Monday, January 19, 2015

Sent away -- again (part II) .....

The driving distance from our house to the school was approximately six hours.  It took about half that time to fly, and by midday we'd landed in Waterville, Maine (population ~18,000).  From there, we drove a rental car to the school, which was located in North Vassalboro.  Though just 10 minutes outside the "city," it was an extremely rural area, home to numerous dairy farms and had a population of just over 2,600.

Having grown up first in a small city, then in a suburban community, I was upset to find myself in what I perceived to be the middle of nowhere.  The school, itself, was a disappointment.  Unlike the nice Canadian school I'd toured, this facility had an enormous main building, but it was shabby and in need of maintenance.  My assigned dorm room was large, but run-down, and from the moment I set foot on campus, I felt like I didn't belong.  I didn't want to be there, but it was what I'd chosen (based only on a directory description) and this was to be my prison "home" for the next nine months.

Oak Grove-Coburn School -- closed in 1989; now the site of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

My uncle and I met with the Head of School, who warmly welcomed me to school.  We then met the dorm's "house parents" who helped my uncle and I unload my meager possessions into my assigned room.  After a brief conversation, my uncle gave me $20, told me to behave, and then he left.

I was on my own, surrounded by strangers in an unfamiliar environment that I immediately disliked, and I already hated it.  Since the semester had started a few days earlier, I was a late arrival to school and an immediate curiosity.  Although a couple other students were new to the school, most of the boarders had known each other for several years.  As when I changed schools after my grandmother's death, I was again an outsider -- someone who talked and dressed differently, had an unusual musical hobby, and who was there against my will.

Based on the classes I'd taken previously, I was placed in Calculus, Physics and German V.  However, I wasn't academically ready for either the math or science class, and was immediately in over my head.  Because of its limited enrollment (16 people in the senior class), options were limited, and class sizes were small.  There were only three students in math and science -- and only one of us understood what was going on.  My German class consisted of just one other student and me; the German-born mother of one of the day students came in once a day to teach us.

I'd been a lackluster student before, and it wasn't any different at the boarding school.  Each school night we were expected to do homework in our rooms for a set period of time.  However, I quickly learned that no one came to check on us, so I routinely used that time to go exploring instead.  I wandered through the part of the building that was in use, but I also found ways to get into parts of the building that were closed off.  A favorite hiding spot was a small room I'd discovered which contained a piano.  I spent many evenings there, practicing classical music, mostly Mozart and Beethoven, and playing random choral music selections that I found on the shelves there.

My grades reflected my lack of preparedness, and my uncle let me know he wasn't pleased with my report cards.  However, he never threatened to pull me out, since neither he nor his wife wanted me back home.

In fact, they were so reluctant to have me around that I was only allowed to come home twice -- at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Long weekends were spent at school, and for Spring Break, they arranged to have me stay with the family of one of the day students.  When I did come home, it wasn't in my uncle's plane.  Instead, they sent just enough money for a Greyhound ticket, and that's how I traveled.  

"Take Greyhound and leave the driving to us!"

As I mentioned, the door-to-door travel time was approximately six hours by car.  By bus, it was at least two to three times as long, and I made that journey as an unescorted 15-year-old.  It was, arguably, a simpler time, but it doesn't seem safe to have a teenage girl travel alone for that length of time, especially among potentially "shady" fellow passengers.  However, apparently no one was concerned and, fortunately, I never encountered any problems along the routes.

Along with exploring off-limits parts of the school, I also explored the private rooms of my fellow dorm residents.  Without permission.

I am not proud of this, but share in the spirit of honesty.  At home, I had a history of shoplifting, and had a few times gone into neighbors' homes while they were away.  My uncle and his wife were in some cases aware of my activities, and other times simply suspicious.  Although I hadn't had any formal involvement with the legal system, I had on one occasion been forced to return a stolen item to the local Woolworth's, tell the manager what I'd done, and apologize.  My aunt stood nearby, furious, and she fully supported the manager's decision barring me from the store for the rest of my teenage years.

My petty thievery continued at school.  I stole some small amounts of money and a few personal items.  The dorm mother did an unannounced room search while we were in class, found and confiscated these items -- but she could never prove I took the money.  During my evening walk-abouts, I learned how to break into the tiny school store and frequently took small items such as candy, school supplies, etc.  I felt justified in doing this, since it was like "getting back at" a place where I didn't want to be.  Also, my uncle refused to give me any more spending money -- the $20 was, I guess, supposed to last the entire year.  Since my pockets were empty, if I wanted something, I had to steal it.

Although I'm sure the school suspected I was the culprit, they never suggested -- or found any evidence -- that I was behind the thefts, as I'd discovered an excellent hiding place for my "loot."  I did get in trouble for stealing something else -- the specifics are lost to me now -- and, naturally, my uncle was contacted.

Needless to say, he was NOT happy.