C. Kapela © – Memoir Excerpt
Study hall was held in a small room towards the back of the complex. It appeared to have at one time been a small one bedroom suite when the facility was still a hotel. Now, its linoleum floor was aged and dirty. Through a crack in the door, I could make out a tiny bathroom in the back corner. There was one large window in the front of the room and two staff members to monitor. One sat near the bathroom, quietly reading the local newspaper. The other stood to guard the entrance. There were already seven girls seated in lawn chairs writing feverishly on makeshift desks made out of a stack of textbooks on their laps.
As I walked in, the heat was overwhelming. The room smelled like sweat and old food. On the floor near the window, a girl was laying on a stained old mattress, gripping her stomach. The staff saw me look at her and murmerred, “sick bed.” I nodded, not wanting to go near her, realizing that the smell of old food was actually the smell of vomit. There was a pan sitting next to the mattress in case she threw up again and couldn’t make it to the toilet.
I grabbed a lawn chair from the stack near the front of the room and was told to be seated. A staff member brought me three thick textbooks, a pile of lined paper, and a pen. “You have three hours,” she stated calmly, “You must write 5000 words before you can leave. If you are even one word short, you have to start again. Lunch will be served in study hall today and you will take your afternoon shower here as well. Please begin.” At that, she walked back to the front of the room and sat down. The room was completely silent.
I raised my hand for permission to speak. The staff nodded at me. “Maam,” I started quietly, “What are we supposed to write about?” She looked at me sternly and told me that it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that we wrote enough words and filled the paper from edge to edge.
I began writing as quickly as I could. I could feel the anger inside of me start to bubble to the surface and I desperately tried to channel it into my essay. At first, it didn’t seem like much of a punishment but after an hour of writing, my hand was cramping so badly that I didn’t know how I would possibly be able to finish. My clothing was soaked through with sweat and my back was sore from being hunched over the tiny stack of books. I struggled to continue, occasionally glancing up at the large clock that hung on the wall. It seemed like time was moving so slowly. I was barely over 1200 words. My handwriting had become slanted and nearly illegible, my sentences practically incoherent.
As I was starting a new line, the staff who had been guarding the door commanded us to all put our pencils down. Lunch had arrived. I was starving and exhausted, eagerly looking forward to a break from the writing. She passed each of us a foam carryout box and a small cup of the same juice from breakfast. I noticed the other girls opening their boxes and tearing the corner off of the lid to use as a makeshift spoon. We weren’t allowed to have silverware while in study hall so I did the same. I had a large helping of cold boiled cabbage and two small dumplings. The juice was warmer than my food. I struggled through my meal, slurping the cabbage from the box corner. The dumplings weren’t terrible, so I finished them completely. Even though the cabbage made me gag with every bite, I managed to finish most of it. I was so hungry that I probably would have eaten my pencil would I not have received a consequence for doing so.
Lunch was over before we knew it and we were back to writing. I felt slightly renewed after eating and tried even harder to write faster. My mind was flooded with statistics as to how quickly I would need to write and how many words per minute it would take to hit my goal. What had begun as an essay describing my lament and anger over my circumstances had quickly become a string of nonsense babbling, none of which made any sense. All that mattered to me was finishing.
One of the other girls in the room had finished her essay and brought it to the staff member at the front to count. We were to write the total number of words for each side of the paper at the top. She glanced it over, counted a few of the lines to ensure she wasn’t getting scammed, and then nodded in approval. It was so disheartening as she took the essay and tossed it immediately into the trash. As the girl was escorted back to her family, I longed to be finished. Even though our work was pointless and would never be read by another living soul, I still had to complete it and the clock on the wall was a constant reminder that I still had much time left to go.
After two more girls left, those of us remaining were asked to again put down our pencils. The staff explained that we would be taking our afternoon shower in the study hall bathroom as we were not allowed to return to the group until we had completely finished our essays. I was selected to go first. As the bathroom was inside, I prayed desperately that it would have hot water. Naively, I was actually looking forward to both the break from the writing and the chance to finally feel clean and shower alone.
As I undressed, a giant cockroach scampered along the edge of the tub from behind the flimsy curtain. Being from Michigan, I had never seen one before in my life and had to stifle a scream. I turned the knob and was met with a slow trickle of icy water. We didn’t have our shampoo or shower essentials, just a towel, so the shower was short. On the wall across from me, the cockroach just sat there, as though it was watching me. As I was turning off the water, feeling as though it couldn’t get worse, a large brown worm slid up from the drain and dragged itself against my foot. I will never forget that feeling – the cold slime, my heart racing, the sense that there were creatures in every nook and cranny of my new home. I was so glad when the shower was over and actually looked forward to returning to my makeshift desk.
Somehow, when my three hours were up, I had managed to finish my essay. I was tired and defeated as I brought it to the front. Just like before, the staff looked it over quickly and threw it in the trash. I wanted to grab it, to save the souvenir of my endless effort, but instead I compliantly followed the staff as she escorted me back to my family. My body was aching from being seated for so long and my stomach was churning with hunger and anxiety.
I was brought to the meal hall for the very end of dinner. I quickly grabbed my plate and sat down. Again, I had boiled cabbage and a small portion of dumplings, though this time they were fried. As I was one of the last to arrive, I quickly shoveled down my food. I had never liked cabbage before arriving at Tranquility Bay and the cold, stringy, unseasoned blob that appeared on every plate I ate was even worse. The heat and the constant stress and activity left me starving constantly, so the meager portions – no matter how unappetizing – had already become one of the only things I looked forward to. Though my hand was still in pain from writing for so long in study hall, I managed to take a few notes on the audio tape – this one, ironically, about how your food choices influenced your mental health – and was finished at the same time as the rest of my group.
The next few hours were a blur. We went back to school to continue our classwork. Martha and I again focused on the rules and consequences. She explained that if I wanted to get ahead, I was going to have to start “sharing” in group. If we didn’t talk about our deepest issues, we would never move up levels and subsequently never go home. She seemed to have softened a bit since the last time we had talked and she actually apologized for having gotten me into trouble. I knew that, had we been on the outside, she’d never have treated me like this. Six months into the program, however, most kids started doing what they were expected to, even at the expense of their peers. I forgave her and I could tell she felt relieved.
We were given an hour to read quietly or write letters home. I began a long letter to my parents begging them to pull me from the program. I explained that nothing was how any of us expected it to be. I wrote about the screaming I had heard, the horrible food, study hall, and all of the strict rules. I fought back tears as I wrote, some from sadness and most from anger. I couldn’t comprehend how my parents could leave me in such a place. I begged them to send me to rehab or to prison, knowing either option would at least allow me some human dignity. None of what we were experiencing here was allowed in jail. I threatened that I would never speak to them again unless they pulled me, desperately hoping that my letter would somehow get through to them and they would see what was really happening. I kept thinking about the things my parents had told me about the program before we left, how I would be swimming in the pool and lounging at the beach, how we’d have real therapy, and how they taught us about Jamaican culture. It was all a lie. Before I knew it, the hour was up. I hadn’t yet finished my letter, so I tucked it inside my journal and prepared for our next activity.
Our next class was called “Music.” We weren’t allowed to listen to any real music until we were on the upper levels, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. We all gathered in the classroom, joining with another family of girls. Everyone pulled pages out of their notebooks and journals. One by one, girls started singing. They sang the only songs they could remember from home. Some had beautiful voices and other girls begged them to sing again. Others did not, but all were welcome. It was our only chance for normalcy throughout the day, to feel connected with each other and our homes. You could tell who had been there the longest because they didn’t recognize the songs that some of the new girls were singing. I felt so sad realizing that I too was missing out on so much by being here. I didn’t sing with the group, just listened. The entire time I fought back tears, longing to be back in my home town, listening to real music with my friends.
After music hour, we again took our seats at our desks. As one of our components of “therapy” we were required to watch Emotional Growth videos. Like the audio tapes, we were supposed to take notes during each tape. The staff pulled out a faded VHS tape and put it in the VCR. The TV flickered as it started, immediately showing the age of the tape. It was an anti-smoking video that appeared to be from the late 80’s or early 90’s, judging by the side ponytails and pinned pants of the main characters. I tried to pay attention and take notes, but there didn’t seem to be anything of real value. I had already started smoking years ago, and now that I was here, I certainly couldn’t continue to do so. It didn’t offer any tips on quitting, just advice on how to turn down peer pressure and never get started in the first place. Had I seen the same tape back at home, I knew my friends and I would be laughing the entire time. Just thinking of it made me sad.
After the video, we had a half hour to write about what we had learned from the audio tapes and the videos. We had to describe in detail what specifically applied to our issues and how these tools were helping us to grow and get past them. I didn’t know what to write as I didn’t feel that I had learned anything. I had no products to sell, no cigarettes to smoke, and no choice in what I ate. I tried to find some meaning in all of it. I remember writing that I learned that smoking was something I needed to give up once I got out, that I needed to learn to promote the things I was passionate about, and that eating healthily would help me to be stronger mentally. Inside, I wanted to scream that all of this was bullshit, that I wasn’t learning anything, that no stupid audio tape or vintage video was going to solve the years of emotional abuse I had endured in my life. Instead, I quietly completed the assignment.
After this, we were assembled outside for another headcount and then quickly brought upstairs for bed. I finally had a “bed” of my own. I pulled the plywood board out of the wall and scrambled on top of it. We were required to change into our pajamas under the blanket. We couldn’t walk around without a bra on even if we wearing clothes, so once that was off we had to stay in bed. We had a few brief minutes to write in our journals before they shut off the lights.
That night, I drifted off into slumber with tears in my eyes, struggling to imagine how I would make it through such a long program. I didn’t want to think about turning eighteen even though it was so close. I was terrified that they would make me stay, somehow deny my right to leave. The thought of remaining here until I was 21 was too much for me. I slept restlessly, nightmares of being sent to OP or being beaten constantly waking me up. Somehow, I had survived my first day at Tranquility Bay, but I knew I had many, many more to go.