I Spent Six Bizarre Months in a Boarding School for Troubled Teens
As a "therapeutic school," you'd think King George's curriculum would involve some healthy combination of therapy and school. Unfortunately, it did not.
On my first day of high school at King George School, my tour guide, an uncomfortably enthusiastic sophomore, led me into the library (or "THE FUCKING LIBRARY" as it was labeled on the door) and we sat down at a table with another girl named Zoe. She informed me that, unfortunately, "The name Zoe is already taken" and from this point forward, I'd be referred to as "Claire," a mispronunciation of my last name. At 14, I was in no place to challenge her 16-year-old seniority, so I accepted. My two new friends quickly disappeared, presumably to give me some time to come to terms with my new identity. After a few minutes, an older redheaded boy came up to me and asked me what time it was. I started to say, "I don't know," and before I could even finish the sentence his penis was on my wrist, and he was humping away at my arm while shouting "party time!" These interactions served as my introduction to the glorious academic institution where I'd spend the next six months.
King George School, in Vermont, was advertised as an alternative "therapeutic" school for teenagers with emotional and behavioral problems. KGS distinguished itself from similar schools—according to the NATSP, there are 32 such schools in the United States—by focusing on art as a way to facilitate emotional growth. As most of these programs are privately owned and operated, there is no standard curriculum, making their effectiveness as a form of therapy difficult to measure. Considering these students are entering into the programs with such a range of problems, there are many confounding variables when it comes to outcome studies. When the first efficacy studies were performed in the 1950s, the results were overwhelmingly negative. Since then, methods of measuring behavioral outcomes have thankfully gotten better and according to a study conducted in 2002, there was a marked improvement in the students' behavior after completion of a residential treatment program. My own experience, as you might have guessed from my welcome in the library, was less than ideal.
So why was I there, exactly? "Well, I got depressed, stopped going to school. Then I like... went crazy, had to go to a psych ward, somehow ended up in a wilderness program... and now I'm here! You?" I said it so many times, I had it memorized; void of all emotion, as if it were my Torah portion. My minimalist answer was enough to satiate the curiosity of my fellow students, who were much more interested in discussing their sexcapades or venting about their insane step-parents.
The actual story of how I ended up at a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont is far less straightforward. My father died when I was two and when I was 13, his dad died. I wasn't particularly close with my paternal grandfather but the loss was enough to toss me into a pretty dark spiral of unresolved daddy issues. I was quickly put on antidepressants because it was 2003 and Zoloft was in. At first, the SSRIs seemed fantastic. I wasn't depressed. I was better than ever! We soon learned this was because Zoloft had triggered my latent bipolar disorder and I was feeling better than ever because I was manic. So, two months later, after throwing a pen at a classmate's neck and suffering from a brief hallucinatory episode, it was decided that Zoloft wasn't working out, and in order to get off my medication "quickly and safely," I needed to be admitted into a psych ward.
I was discharged after two weeks, and placed on new medication. Life was seemingly stable for a bit. I went to camp that summer and won "The Most Improved Camper" award, which even at 13 seemed like a backhanded compliment. Then summer was over and I didn't want to go back to school, so I just didn't. I'd barricade myself in my room and spend 14 hours a day pretending to be an eighteen-year-old Hispanic Gap model named Stephanie on chat rooms. Needless to say, things weren't great and something had to change. My mother, along with a ragtag team of psychiatrists and therapists, thought the one-two punch of a wilderness program followed by an "emotional growth" boarding school would do the trick. I obviously wasn't thrilled by the prospect of being sent away, but I had completely given up on myself; I had reached a level of depression where I truthfully didn't care what happened to me. I was completely hopeless.
At the tender age of 14, it wasn't easy for me to adjust to life at KGS. I was younger than most of the students and markedly less experienced, sexually and otherwise. I vividly recall walking in on two of my friends demonstrating blowjob techniques on a Silly Putty-coated knitting needle and, while this experience was certainly informative, I was horrified. I didn't even have boobs yet, let alone any previous exposure to "knitting needles."
I remember the first time someone said to me "you seem kind of normal," I freaked out. "I AM NOT NORMAL, DAN! MY DAD IS DEAD... I TOLD STRANGERS MY NAME WAS STEPHANIE!" But he was right, I kind of was normal, and that made me different. For one thing, I knowingly entered KGS, unlike many who were "escorted" there by strangers who picked them up in their homes at night. I didn't have anger problems or drug abuse tendencies, and my difficulties with my mother weren't too far out of the range for a standard teenage girl.
Feeling left out was a familiar feeling as I had spent the first years of my education at a New York City prep school. It fact, the anxiety I felt from not fitting in at my old school no doubt contributed to my landing at KGS, but I didn't find it any easier to make friends in my new surroundings.
I didn't get much of an education at KGS either. The teachers did their best given the broken structure of the school, but when you put a 14-year-old with middle school math skills is in an economics class with a high school senior, there is only so much even a good teacher can do. In one class I remember watching David Blaine: Street Magic for the third time and thinking that even the teachers had given up. Luckily for the parents, the administration became pretty excellent at maintaining the facade of giving a shit—but for $5,300 dollars a month, the least they could do was pretend.
The therapy was just as individualized as the academics—which is to say, not at all. I had one-on-one therapy twice a week, until my therapist was laid off and then it was once a week. We occasionally had group sessions but the only one that sticks out in my mind was the five-hour meeting when a group of boys unleashed a bunch of chickens in the girls' bathroom. The purpose of the meeting was primarily to find the culprits, not to initiate any sort of productive conversation. There were "workshops" built in to the curriculum that consisted of us missing classes for a day to eat pizza, do trust falls, and talk about our "mistakes" that landed us at KGS. The groups were determined by when we were enrolled, not our specific reason for being there. I gained some much-needed perspective because of the intimate exposure to the range of the other students' problems, from abuse of hard drugs to a boy who thought shitting on his principal's desk was a completely appropriate way to express himself. However, even then I wondered if their cookie-cutter method of therapy had any chance of being effective given the diverse issues we were facing.
King George School eventually went bankrupt, a common outcome for those sorts of boarding schools, which are expensive to maintain, and, since they don't receive much in the way of public funding, charge parents through the nose. The place was rife with financial mismanagement—I remember not long after my therapist was let go, the principal bought a new golf cart. In fact, the school nearly went bankrupt while I was enrolled there. That was my worst day. The principal called a meeting to inform us we'd have to leave soon. She assured us that it'd only be temporary, but as many of the students were transfers from other bankrupt therapeutic schools, we weren't optimistic. It became clear that the real answer to the "why are you here?" question was that there was nowhere else for us to go.
Luckily for me, I didn't have much time left. After my six months at KGS, I went to a standard (OK, Quaker) boarding school, attended Oberlin College (where I was exposed to a different, vaguely more healthy brand of "crazy kid"), and eventually saw a Silly Putty–coated knitting needle on purpose.
Through high school and most of college, I kept my time at KGS a secret. I was ashamed that my adolescent self had gotten so out of hand I had to be "sent away." Over the past few years that feeling of shame is slowly being replaced with general uneasiness regarding my experience at KGS and the events leading up to it. I can see the problems I had with KGS as an extension of the problems I have with how mental health is managed and treated in America. The breadth of problems the student body had isn't a reflection of a poorly organized school but of a society that has no structures in place to help kids with mental health issues (otherwise known as "health issues"). I'm still coming to terms with the experience, and frankly, I still associate a fair bit of shame with my time there.
I wish there were programs in place for kids like me, teenagers who are lost with nowhere to go after being failed by numerous healthcare professionals and academic institutions. No one, let alone a child, should ever feel hopeless or out of options. And no one, especially a child, should get wrist-fucked before they're ready.