Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Time My Mom Gave All the Fucks About My Horrible and Abusive Kindergarten

I went to kindergarten at a private school in the Bronx called Horace Mann. I never think about the place unless I pass it while walking to the subway, as I did the last time I was home in New York City, and then I shudder a little.

I've never written about it until now.

Since about 2012, Horace Mann has been embroiled in a major child sexual assault scandal in which dozens of students revealed that they were sexually abused by teachers there over a period of decades dating back to the 1960's. These crimes were exposed in the New York Times, someone wrote a book about them, and there's an entire Facebook group dedicated to the victims.

Fortunately, I wasn't sexually abused at Horace Mann, but I was miserable beyond description. My kindergarten class there was rife with bullies and led by two wizened old minders (I can't in good conscience call them teachers) named Mrs. Turner and Mrs. Strock. I'm using their real names because they are surely dead by now (they almost were then), and because they were the human embodiment of Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, the evil spinster guardians in Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach.

I remember Mrs. Turner as a tall, thin chain smoker with short, black dyed hair and orange lipstick. Mrs. Strock was short and squat with coke-bottle glasses. What they let happen to me and other children in that classroom was kind of unbelievable in retrospect.

I was on the younger side for kindergarten--an October birthday--five going on six. The older kids (the boys especially) teased me and took my toys and books, holding them over their heads and playing keep-away. They made me pay them money to use the bathroom, and then watched me while I did. The tallest, meanest, richest, dumbest (and therefore most popular) girl in the class acted as their enforcer. I pretended I was sick all the time so I wouldn't have to go to school. I was behind in reading because I was too nervous to learn. My stomach hurt constantly.

My mom probably should have pulled me out of there sooner, but she thought she was paying for something good for her only child. She'd gone to public school in the South Bronx herself, and she wanted me to have personal attention and safety. She got neither, and she was pissed about it. 

Toward the end of the year, she took me with her to the principal's office and listed the litany of circumstances I'd been describing to her every night for the past eight months. The principal's affect was apologetic but distant, assuming zero responsibility for something that was precisely his responsibility. 

"You're looking at me like this is just something that's happening in another galaxy and that's completely beyond your control," my mother said to him in a tone of manufactured confusion. She was a female physician in a man's world. She was used to this shit. Then she leaned in close. 

"If I wanted to send my daughter to a ghetto school--a school where the teachers let the kids act like little mafia dons--I could have done that for free. I didn't have to pay for it. I don't care what happens here, because Elizabeth isn't coming back here next year. But if I were you, I'd take a long hard look at your situation. Because this actually is your problem." It was a good, early lesson in assertiveness for me, and probably the only thing of value I'd learned all year.

Mrs. Turner and Mrs. Strock didn't return to Horace Mann, and neither did I. As I understand it, the school's response to the current abuse scandal has been woefully deficient, with lots of victim blaming and trustees and administrators refusing to take responsibility for the disgusting crimes committed behind the walls of this deeply troubled institution.

I know it's only kindergarten, and it was a long time ago, so big deal. But as a parent of a happy second grader and a soon-to-be kindergartner, I have a new appreciation for what it must have been like for my mom to watch me suffer so much during what educators now understand is a crucial period in early childhood development. And I feel horrible for the children who suffered even more egregious abuse at Horace Mann than I did.

At some fundamental level, the people who are in charge of places like this--who serve on their boards and make decisions--believe they can act with impunity and solve every problem with money. 

Unfortunately for Horace Mann, the one thing it can't buy anymore is plausible deniability.

I'm happy to see that the victims of Horace Mann's abuse, neglect, and entitlement aren't letting the school off the hook that easily.

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