I have come to realize more and more that the greatest disease and the greatest suffering is to be unwanted, unloved, uncared for, to be shunned by everybody, to be just nobody to no one. -
I arrived at Mount Saint John in the usual style, sitting in a black state-owned sedan.
My first and lasting impression of the Connecticut River Valley is its serene beauty, especially in the autumn months. Deep River was a near picture-perfect New England village. When I arrived there, the town was a typical working-class place, nothing like the trendy upper-income enclave it became. The town center had a cluster of shops, a movie theater open only on weekends, several white-steepled churches (none of them Catholic), the town hall, and a Victorian library. It was small, even by Ansonia standards.
Mount Saint John sits high on a hill at the edge of the town, surrounded by eighty acres of woods and fields, overlooking the Connecticut River and three hundred acres of marsh and meadows. A long and winding road leads to the school. The main building—the castle, we called it—was an impressive gothic structure connected to several other buildings.
The school was founded in Hartford in 1904 as St. John’s Industrial School, a residential school for Catholic orphan boys in need of care. The Hartford property soon became too small as the number of children in need skyrocketed, and in 1908, St. John’s was opened at its present site in Deep River, the land donated by a local Catholic family, the Duggans. The school remained an orphanage until 1953 when Bishop Bernard Flanagan undertook substantial rebuilding and renovations at the school, adding dormitories, classrooms, and a gymnasium. In 1955 Flanagan brought in an enormous Scotsman from Canada, Father Kenneth Macdonald, to serve as the school’s Executive Director. He served in that position for thirty-five years.
Father MacDonald was a more-than-competent administrator and he had a cold streak. He was amiable enough, but Mount Saint John was his life’s mission, and woe to anyone who interfered with his goals for the school.
Mount Saint John, for all its many good intentions and high-minded ideals, was another glorified warehouse for broken and lost kids with nowhere else to go. When I arrived, the school intended for about thirty boys housed one hundred and twenty. They ranged in age from eleven to eighteen. Most were from the slums of Connecticut’s large cities and had bounced around in the foster care system before landing at Mount Saint John, which we always called St. John’s. For some it was as close to a home as they would ever have, and for others it was just another stopover on the way to someplace else. Regardless, St. John’s boys, including me, were the result of foster placement failures, but unlike me, most were streetwise, world-weary, mean, and completely untrusting.
Overcrowded, understaffed, and offering marginal educational and medical solutions for the boys, it was right there in the middle of the mediocrity of care that was a foster child’s life. In other words, it fit the norm for the foster care industry.
The social worker drove up the long road to the school and we climbed out of the car, stopping for a second to take in the magnificent view. The social worker signed the papers and handed me off to the school. Then he was gone. I was on my own.
A staff member took me to a dormitory and into a small room with two bunk beds. The staffer took the brown paper bags that held my belongings, spilled the contents out on the bed and rifled through them. He asked, “Any dope?”
I was stunned. I didn’t know anything about dope, aside from what I had seen on TV. I felt the question was so ridiculous, I didn’t answer. He turned to me and asked again, “Any dope?”
Later, I realized it was a fair question. Dope floated around the school because the boys would be sent from the rustic beauty of Deep River back to the vast slums of the inner cities loaded with marijuana, speed, acid and Quaaludes, and after a week returned to St. John’s laden with drugs.
“No!” I said, “My God, no. I don’t know anything about dope.”
He didn’t believe me.
“Put your arms up above your head,” he said. “I gotta search you.”
I did as I was told, as humiliating as it was, and he frisked me.
“Okay,” he said. “You’re all right.”
Then he reached into my belongings and took away my toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, and my beloved Old Spice cologne.
“We’ll provide you with all of these things, except the cologne,” he said. “You won’t be needing that. Also, there is no homosexual activity allowed, understand?”
My mouth went dry. I was too shocked and insulted to reply. My affliction made me push the tips of my fingers against the palms of my hands until they turned white.
“Same goes with masturbation,” he added, and I turned red with embarrassment.
“You share this room with three other boys. That’s your locker. Keep it clean and orderly. That’s your bed. Pull the sheets and pillow case on Monday and Wednesday and drop them in to the yellow laundry cart out in the main hall. Pick up your clean sheets and pillowcases before four o’clock on Mondays and Wednesdays. Drop your dirty clothes into the blue laundry cart every day. Pick up your laundered clothes from the laundry room—I’ll show you where that is in a moment—every Tuesday and Thursday, before four. Okay?”
Still reeling from the dope and homosexual questions, I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “I understand.”
“Okay, good. Because we enforce rules around here. We have a merit system. You start out each week with forty merits to your credit. Every time you goof up, you get a demerit. More than ten demerits in a week and you get dorm restriction. You are to shower and brush your teeth every morning. Don’t shower, don’t brush, one demerit each. As I said, your locker is to be clean and orderly, otherwise it’s a demerit. Your bed is to be made every morning. Use a hospital corner when you make the bed. Do you know what a hospital corner is?”
“I’ll show you,” he said, and he did, and when he finished he added, “And don’t call me ‘sir.’ I appreciate your good manners, but the guys who work here and live with you in the dorm are called prefects, and prefects are called by their last names, okay?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered, learning later that “prefect” derived from the Latin word praefectus, and means, basically, to be in front and in charge.
“Your shoes are to be polished once a month. Shoes are expensive, so keep them in good shape. You are to change your clothes every day. That includes undershorts and socks.” I thought, “Where in the hell am I that people have to be told to change their clothes?”
“The boys,” he continued, “line up for breakfast at seven and by seven we mean seven, , not one minute after. Don’t make people wait for you. Same goes for lunch. Lineup is at twelve sharp and dinner is at five sharp. Every night there’s a snack, milk and cookies. Other than that you are not allowed to have any food on your person or in your locker. Okay?”
He smiled because he could see I wasn’t taking it all in. “All right, there’s just a little bit more, so hold on. This is a Catholic school, so Mass is mandatory regardless of your religious affiliation. Mass is every Sunday morning at eight. If you are Catholic, and you want any other sacraments or spiritual assistance, see Father MacDonald, our director. There is no swearing allowed anywhere on the campus.”
He paused and looked around. “Let’s see, what else is there?” After a few seconds, he added, “Oh, yeah, at meals you can take all you want, but eat all you take. Leaving food on your plate is five demerits. The dining hall is assigned seating. So is the chapel on Sunday, so you sit in the same place every time. Do you smoke?”
“Well, if you do, you get three packs a week; pick them up on Sunday at the prefect’s office.”
He took my toothpaste, shampoo, soap, and Old Spice and walked over to a small sink at the end of the room and turning to me, he said, “Okay, one last time. Any dope?”
“No sir,” I stammered.
“Because if I pour this out and find something,” he warned, “I’m calling the state trooper.”
He poured out the contents and then took me on a tour of the rest of the complex. There were three dormitories. The upper dorm was for young boys. The lower dorm, where I would live, was for boys twelve to fifteen years old. The upper and lower dorms were in what appeared to be a hastily built new wing attached to the main building. The third-floor dorm was in the old building and was for boys over sixteen.
In the lower dorm was a long narrow bathroom with ten or twelve sinks and stalls. Directly opposite the bathroom was a shower room with no privacy barriers. In the center of the dorm was a large common area without furniture save for a few office chairs, a bent and worn Ping-Pong table, and a black-and-white television that I learned rarely worked. There was a general air of poverty and shabbiness.
The prefects’ area was at the end of the common room and included an office, a single bedroom and a bathroom. Two prefects were on duty during evenings and one overnight. The school also owned several large houses down by the main entrance where otherwise the prefects lived, rent-free.
All of the prefects were men. Virtually no females were on staff, or for that matter on the property at all, aside from the secretaries in the front office, whom the boys rarely saw, and the school nurse.
The prefects were mostly recent graduates of New England Catholic colleges and most were very young, only a few years old than we. They were a decent bunch, for the most part young men from the upper-middle class trying to find their place in the world, while rejoicing that they hadn’t been drafted into the military and sent to Vietnam.
Most had been hired because they had some sort of athletic background, because it was Father MacDonald’s theory that plenty of sports and physical activity cured almost anything. Others were hired because they had just completed their bachelor’s degree in social work or psychology. These were the prefects to be avoided. The jock prefects mostly left the boys alone. If a boy had no interest in sports, he was all but invisible as far as those prefects were concerned. But the therapist-wannabes jumped right on the over-analyze bandwagon, misdiagnosing the boys and adding to the labeling madness that dominates the foster care system.
Of course, because they were men—especially men in a group of men looking after young men—empathy and sympathy were rare commodities and roughness and gruffness were commonplace, and they weren’t what the damaged kids at St. John’s needed as part of their daily routine.
The ten bedrooms in the lower dorm, with four boys to a room, opened on a common area. The walls dividing the rooms were paper-thin plaster and plywood and painted a God-awful, depressing maroon. There were no doors on the rooms or drapes on the windows. Privacy was nonexistent. We were not allowed to own anything that could not fit into our lockers, already crammed with clothes and shoes. It was pointless to own anything, anyway, because it was guaranteed to be stolen.
The lack of privacy extended everywhere. We were never alone. We went to school together, ate together, and went to church together. We were not allowed off campus except on Saturdays, when we could walk into town and kill time, and there was a lot of time to kill at St. John’s.
Each bedroom had four windows about six feet high. A pleasure in the warmer months, they offered a magnificent view of the river, but in the winter those enormous windows were a curse. The north winds sweeping down the Connecticut River or the south winds rushing up from the nearby Sound pushed right through those thin panes. There was no space heater on the dank tile floors, and no extra blankets were given out for the winter months.
A small cross-hallway at the end of the upper and lower dorms was the general meeting place for the boys, because it was the only smoking area on the property. Cigarettes were given out for free, and almost all the boys over fourteen smoked. After a while, I took it up as well. It didn’t trouble me that smoking can kill you. So can foster care, so big deal.
The smoking hall connected to a longer hallway leading to the main building with the classrooms and the gymnasium. We boys seldom watched TV since most of our free hours were spent in the gym shooting hoops or lifting weights, especially in the winter. As a result, most of the St. John’s boys were healthy and strong, and a chubby kid was a rare sight.
The main building, the castle, was the chief operating area. In its basement was a woodshop and the laundry room, where we dropped off and picked up our clothes and bedsheets at a predetermined hour every week. If you missed your appointment, you had to wait a week to pick up clean laundry. It seemed like a harsh rule but it wasn’t, not really. The school was dealing with one hundred and twenty boys, most from an undisciplined life with no schedules at all, and the rest of us, being boys, assumed that clean clothes appeared miraculously from the heavens.
On the first floor was a tiny visitor’s room in an alcove, the business office, the head prefect’s office, meeting rooms, and the director’s dining room and private reception area. Down another long hallway were the industrial-size kitchen and the dining hall.
We marched in lines to all meals. The food was served cafeteria-style. Tuesdays were always pork chops, Fridays were fried fish. The delectable Russian dishes that Helen had prepared and the succulent Sunday pork roasts were a thing of the past. But the school’s food was good and there was plenty. A prayer of thanksgiving was said before and after every meal. Because each dorm ate at specified times, we were given thirty minutes to fill our plates, eat and return our plates to the dishwashing room.
We were required to eat three meals a day plus a light snack at night’s end. All this eating was new to me since we rarely ate breakfast in Ansonia and I stopped for lunch only occasionally. But the school was filled with kids who knew what it was like to be hungry, and when most of them ate, they ate in silence, rapidly, and hunched over their plates as if protecting their territory. I can still see them today, and all these decades later, it’s still sad.
The entire second floor was dedicated to the school’s director, Father Kenneth Macdonald. It housed his massive and imposing office, his apartment and our modest chapel.
After the tour, I was taken to my social worker’s office to be labeled. Each boy had an in-house social worker. The school didn’t make labeling a secret: In fact, they were very open about it, because the institution survived on federal and state funds that demanded concrete reasons for doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of the school. So the boys were labeled, and each label was attached to a funding stream from the federal government. Some of the favorite labels were “dependent,” “neglected,” “status offender,” and the all-time favorite, “emotionally disturbed.” The inside joke was that none of these labels really mattered; it was a shell game in which labels could and usually were changed depending upon the state’s needs. That’s how it worked, and how it still works.