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Friday, September 13, 2002
By Paul Ford
That is, making sense of Milton Hershey School, where I spent two years.
For the last half-decade I've tried to write about the Milt, where 10 years ago I went to school for 2 years. I can't ever find the right way in - it's a hard topic, and the 16 and 17 year old boy I was then is a foreign, strange creature. The best way to do it would be oral history, interviewing other students, getting their experiences, going back to the last of the orphans who attended in the 20s and 30s. If I had time and resources, and the willingness to give it the year or two it deserved, maybe I could. Another option would be a short novel about some students. I've tried that, but whenever I try, it starts out amusing and becomes sad by the 600th word, and I don't want to continue.
But anyway, tonight I had a conversation with an old classmate. We met again after nearly 10 years, very unexpectedly, and it turns out we're right in line with one another. Similar experiences and everything. We hang out every now and then. So we were going over our lives. And the thing is, you don't tell stories about the Milt to relive the old days. You tell them because you've changed and you're trying to figure out what the fuck happened, how you could have been at this school for “social orphans” in the middle of Pennsylvania at all. You tell the stories to figure yourself out.
I told him about this fucked-up, mean thing I did with some other kids when I was 17. And I said, “you know, I guess that was really a screwed up way to have been.” And he said, “that wasn't screwed up. What was screwed up was when this kid in my student home swung a cat around by its tail and killed it, then hung it up from a tree.”
“Oh Jesus,” I said, “I remember hearing about this one kid, they tied him up and threw him in a pond. I guess he floated long enough to get out.”
“Or when Dave Pawling, that guy was an asshole, so Jim Creener, we were out of the student home playing football and Jim tackled Dave, just went right at him and broke his collarbone. And Dave's just standing there with his arm all misshapen, and we said, send out a replacement quarterback when you go in.” Then my friend told me about a tackle baseball game where a kid's leg snapped like a plank.
(Writing it, it looks odd, you'll think it's a typo, but when he said “tackle baseball” he didn't pause for effect or offer it as a joke. If there was a way to add violence to something, we did.)
“Oh yeah, that was the kid who had to get the robot leg!” I said. “He couldn't climb the stairs. I remember that guy.” Then I remembered how my friend Ed got punched so hard, because he was talking to another boy's girlfriend, that all the blood vessels in his eye burst, and told my friend how the kids in my student home played a game that could just be called “tackle,” where we jumped on and flipped each other, and how I nearly broke my leg being thrown through the air by three or four other kids, had to go to the Hershey Medical Center and everything.
“God, I remember hearing about one kid dick-slapping another,” I said. “But I don't know if it's true.”
And we remembered how Tom changed the Vice Principal's computer's name to "Baldy" in the days before people had heard of computer networks, and how hot the art teacher had been, and how she'd put her breasts in your face as she leaned over to help you with some clumsy thing you were making from clay. Which made art class better, because it was hard to get motivated to make stuff. It's not like you were going to take it home to your parents; most likely you were just going to smash whatever you made.
“I have to respect the teachers,” my friend said. “They were in a weird place.” Then we made plans to go visit another alumnus in New Jersey together. Our official 10-year reunion is happening somewhere else, but we can't take it. But seeing one or two others who can understand the experiences, and not see them as maudlin, as most people do - because we never, ever seemed to see ourselves as victims, even though victim culture was raging everywhere in America when I was there - well, seeing some of the others could be fun; it gives me two years back that I can't explain to almost anyone else, and I was there the shortest of almost anyone, the rest of them it's 3 years, or 6, or 10. I'll have to dig up my old yearbook so we can remember all the names.
I should have backed up paragraphs ago. Milton Hershey School - MHS, or, as we called it, the Milt, was founded in 1919 by Milton S. Hershey, the millionaire owner of the chocolate company and patron of Hershey, PA. He founded it as a boarding school for a dozen or so white orphan boys. At later points in the history of the school, the “orphan” restriction was relaxed to include “social orphans,” meaning poor kids from sketchy families (and thus me), non-white children (which made up around half the student population), and girls (also half). Students entered and lived at the school from the ages of 4 to 15. Everything - food, clothing, education - was paid for by the school. We even received an allowance.
(If the school's name is ringing a bell, it's because it's been in the papers because the Hershey Trust, from which the school's expenses are drawn, and which is valued at something like US$5 billion, has decided to divest from HerCo foods, the makers of chocolate and other products, which has many of the communities in Hershey enraged. I'll write more about this later - it's a complicated subject, but a relevant one to understanding the school.)
All the students lived in student homes, split (then) into elementary, middle, and high school ages. My student home, which I'll call Rosehill, was typical of the high school homes: 15 kids in 8 rooms, a basement and activity room, kitchen, dining room, and a few bathrooms and showers, none with doors. We were supervised by a married couple, our houseparents, who were given every other weekend off, replaced for two days by substitute houseparents. My houseparents were the Grays.
There were 90 or 100 student homes spread out across the 10,000 acres owned by the home. In the mornings we were woken up at 5:30 by our housefather turning our lights on and off. We did chores, like scrubbing the toilets with a toothbrush or making breakfast for the other students. We read a prayer, ate, and went to school. Rosehill was close to Senior Hall, the high school, a ridiculous structure 1/5 of a mile across and about as deep, cavernous in high art-deco style. After school we came home, did more chores, checked to see if we'd lost any merit points for not dusting or organizing our rooms, or making our beds so that they were military-taut, and watched TV or drifted around the confines of the home until dinner, which was followed quickly by homework time, then by a snack, and then by bed.
Nearly every movement was regimented: you had to ask to go outside, and were not allowed to go anywhere unsupervised until Friday night, when, from the 9th grade on, if your merit points were sufficient, you were given 4 hours of unsupervised wandering privileges. This was used for wandering around, hiding to masturbate, or illicit sex. You were thrown out of the school for having (committing, really) sex, or for having prophylactics.
We - at least the boys; the girl's lives were a mystery to me, but were probably not all that different - had very little power and we were cruel to one another. Any flaw was picked at relentlessly, in ignorant, inexpressive, stupid words. Your mother's name (“I love me some Martha Wilson licking my nuts, you know?”), your weight problem (“you is one fat ice-cream eating pig motherfucker”), your height (“reach up and kiss my ass, little bitch,”), your race (“where's your tomahawk, Injun?” to a Guatemalan kid), skin problems (“you got an ant farm running around your neck” to a kid with ingrown hairs), or any other deviation from the perfect norm which none of us, all of us being social orphans, and some of us being real orphans, could meet.
There were unspoken rules to the cruelty, though, occasionally broken but usually observed. You didn't make fun of dead mothers or imprisoned fathers, for instance. You never did anything really nasty or filthy - rotting food or excrement were off limits. You didn't mess with the houseparent's kids, at least not too often. You never, ever blew anyone's cover to the houseparents, no matter how much an enemy. Our conversations were the same as most high school kids, except there was always the chance that one of the kids from inner-city Philly in your home, when he said I'd like to blow that motherfucker's head off actually had a gun upstairs, hidden away. In my friend's student home, one of the kids brought back crack from his summer vacation (usually less than 30 days); in my own I listened to a kid very seriously describe how he'd taken a stab at pimping but had to give up before things could get started because of all the logistics of being in the school.
So, unless you had a girlfriend or boyfriend, and it was very hard to find one unless you were one of the very few attractive, confident-seeming kids, you lived without touch or intimacy, your life controlled by people who meant well but saw you as a temporary concern. So we hid our vulnerabilities and trusted each other only within tight limits. Occasionally this would break down - I saw one boy crouch by the television begging us all to stop torturing him, screaming “why won't you leave me alone? Why?” until he was hoarse. We sat and watched him, fascinated. One boy tried to beat another with a golf club; his intended victim took it away and used it against him. One day a few weeks after I was there, someone stole my pants as a gag and I began to throw things and howl in inchoate frustration until I was half-conscious. And I'm sure I wasn't alone in hiding myself inside a closet to weep, or to touch my own face, to feel some kind of warmth and connection. A great premium was placed on coldness, on being harsh and indifferent to everything in the world. Anger was powerful if it was icy and calculating. If not, it was another weakness.
Still, all that was better than what we were coming from. Almost to the kid. We had crazy parents, drunken parents, poor parents, semi-retarded parents, parents who had beaten or molested us, parents who had conceived us when they were 15 or 16, or dead parents, parents where the father had killed the mother and was now in jail. Me, I just had slightly crazy, poor parents (and it's all worked out now, no stresses). Which made me one of the lucky ones. There wasn't any shame in these things, for us. We were curious about one another, but you never asked, and were rarely told a specific reason. We just were here. Obviously we wouldn't be if things were better. When we entered the school our half-naked bodies were propped on a vinyl examination bed and checked carefully for cigarette burns and other scars, and a checklist filled out by a doctor, just part of bringing a student in. There were some horror stories - the girl or boy who'd been terribly beaten, molested and abused, whose story had been told to the teachers, who then indirectly - for there was a great flow of information between teacher and student - told it to their favorite students, who passed it on discreetly. In most of us I think it just registered a nod: that was someone who'd had it bad and you should probably give them a little slack, not bring up certain topics. But we passed it on to each other. Knowledge was a currency, and if you were in a tight spot you could use it cruelly. Even with those you loved, if they were trying to mock you into submission, you might have to bring up the story of their awful deflowering in a parking lot, just drop a hint that you knew, and they would back off, eyes wide and scared, nodding.
Occasionally kids' parents would improve their own lives and pull their children out and back to a regular American existence. But many times when that happened, the kid would come back a year later, choosing between his or her rock and hard place. My friend's brother did that, as did others. The place was as good as it got for many of us.
I came to be there after my folks split; their lives were a mess, and I was a mess. It was a good idea to get me out of what was happening, so I took the admissions test and was let in just under the maximum-age limit - I was admitted in the last month of my 15th year, and they let no kids in after 16. I was there for 2 years. It was a strange time, and I've barely touched the surface: the forced religious education, my walks on the airstrip, the total denial of sexuality, the strange way creativity was both encouraged and punished, the melting-pot nature of the place, where 6 black kids, 3 white kids, 3 Dominicans, a Vietnamese boy, a Chinese boy, and a Puerto Rican all cohabited under the watchful eye of a bearded white bear hunter and his fundamentalist Christian wife. Perhaps what I'll do is write individual essays on specific topics: Race, Religion, Education, Sex, Music, Violence, Love, Crime, Punishment, Friday Night. That would tell you as much as anything. Perhaps with some semi-fictionalized characters throughout to draw the topics together. I'll think about it.
I remember being told when I entered the school that there was a reason for every rule, I only had to ask. The rule book was a full foot thick and resided near the phone in our student home. So one day, a week or so into my stay, I did ask about something - perhaps why you couldn't go into someone's room (while they were in it) to talk without asking. If you did cross the line of the doorway, you would be assigned “hours” - of manual labor - or “dishes” for 15 boys and two houseparents, normally a 4-person job. So, I asked, why was this rule on the books? I wasn't testing, just curious.
“That's the way it is, so don't be smart about it,” said my housefather, who had told me to ask him if I had any questions, eyeing me. And I knew that was what I was in for, for the next two years, that I would be expected to do the right thing even though no one could tell me why, or what the purpose was, or where I was going to go if I did it.