Thursday, March 26, 2009

I have a dissenting opinion.

Little known fact: I went to a very exclusive all-girl's boarding school in Connecticut for my freshman and most of my sophomore year of high school. In December 2008 a student sued the school, Miss Porter's School, and the headmistress. Since the lawsuit was announced, many alumnae of the school have denounced the lawsuit: it's unwarranted, the student got what she deserved, it's not representative of their experiences at the school, the media are sensationalizing it, etc. I've read comments these "ancients" (MPS code for alumnae) have left on comment boards, posted on MySpace and FaceBook, and blogged about. I've been thinking about this since I first read about the lawsuit in December. I disagree with alot of the women with whom I attended school. I'm glad the student is suing MPS. I'm glad the student is suing the headmistress. I wish my parents would have done the same.
The situation has been re-worded dozens of times in the newspaper and online articles. Here's the gist: Student is living American Dream. Athlete, well liked, strong academically. She's elected to essentially be MPS's social chair. The position involves planning weekend activities, large seasonal events, and prom. The student suggested that MPS's prom be open to other schools. Many of the students disagreed with her, which opened the floodgates of catty tormenting for which teenaged girls are infamous. The student took Adderall and was called "retarded" by her peers. Mean texts were recieved, mean FaceBook comments were made. The student was so unnerved by all of this that she skipped class to avoid teasing and couldn't study, and cheated on a test. The student told the headmistress that she cheated on the test. During a three day suspension, MPS told the only college to which the student had applied early admission that the student was suspended for cheating. When the student returned to campus, the bullying was exponentially worse. The girl's parents filed suit against both MPS and the headmistress, alleging long term damage was inflicted on their daughter's academic career. The suit is asking for an unnamed damages, and for the student to have the chance to complete her studies and earn her high school diploma from MPS.
Here is my story: when I was 14 (and 13 and 12), I hated life. There was general teenage angst, but there were more specific things as well. I lived in a family with addiction and abuse problems, I was shockingly unattractive, I went to a tiny school where I had 2 friends and was tormented constantly, I was (I thought) super smart and not challenged at all. Let me clarify two things. When I say I was shockingly unattractive, I mean it. I had cystic acne that developed when I was in elementary school. My face and back and chest were constantly coated in huge, scarring pimples. Not blackheads or gross, easy to pop whiteheads, but acne that was cyst-like. It was like driveway gravel under my skin. It was hard. It scarred. The pimples would stay for weeks and become red and purple. I started going to the dermatologist when I was in third grade and was on various topical and oral antibiotics from the time I was about 9 until I was 18. This was not the normal, Marcia Brady type of pimple. Second, the teasing was unrelenting. I never went out to recess because I didn't want to be around anyone. Those two friends? One of them was only my friend after school. She mocked me during school, then we would ride bikes and play pick-up games of baseball after school. Yeah, kids are weird. When I got into MPS, it was the high point of my little life. I could get OUT of my house with the yelling and crying. I could go be a smart kid. I could meet new people. I could kick up my heels and shake the dust loose from my tiny town.
For most of the spring of 1996 (the year I would become a freshman) and definitely the summer, there was no doubt in my mind I had anorexia. I carried a little bit of "baby fat", but the real reason is plain to anyone who's watched Lifetime or Oprah: my body was changing, I couldn't control my family, I couldn't control the teasing, I couldn't control my acne, so I tried to control my corporal self. This was made MUCH easier by a medicine I was on for my acne, Accutane. This is the hydrogen bomb of acne medicine. It essentially saps everything dry; dry face, dry scalp, dry mouth, dry lips. The side effects include anal and/ or vaginal bleeding because your body can't lubricate itself. It has some way baaaad juju in it: women who are on it have to be on at least one kind of birth control because it causes very serious craniofacial birth defects. It also increases triglycerides in blood, which meant I had to be on a low fat diet. Ah, enabling. It's pretty amazing how accomodating people were to me since I was on this medicine. I refused to drink 1% milk: I HAVE TO WATCH HOW MUCH FAT I CONSUME. No butter, nothing fried, no cream-based anything, certainly no dessert...yeah, it became pretty easy to hide my disease. The night my parents drove me up to MPS, I had one banana and some Diet Coke the whole day. My mom actually brought it up to me in the car ride that she thought I had an eating disorder. Of course I had some flippant remark to deny it.
My first year at MPS was pretty par for the course, except for the fact that I had NO social skills. Funny, years of being mocked will do that to a kid, huh? I was a slightly above average student but found it hard to make GOOD friends. Everyone was always really, really nice to me though. The summer before I got there I, like all entering students (or "new girls", another addition to the MPS lexicon) was assigned an "old girl". An old girl is a senior who is your instant amiga. She guides you through your first year and is almost like a fairy godmother, giving her new girl hints and tricks about "traditions", another element to MPS. My old girl was everything you could want. (She also had horrible, horrible acne, and I can't help but wonder to this day if that's why we were paired together.) She was a tree hugger. She wore Birks and read Descartes. She wrote me letters that summer and decorated the envelopes with trippy ink and pastel sketches. She had a hot boyfriend. We went to dinner about once a month and she was a dream. I lived on a hall with other freshman girls and a J.A. A J.A. is like a cross between an RA and a counselor. Each hall had one. They were junior girls who lived with their junior roommates, but gave advice to the girls on the hall. Every hall in every dorm, except for senior dorms, had them. The girls on my hall were really friendly and nice. Everything about the superiority of a girls only environment is true, in my opionion. Despite still being on Accutane and still having scarring acne, no one ever singled me out or mocked me. I was comfortable in my own skin and never thought about what I looked like. There was one girl who stood out, in that "perfect storm" kind of way. She was also far away from home. She was bulimic and she cut herself. We kept diaries and would read them in her bed almost every night; mine about what I ate and the calorie count for each item, and hers for how many times she threw up. I hid sharp objects from her and would only give her her razor when she would shower. She would proudly show me her fresh cut marks when she got back. The school knew about this. She went to off campus therapy at least once a week, and saw the on campus counselor sometimes. In this weird camaraderie/ competitiveness, my anorexia and self hatred flourished. I remember staring at my naked self, stretched out in front of the bathroom mirror, and wishing for more "rib definition". Yeah, I made up that term and yeah, it means I could see my ribs, but wanted to see them more. That year I got my first inkling of the apathy of the MPS staff/ administrators. The girls on the hall knew I wasn't eating. They talked to me about. They cried to me about it. They wrote me letters about it. One fall afternoon, a girl who lived across the hall from me took me to see the school counselor. The counselor was out of her office, but the door was open. The girl left a note for the counselor to call her or me; we had stopped by and wanted to talk. The call never came.
My sophomore year was much more difficult. I really hit the wall academically. My freshman year, I had WONDERFUL teachers. I had the teachers I read about when ancients defend MPS. I had teachers who invited the class to their houses for dinner. Not one teacher, I had TWO teachers who did that. They were totally invested in my learning. In English, we read a Dickens novel I read in 8th grade, so the teacher let me read a different novel, but do similar assignments to what the other girls were doing. We met 4 times a week during his office hours to discuss it. I can't speak highly enough of the classes and teachers I had my first year. My sophomore year the classes were much more difficult. For someone who only knew success and was in a competitive environment, this was really hard for me. Getting Cs and Ds, and especially not understanding material that seemed to come so easily to my peers, broke me emotionally. The friends I had on my hall my first year were all in different dorms. Noticing my poor grades, my parents invested in a tutor and an educational psychiatrist. The educational psychiatrist diagnosed me as having executive functioning disorder, which means that I can't organize thoughts very well. Examples of how this affects my everyday life are that it's hard for me to pick out the topic sentence of a paragraph and I can't prioritize. The educational psychiatrist gave me some wonderful hints: color code my subjects, meet with teachers during their office hours, find the student guides that textbooks print and use those in addition to my primary textbook, and find one teacher or adult who was very organized, who I really admired, and meet with them regularly so they could go over my organization skills/ daily planner etc. I incorporated some of these hints into my daily life. Things still got, well, darker. My depression was so obvious it's almost satirical. I didn't socialize at all; I hid in my room with the lights out to avoid any social setting, even required non-class events like Morning Meeting and lectures (hmmm, sound anything like the student whose family is suing the school?). I became a huge slob. My clothes dropped where they fell from my body. I ate food that I left laying out, days after it had gone bad. I re-wore dirty clothes again and again. I spoke often of suicide. I started cutting myself. Each dorm had dorm parents who were supposed to be in charge of the girls; I know mine were aware that I was changing because they asked me time and again to clean up. My classes were not only harder, but my teachers, well, sucked. They may have been someone's Mr. (or Mrs.) Chips, but not mine. My math teacher was very young and several times missed class. I remember all the students writing their names on the board to prove they were there and leaving after waiting 15 minutes. Each time it happened, we were penalized as if we missed a class. My science teacher, quite honestly, had it out for me. On quizzes and homework, she would mark my answers wrong and mark other students' identical answers correct. She mocked me for answering incorrectly when I raised my hand. My Spanish teacher outright refused to help me incorporate my educational psychiatrist's advice into my homework or studying. She told me she wouldn't do it. All this time, I still had girls who I was friendly with, but no one was super duper best friends forever with me. Conversely, no one, not once, not ever, not a little bit, made fun of me or talked down to me in any way. My poor grades led me to be on academic probation, which meant I had to report to study hall in the library during my free period and attend supervised study hall from 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm 5 nights a week. I also had to meet with the dean of students once a week. It was during this time that some of the girls I was hanging out with (different from the girl who took me to the counselor my freshman year) noticed that I was speaking of suicide and told the school counselor. Nothing was done. One day, very shortly after they told the school counselor about me, I found a pack of matches on a side walk. I can't believe how effed in the head/ depressed I was, but I knew just what I wanted to do with them when I saw them. I went to my bathroom, cut the insides of my arms, lit matches and put the burning matches inside the new cuts. It was satisfying. I did this with two matches when I heard a knock on the door and the dorm mother calling my name. I opened the door and looked at her face. She asked what I was doing. I told her, "Lighting matches". It was such a relief. I knew I was in trouble and I knew my time at MPS was almost over. It was lunchtime. I was immediately taken to the headmistress's office (The headmistress then is not the headmistress now). I asked to go to the bathroom and tried to hold back tears until I could cry like crazy in the bathroom. In a meeting, the academic dean and headmistress determined that I needed to "stand trial" before a the student governing body. I didn't tell anyone about the self-harm. I told them I was just lighting the matches to do it. I was put on the three day suspension, just like the student in the law suit. My parents were told I was on three day suspension. Since they lived close to 400 miles away, their hands were tied as to what to do with me for three days. My father suggested that my parents reserve a room for me in the local hotel. The headmistress scoffed that that was unacceptable. I spent the first night in the infirmary and my parents came up the second day to get me. That morning they met with the headmistress and the academic dean to discuss my future at MPS. My mother mentioned that she and my father would order the student handbooks that went with my textbooks. This image is seared into my brain: the academic dean LAUGHED. She laughed at that idea. Like, she laughed out loud, because it caused her so much amusement. While I was at home for the remaining 2 days of my suspension, I attempted suicide. My mom told MPS and it was only then that she was told that just a few weeks before, some girls told the school counselor they were concerned with how much I was talking about suicide. MPS told my mother I could come back to school when a mental health professional diagnosed it was safe. The next day that my parents could get me an appointment, the LPC who saw me said I was "Ok" (Exact words) to go back. When my mom told that to MPS, they told her I was a liability and needed to stay home much longer. For over a month I was at home. I followed my syllabi, I took tests. I was tutored in my hometown for papers that I had to write. That sucky Spanish teacher? Told me I would have to retake the same Spanish class I took in 9th grade. Yeah, the passing work that I did all that fall and the first month of the spring semester wouldn't count. I went back to MPS for one week. It was the week before Spring Break, and my parents decided I could go back for a week, then come home for a week for Spring Break to see how things were. In that week I asked one of my teachers if she could be the person who helped me get organized. That teacher was my science teacher (was I a glutton for punishment or what? I just really, really wanted her to like me) and she told me that she didn't have time to help me. I met once that week with the same off campus psychiatrist my freshman roommate met with. I went to the same Spanish class I had my freshman year. That Friday morning I'd decided I had it. I couldn't do it any more. I was on anti-depressants and finally knew what happiness, or at least not gut chilling sadness, was. My parents were supposed to come pick me up for spring break on Saturday morning. I called some airline (you can SOOO tell this was before teh intertubes and 9/11/01) and bought a one way ticket over the phone. My dad gave me cash when I left Maryland and I told the airline I would pay for the ticket with cash once I got to the airport. I was packing up when the dean of students called me to check in on me. I told her I just bought a plane ticket and I was leaving. She called my parents, who came and got me that day. Thus ends the story.
I kept in touch with many of the girls but the friendships faded after a few months; I spoke on a regular basis to one of my roommates until we were freshman in college. Here is where my story and the current student's diverge: All of the students were kind to me. The worst I can say is that I was passing friends with some of them. No one singled me out. No one mocked me. On many levels, these intelligent, generous, thoughtful young women tried to help me. My parents and I were failed by peers of my parents, not of mine. The teachers who denied me help, the counselor who was told twice in two years that I needed her services and took no action, the administrators who told my parents several times that what my parents wanted for me was wrong: these people are completely incongruous to the wonderful souls whom ancients mention when defending the school. This institution promises a home away from home, and my parents made big financial sacrifices so I could attend. There were no systems or procedures to ensure my mental and academic best interests were attended to. My parents had to seek (and pay for) help elsewhere, and even that help was rebuffed by MPS. I'm so sorry that another young woman who was far away from home had to be hurt so badly at a place that's beatified in so many women's minds. I'm sorry that more than 10 years after I went there, the school seems to not take it's students mental health as seriously as it should. I'm glad the school is being sued.
This is just my opinion. I know many women truly did find a home away from home. I don't want to take away from their stories, their experiences, their legacies. They have every right to vocally defend an alma mater. Good for them for doing so; it proves that the school does help to mold articulate women who can intelligently and proudly state their opinion, even if it's different from the opinions expressed in the Hartford Courant or the New York Times. I wish them all happiness and success. I love reading their blogs and status updates and new pictures they post. I just can't muster any MPS pride.

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