My Journey To Gorky in Three Parts

This Sunday, it will have been one year since a Graham House counselor tried to expel me from school. What follows is neither satire nor parody nor hyperbole: it is a true narrative of a flawed system where one person can have too much power; of its indifferent administrators who refused to intervene; and of their effects on my family’s lives. In my eleventh grade year my boyfriend and I declared each other as our “first love[s].” We had had a rocky relationship, breaking up and reuniting several times within the seven months that we dated, but we always assumed that we would be together in the long run, even occasionally lightheartedly discussing marriage. On Monday, April 28, 2002, my boyfriend told me that he was abruptly and inexplicably withdrawing from school, leaving the very next day. I was extremely upset about his seemingly irrational—and somehow unfair—decision to leave. My house counselor called a Graham House counselor, who could excuse me for missing the Economics lecture I was supposed to attend shortly after he broke the news. I had met with this psychologist several times before when I had previously been having difficulties with my boyfriend, but I had stopped seeing her because I found our sessions unhelpful. At my house counselor’s direction, I met with the psychologist briefly that evening and several times over the next week. The psychologist and I mostly talked about how upset I was that I was getting behind in my studies. I had perfect SAT scores and since freshman year had been at the top of my class; she told me that since I had already established myself as a responsible student, if I needed teachers to “be understanding” about test/paper extensions, I could call her or visit Isham. When, one week after my boyfriend left, I attempted to end a session early, telling the counselor that I found our talks unconstructive and that my time would be better spent doing the work that I whined to her about, she seemed offended. When I walked to the door, she grabbed my arms from behind and pushed me back down on the couch. Terrified, I began to cry. After about 15 minutes of spotty silence, she allowed me to go. From then on, the Graham House counselor was no longer my friend. On the evening of the following day, I proved that every Cum Laude student has an idiotic teenager inside: I spoke to my boyfriend on the phone until 3 a.m. We talked about some disturbing family issues of his that had been unknown to me and about breaking up (again). When I hung up, I was upset, and, what’s more, I had a history test first period. Rather than stay up all night studying, I decided to get some much-needed sleep, head to Isham in the morning on the psychologist’s earlier recommendation, and make up the test in the afternoon. I checked into Isham at 7:30 a.m.; a nurse asked me if I had attempted to injure myself in any way, and I reported that I had not. I went upstairs to rest until the psychologist arrived to discharge me, which I was told would be “soon.” In reality, she did not arrive until 6 p.m., after I had missed a full day of classes. When she began to talk to me, I was fuming at having been kept waiting. I brattily refused to answer her questions. She asked me if I could “guarantee [my] own safety,” and I did not respond. She told me that if I didn’t talk to her, she would have to “assume the worst.” Note: every Cum Laude student also has a rebellious kindergartener inside; I finally barked back, “Yeah, well assume whatever you want.” The psychologist told the nurse I had to spend the night there and could leave when she discharged me first thing the next morning. I did Friday’s homework and went to sleep. On Friday, once again, she did not arrive until about 6 p.m., and I missed another full day of classes. Supplementing my cabin fever was the fact that my boyfriend was coming that weekend to campus, and I was eager to see him. But the psychologist declared that I could not leave. Fueling her power with my sass from the night before, she smugly said that she had to “assume the worst,” the “worst” being that I might go out and kill myself (!). I argued that she was obviously being unreasonable. Anyone could see that I was, well, sane. I proposed that I see my boyfriend at my dorm while my house counselor chaperoned. Absolutely not! But how was staying in a cold, dark room reading old People magazines cheering me up about his absence? I asked. It just seemed so Kafkaesque—I had, apparently, galled her and so she was declaring me crazy. “This is the protocol I’ve decided to follow,” she announced. I burst into tears, threatening to call my parents. “Call away,” she said. “Your parents have no say in this.” My parents at this time were on their 25th wedding anniversary celebratory cruise; I called them in hysterics demanding that they “release” me. But since A) I was crying; B) they were thousands of miles away; and C) the nearby “medical” personnel were against it, they accepted her decision. I huffily slammed down the receiver. When the counselor left, I “escaped” by walking out the front door and returning to Johnson. (Some suicide watch!) I talked briefly with my house counselor, my closest faculty friend. Knowing that I was often cheeky but no alleged danger to myself, she offered to negotiate with the psychologist. She convinced the psychologist to let me see my boyfriend under her supervision so long as I spent a second night at Isham. My parents had also spoken to the Graham House counselor, who had raised their anxiety level so high that, against my protests, they decided to return the next day to see me. I saw my boyfriend and we laughed at my Churchillian breakout. I again spent the night at Isham. The next day, I went out with my dorm counselor to a track meet just before my parents arrived. Expecting an Ophelia wilting in the corner, they were relieved to find me in good spirits. We were about to go out for dinner when the Graham House counselor arrived and ambushed my parents. She curtly told them I had to leave school for “medical reasons” (though I had never been evaluated by a medical doctor) due to “suicidal behavior” (though she had never administered any of the many standard suicidality tests; though I had never hurt myself; and though I had never threatened to hurt myself). I was to leave campus immediately and not return until fall of 2003, when I would have already graduated high school elsewhere. The decision, we were told, was final.