enough to live on… but that’s another blog post.
The following week, I arrived with a car full of my few belongings not in storage. I was shown to my quarters, a room in an apartment in a building that had been originally built for horses but now housed teachers. I was to share my lodging with Professor Plum who turned out to be a jovial man who was cracked jokes, drank hard, played guitar and knew everything there was to know about serial killers. A lot about serial killers. Almost too much, or is that it was just enough that when night fell, I pushed a very heavy object against the unlocked door, since as a rule, we were not allowed to lock anything, not even the door to our blessed sanctuary, our little room.
This fear of intruders was very much real since as one may imagine in an institution with no locks and many inmates wanting out, there was always the potential for a prowling teen to be lurking in the darkness or the early morning fog.
The colours quickly vanished and the trees were stripped in some autumnal deluge and winter set in at once. It became gray.
Mornings started early. We were to rouse the students from their slumber and assemble for a morning meeting where various issues were discussed, primarily to do with someone’s progress in their realization that they were a selfish shithead. These realizations could take some time, even the better part of the morning and ate into the time for my classes since the academic schedule was, not surprisingly, shortened in order to make room for the large group confessionals and various breakthroughs.
On some days my classes, such as they were, lasted for a scant 15-20 minutes. What a load of shit, the then me thought on an increasingly regular basis.
At least we teachers had a breakroom. This was a room filled to the brim with books all mustering away, old school books unfit for the worst library book sale or random bitty’s jumble sale. It had one easy chair and I took to this after our morning meeting when I could for a much needed few minute nap. Time to process the morning struggle to stay awake since I had been up at 5AM and was just sitting there and had perhaps gotten to bed well past midnight since the dorm I was in had to do all their “turn ins” – a system of punishment so Faustian and at the same time Kafkaesque as to perhaps requires a future and more in-depth expose just on this one method of group therapy or whateverthefuckinghellitwassupposedtobe.
I was assigned a duty. The boys dorm. The school had had a few legal issues over the years and the rank and file of supporters were dwindling as the 1960s and 1970s theories of Man died out or were proven by the more rational elements of Science and Common Fucking Sense to be untrue and even detrimental (watch Adam Curtis Century of the Self for an excellent summation of all this). There were several old rotting 1970s buildings left on the property. I amn’t sure what it is about the 1970s where so many of these cement boxes were built to “juxtapose” some grander edifice. There was some building that was greatly dilapidated used for classrooms. It was right out of the SOVIET Union. I believe it smelled like my time in Russia too minus the hookers and vodka of course. Two rotting hulks sat in the backyard of the mansion like some crashed spaceships out of Omni Magazine or that spookie art from Playboy 1968-1978 those ones where politicians were crawling out of large mouths or foisting large red and black erections on small beige women all war and madness and body hair. One of these SOVIET spaceships was used to house the boy childs and the other one kept the girl childs so their pee pees wouldn’t touch in the night. Those children who had improved their behavior, they had spaces reserved for them in the Big House, the grand palace where the founder and erstwhile Dear Leader stayed, in a suite of rooms of course, without any locks. I always wondered what exactly went on there….
My coworker was a man from Morocco named Reverend Green. He made great coffee and we needed it, we swilled it like porky piglets to keep us going to keep us for passed in this madhouse for sane… I don’t remember that he was a teacher, but what did it matter, I was also a building minder. Thankfully as the Nube I was not given night duty, having to sleep with a dirty mattress blocking the front door least one of our perverted little cherubs tried to spring wings in the night and run off madly through the woods to the safe houses of the cult of yoga-worshipers down the road (who hated our little institution and offered vegan food and safe passage, or was rumored by some other more devoted staff). I was in training I guess, but a very on-the-job sort. Ms. Peacock did explain a lot to me, but it was Professor Plum who took me under his wing as he was a strange character, both there and fully committed to this strange school and yet very matter-of-fact with me about how strange it all was and as we drank together in our little dorm like apartment in the house build for horses that I swear was still permeated with their froth and urine and not the sort that spills from racehorses but that from war horses, tinged with fear and anger. The professor would and I would wind down many a night guzzling as much of a 30 rack of some cheep smutz as we could handle all the while talking about education, recovery, the school gossip, and the old academic subjects of Leben and Kunst. While a professional drinker who had practiced for years and well in shape from my college years, I always had to tap out and leave him alone to finish the rest. This made the mornings worse and the foggy trudge to my station at the dorm to rouse the half-naked boys from their slumber and ready them for breakfast and our endless series of meetings was murderous with that slight tinge of a hangover. I was yet too young to know to save a beer or some glass or spirits in reserve, for the morning, when it is most needed.
Hour after hour, day after day went by in a confusing fog and my body no longer felt as if it belonged to me. I was entering a dreamtime and was worn down and daydreamed of sleep as a drowning man imagines land and that in a desert thinks and sees only water. As my shift allowed only every other weekend off, and my responsibilities often started before the sun was up and ended well past when the waning gibbous moon had set under the shroud of the Berkshires, I rarely if ever could make it to Stockbridge, to my safe house, the Red Lion Inn and the Lion’s Den where I could hear some music, drink something other than PBR, and hope to meet some young thing, not as young as my charges, but not in any way connected to the school I worked for.
Uncovering rules and more rules I was peeling the onion. The days pressed into weeks and as some strange fairy tale, I learned more of the Dear Leader, more secrets of the school, more horrors of what had been, whispers and dying traces of lost lives in the abandoned dorms and outbuildings I took to secretly exploring. I found notes and letters never sent, begging for forgiveness, asking to be returned to the world at large. Some were angry, others contrite, others written by desperate souls pleading with judges or parents or both to remand them to another facility, even jail. I found stashes of medicine, really hard drugs in bags all in envelopes with names on them, some of the names I recognized as current inmates or those who had taken flight in the past few weeks, but other names were lost to me. Some students were so memorable, the teachers still talked about them, I knew them, and now I was holding their prescribed but unopened pills…. I also found cash. Lot of cash. Hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of dollars back when that was a great deal of money for me. The school had the habit of confiscating cash from the inmates when there was some egregious breaking of the rules, and here was such pile of it in these rotting and leaking abandoned dorms…. Piles of drugs… Piles of cash… what could I do?
I was trapped in their cycle of frantic meetings, group sessions and never a moment to myself and yet isolated as if I were one of the inmates too. I was present for all their strange rituals and activities and in time, these started to make sense to me. I had wanted to leave at once, but I found out that my classes could allow for my students certain credits that would count towards a degree in the state, at any institution. I thought that I had to at least make a semester, and I did. In the dark. All alone, I could hear the barn door creaking above me and perhaps it was the wind, perhaps another student who had tossed his or herself out a window as they had the habit of doing of late. In so few weeks I was exposed to stories from students of abuse and maltreatment as I witnessed the creepy movements and activities of Dear Leader, a small man with a large charisma and I imagined even larger and stranger sexual appetite. So many things happened that were hard for me to process or react to, and to this day I cannot think or talk of that time, that now short time in my life, without becoming emotional, angry, and that person I was back then – frightened, alone, and tossed out of the only safety I had knows, that experience I had had in college.
I was monitoring the tag football game. It was late November. One of the students, a handsome boy with an exact but depressed twin, said to me, isn’t this like a movie? I mean, us at a boarding school in New England, we’re dressed in suits and playing football and it is just starting to snow.” It was indeed snowing, but those large flakes that never stick but fill the air as a frozen pillow fight. He was bright-faced and his Irish cheeks were reddened in the cold air and I half wanted to trade places with him since he was still young and optimistic, so full of hope, even here. However, I was me, and I was older than I wanted to be, and even if I had to return after college to washing dishes, that would be better than this life I was leading and the more the place made sense to me the less I knew I existed. I scribbled something in a notebook, as I did back then when I still believed these little thoughts may be brilliant.
I confessed at the last minute to Professor Plum that I was leaving.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be all right.” We hugged. Or didn’t. It was a long time ago, so details are changing and shifting as they do for all as we grow older and less wise. I would like to believe we hugged since I had grown to love this man, even if I placed a heavy dresser against the door every night…. just in case.
I packed my things into the car at once. It took perhaps less than an hour. People had been alerted, the whole place was in a tizzy, I was at once an outcast, a betrayer, a stooge of whatever forces were outside those gates. I climbed into my grandmother’s 1969 Cadillac and it took its final ride, the final flight out of the war zone it was destined to take (since my parent parked it out in the backyard and it had since sunk into the mud). I drove home. Parked the car where it is still rotting now, and got dropped off at the train to Gothem. It was New Year’s Eve. I had on cowboy boots, an old leather coat with a fir collar, and two leather suitcases. One was full of designer clothes that fit me but had once belonged to some rich inmate at the school, the other…. why that was full of what I found in those dorms.
You can’t break into Gothem with the clothes on your back.
I just happened to be in the area and though I should stop by. I’ve since learned a lot more from the internet about Dear Leader and his confounding school and its demise. I have learned about the survivor networks and so much more than I had even uncovered. I had a drink at the Red Lion Inn and thought of my little drive by. Even from the road I am frightened of the place. It was my one brush with what I believe is True Evil. And that kind of experience, money just can’t buy.