Six years ago I started work at a therapeutic boarding school for teenage girls west of Whitefish at an old ranch. The place no longer exists due to financial hardships and poor management. It was a Christian place and while I didn’t completely subscribe to their doctrine, I did need a job and a place of refuge. At the time, I was unemployed and trying to resettle myself in the mountains after the loss of a relationship, a home in Bigfork, my sense of self, and my money. So, why not seek gainful employment at a place that’s trying to help wayward girls?
I first started as a teacher’s assistant but two days before school began, the head of the education department called to ask if I’d be interested in teaching American Literature. I had zero formal teaching experience and I told my boss this, but he said I had an English degree and that would suffice. Of course I agreed because I didn’t want to just sit behind a computer and enter grades all day — I wanted to channel Robin Williams’ character in “Dead Poets Society” (my all-time favorite movie. As a young girl I fantasized that they would remake the movie and I would be the lone girl they admitted into the prep school and with the help of my teachers and adorable male classmates, I’d become a famous writer) so without really knowing what I was agreeing to, I said yes to American Literature.
There was a textbook to teach from, but no curriculum or old lesson plans. I had to design the class myself. For a school that had strict rules about dress, behavior, and therapy, I had a lot of latitude in the classroom. And when I say classroom, I mean an open room that doubled as a cafeteria, which was a good location for me as I had the extra duty of preparing meals once the cook stopped showing up for work. At first, my students scared me. These girls were tough and had a myriad of problems, well beyond my own love-and-loss woes. Some had some really terrible things done to them. Others did some pretty terrible things to others. A few girls had parents too incapable and selfish to actually be parents. Some families had a lot of money, so they sent their daughters off to an old ranch in Montana to become better children. It sounded romantic to these parents–a true Christian place to heal their daughters’ demons, none of those a result of their influences. I felt like a lot of students didn’t need the place. What they really needed was a loving and responsible home. We gave them a Band Aid to stem the blood loss from their wounds. In all practical terms, I don’t know how successful the therapeutic part of the school was at healing, changing and growing each student. In a lot of ways, those girls were truly repressed at the school: they weren’t allowed to listen to music that wasn’t Christian; they were isolated from society with the exception of field trips to fun things in the Flathead; and they were constantly surrounded by therapists, teachers, and staff who were dedicated to them and their needs. If they had a bad day for whatever reason, everyday duties and expectations could take a pause and their feelings could be discussed, analyzed, and shared with fellow students and staff. While addressing the emotional needs of these young women was paramount, it didn’t give them the practical tools to use once they left the ranch. Many of my former students fell right back into their old habits of drugs, sex, and other destructive behaviors.
I loved teaching literature and writing. The girls were thirsty for creative outlets and their imaginations astounded me. While most of their days were bound up in rigidly finding the right path to Jesus, our classroom became a place of fluidity, experimentation and openness. We discussed poetry, wrote short stories and took a good look at writers from around the world. We examined The Great Gatsby and cried over the introduction to Garrrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times in which he beautifully shows us how essential poetry is to the human condition. I strongly encourage you to read it. We didn’t stand on our desks, ‘a la Dead Poets Society (although the thought did cross my mind many times) but those classes were dedicated to love of books, of the written word. During that hour, the girls had the courage to free themselves from whatever baggage they carried. They were all incredibly creative and bright students and it was school that made them feel somewhat normal again.
One student, in particular, was as creative as she was challenging. When I first arrived at the school, this one student, whom I’ll call Rachel, terrified me. With her purple mohawk and studded jewelry, Rachel refused to sit at a desk or in a chair and scowled at me from a corner on the floor. It was my job to make her sit at her desk and do her homework. Yeah right, I thought, like this kid would listen to me. I had no prior experience in teaching, let alone in an environment like this. I taught skiing in Michigan to three year olds, not English to a bunch of “hoods in the woods” as I liked to call them. I was scared. Rachel looked like she could eat me alive. She may have even wanted to, for all I knew.
What I did come to learn was that Rachel was just like me in so many ways, with the exception of a heroin addiction. She felt different from the rest of the world and she wanted to prove just that. She loved music, poetry, and writing. It took some time, some negotiating and some terse words but Rachel and I did find common ground. She started to call me “Crazy Ms. Maggie” which is a well deserved title and I allowed her the freedom of expression in her assignments–something that was frowned upon at the school. I didn’t care about profanity–I merely wanted her and all of the other students to feel like normal teenagers and find their place among the pages of a book.
In the spring of 2007 I taught creative writing, graduating from teaching just one class to a full load of classes ranging from World Literature to outdoor education. My creative writing class took up the “This I Believe” essay writing contest from public radio. The project was started in the 1950s and was hosted by Edward Murrow, who felt this project was vital to the larger American community: “Never has the need for personal philosophies of this kind been so urgent”. The project’s goal was to have Americans, ordinary and extraordinary, vocalize their belief and how their life has been shaped by this belief. In the 1950s the likes of Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, Helen Keller, Pearl Buck and John Hughes all contributed their short essay. Essays were read on air as they are to this day.
My students were assigned the daunting task of defining what they believe in 350-500 words. They loved this assignment. For the first time in many years, they were asked what they believed, not what their parents, friends or therapists believed. Crafted with their own words, they would outline the things they held most true to them. But it wasn’t an easy task. Some had difficulty identifying just one belief that guided them the most. Their first drafts resembled grocery lists of beliefs and ideas. Of course, there were a few who didn’t want to tap into themselves and mine their hearts and souls for the truth. They gave the generic rhetoric of the school’s philosophy about God, behaving and the path to redemption.
It was Rachel who would write the most powerful, true and revealing essay. While Rachel was slowly opening up to the idea that it was OK to trust others with her creativity and expressions in our classroom, she still felt very different from the rest of her peers. And a lot of times, she didn’t do her assignments. When I first introduced the assignment in class, punk Rachel scoffed at the idea. She thought it was hokey. I told her she had complete freedom in the assignment and if she thought it was the stuff of preachers’ wives and suburban house moms, then she had the artistic license to throw in some edge, some skulls and crossbones. The assignment was about her belief system, not anyone else’s.
In 500 words, Rachel’s essay was about a conversation she had with her therapist at the ranch during her first week of residence. He asked her some basic questions and then he asked what she believed in, if anything. True to her nature, Rachel launched into a tirade of hate: she hated the US government, the Man, white socks, mass media, mainstream culture and Brittany Spears, churches, meat products, conformity, Christians, following rules, order, and so on and so on. She ranted for nearly an hour. Her therapist allowed her to finish. He then said, “Rachel, you’ve spent over 30 minutes telling me what you don’t believe in. What you’re against. I asked you to tell me what you do believe in.”
Rachel wrote, that for the first time in her life, she was speechless. She didn’t have an angry, enraged retort to fire back. She had nothing. It was then, she wrote, that she realized she’d wasted so much time and energy about the things she didn’t believe in. She couldn’t define what she actually felt to be true. Beginning in that moment and throughout her time at the school, she was going to challenge her rebel nature to find something she believed in.
Her essay moved me in so many ways. She wrote from a space of honesty, freedom and a willingness to expose herself to others in a very intimate way. She also brought to my attention and to the attention of her classmates something that we all suffer from, something that we all do. We’re so quick to name the things that piss us off, that we stand against instead of embracing the things that make us who we are, that drive us, and that shape us. We start off with anger, instead of compassion. It’s easier to say what you’re against. It’s much more difficult to say what you believe in. And to take it a step further, it’s even more of a challenge to make sure your actions follow your beliefs.
Rachel left the program after she completed all steps or phases or whatever the folks in the management position felt was the model of rehabilitation. I don’t know how she’s fared since. I know that the streets of San Francisco were once her home and she’d have a lot of trouble not falling prey to their lure. I think of her personal challenge and I try to adopt it as my own. I’ve been known to fire all my pistols at once, challenging anyone and everyone to duel, but with the help of a punk with purple hair, I now realize that we’re all better off finding something to believe in. This I believe.