Memoir Excerpt – C. Kapela ©
Ms. B unlocked a white wooden shed filled with tennis shoes. Most were deteriorated and rotten from weathering too many humid summers. I saw my own and all I could think about was home. I rarely wore sneakers but had purchased these a month before. They were still pristine, having touched nothing but the department store floor. It seemed so absurd, the idea of new shoes juxtaposed with the half-deflated basketball that wilted beside them and the overwhelming stench of sweat and decay that wafted from the cabinet.
I wondered how many of the other shoes had once been new like mine and how long it took them to end up in such a state. As the girls scrambled around me excitedly to quickly change, I realized it wouldn’t take long. The deadness of their eyes was a reminder that every moment spent here was a minute too long. Soon I would share their faded look of compliance and defeat, overly excited by the smallest reminder of a life once lived, no matter how ugly.
For 30 minutes we walked silently around the dusty field, forbidden to speak. All I could think about was home and escape. I wanted to break free and run at top speed across the sand toward the thick mass of trees that stood just across the barbed wire fence. Instead, I kept my mouth closed and watched my feet as they made scuff marks in the sand. I remembered the girl who had been dragged away during head count. I would be eighteen in three months. Though it seemed so far away, I was determined to make it out without ever knowing what happened down that short flight of stairs.
It seemed like hours before we made it to the dining hall for breakfast. Again, we were forbidden to speak. Before we entered Martha explained to me that we had to eat at least 50% of our plate or we would get a major consequence. In addition, we had to take notes during our meal as they would be playing an educational audio tape that we would need to remember for a later assignment.
As we entered the room, we were quickly shuffled through a line to grab our meals. I headed to the end of the table where the vegetarian meals were lined up. I hadn’t eaten meat in nearly a year and my parents had vowed to let me remain a vegetarian during my stay. We had boiled cabbage and a strange looking mush that I had never seen before. Toward the front of the room, there were three large beverage dispensers. I grabbed my plate and bowl and poured a glass of something warm and slightly orange before taking a seat next to Martha.
The dining hall was sweltering. Within a few seconds of sitting down, the audio tape started playing. “The secret to financial success is understanding how to sell your product,” an excited voice shouted through the speakers. “If you understand this simple concept the possibilities are endless! You can be a millionaire too!” Everyone was writing feverishly and I joined them, struggling to keep up with what was being said or how it was relevant to a seventeen year old girl locked away in Jamaica. What product did I have to sell? Is this why I was here? I tried to focus on the tape and ignore the overwhelming panic that was rising up inside of me.
The food was luke-warm and bland. I shoveled down the boiled cabbage, gagging as I tried to swallow. It felt like seaweed, slimy and cold. I was starving but I could hardly bring myself to eat. The mush was “cornmeal porridge.” It tasted slightly sweet and a little salty. It had been sitting out too long and had started to turn into thick chunks that I struggled to consume. The orange liquid was a warm, watered down fruit punch that tasted slightly pungent and sour. Each sip reminded me of drinking from an old cup that had been left in the car for too long.
The upper levels and staff members were circling around the tables ensuring we were eating enough food. There was hardly enough food to satiate even a small child’s hunger, let alone a growing teenager, but I could still barely bring myself to eat half of it. I watched as a girl raised her hand to ask if she could have another plate since there were some left over. The main staff just snarled at her, telling her it was because of eating seconds that she was getting so fat. She sat down, her face defeated. An upper level laughed and grabbed the plate the other girl had been eyeing. I carefully divided half of each portion of food and forced myself to eat. A staff stood behind me, watching each bite.
The tape kept blaring. Occasionally it would crackle and skip and I could tell it had been played so many times it had little life left. I struggled to take notes, not knowing what I was supposed to be recording. I wrote as much as I could, nearly every line, fighting to see some sort of purpose in what I was hearing. It cut off suddenly in mid-sentence. Breakfast was over.
Like a well-oiled machine, we rushed to dispose of our trash and line-up single file by the main door. We passed our pens to the staff as they were not allowed outside of dining hall because they could be made into weapons. I felt lightheaded and dazed. Outside the doorway, there was a beautiful resort-style swimming pool. It seemed so out of place, a piece of normalcy and luxury in the midst of so much suffering. I couldn’t look at it without tears welling into my eyes so I focused on my feet instead. My mind was blank as we started walking to our next task. I didn’t even ask where we were going. It took every ounce of will-power to stay in line and follow.
We walked upstairs to the very top of the building. We entered a small classroom, each asking permission permission to cross as we passed through the door, quickly taking our seats in lawn chairs at long wooden tables. Martha sat beside me. One by one, the girls raised their hands for permission to stand and retrieve textbooks. A few pulled papers from a series of crates along the right side of the room. M raised her hand for permission to speak to me. The teacher nodded approval.
“This is school.” Martha explained. “You will get an ED plan soon. It will tell you what you will need to study so that you don’t get too far behind back home. It is a lot different than regular school. You will read a chapter at a time and then take a test.” She gestured towards the crates where the girls had pulled papers. “The teacher will grade them. Sometimes you can get help, but usually the teachers and staff haven’t studied the subjects either.” As though on cue, a girl raised her hand for help with her algebra. Despite her stern face, I could see sadness in the eyes of the teacher as she struggled to grasp the concepts laid out in the faded textbook. The books were all years old. I wondered if any of it would even transfer.
Martha continued talking. “Because it is your first day, we don’t have to do any school. Instead, I will help you with the rules and explain what they mean.” I pulled out my copy of the rule sheet and laid it on the desk. “There are six levels here. Right now, you’re a level one. I’m a level three. You have to reach level six before you go home. You get points for completing school work, from sharing in group, and for finishing the seminars. When you have enough points you can request to advance to the next level and if staff and the family approve, you move up. For each rule that you break, you lose points and your parents are fined the amount listed beside it. If you lose enough points, you’ll lose your level or receive a consequence.”
I struggled to focus and follow what was expected of us. It seemed so hard to gain points but so easy to lose them. Every few seconds, someone was being reprimanded for an infraction, usually for speaking without permission or not focusing on school work. Someone received a “rude facial gestures” for rolling her eyes when staff denied her request to stand.
Martha continued. “The rules are broken into categories. Category one is pretty simple. You have to raise your hand and ask permission to speak, move, cross, stand, or sit. As a level one, you’re only allowed to speak to levels three and above. You can tell who is a level three because we’re allowed to wear jewelry.” She gestured to her necklace. “Level one rules don’t have a specific consequence unless you get too many in a day. You just need to say “self-correct” and fill out a form explaining why you broke the rule.” She pulled out her own self-correct from from speaking in the shower area to show me. “If you self-correct, you lose less points and your parents are fined less money.”
“The higher level rules are different – you’ll either go to study hall or OP.” She continued, pointing to some of the other infractions which had at first seemed straight forward. “Don’t ever look at a boy, or you’ll receive a romantic encouragement. Don’t bite your nails, or you’ll receive a suicide attempt. Don’t look out the window, or you’ll receive run-away plans. And don’t ever, ever argue back. If you do, they’ll accuse you of being out of control and you’ll go straight to OP.”
I started to ask a question and Martha shot her hand up, shouting “Talking without permission!”
The teacher shot me a spiteful glance and jotted something in a notebook. I was too confused to respond so the teacher called out staff correction. I didn’t understand why Martha had gotten me into trouble or what was going to happen next. Martha leaned over to me and told me to raise my hand and ask for permission to speak before I could ask her any questions. I did as I was told, seething with anger, and was finally allowed to speak.
“Why did you do that?” I asked her bitterly. “You know that I don’t even understand what is happening.” She smiled, enraging me more.
“Chelsea,” she stated calmly, “If we don’t report each other for breaking rules, we go to Study Hall or worse. I have to tell staff or I get in trouble and I’m not going to lose level three just because you’re new. You don’t know how easy you’ve had it so far. Most girls go to OP on their first day. I fought staff during my cavity search and I had to go there. I didn’t want to take out my tongue ring, so they stabbed my gums with a fork until I opened my mouth. I spent three days laying on my face in OP. I don’t ever want to go there again, and neither do you. Just be glad all you’ve gotten so far is a TWOP and nothing worse.”
I looked at her angrily, tears welling up in my eyes. “I don’t belong here.” I exclaimed, “My parents are going to get me out of here. They don’t know what’s going on here. They’re going to help me. I’m going to call them later and tell them everything and they’ll come and get me. And if they don’t, I’ll never speak to them again. I’m turning 18 in May and I’ll leave then. I’m going to get out of here.” I was shaking as I said it, desperation welling up inside of me. Martha started to laugh.
“Chelsea, your parents know everything about this place and you definitely belong here. No one is coming to rescue you. It’s best that you realize this now. Your parents put you here and you have to stay until you graduate. It’s just the way it is. You’re not allowed any phone calls until you reach level three and that took me almost six months. You can send letters but the staff read them so be careful what you write. If you lie about anything or make it sound bad, you’ll have to go to OP for manipulation. And don’t think that turning 18 means you get to go home – they can make you stay here, or deny you a plane ticket home. So don’t even talk about that. Just follow the rules and try not to get into trouble. Everyone says they don’t belong here when they get here. Everyone cries and feels sorry for themselves. Just get over it.”