July 28, 2014

Lessons from the Dark Side of the Moon

Sometimes we descend into darkness so gradually that we're unaware of the diminishing light. We don't realize that we can't clearly see where we're going since, as the light grows dimmer and dimmer, our eyes keep adjusting to the loss. People who are watching our descent may shout warnings, but we hear no better than we see. We feel the path beneath our feet and think we're still on safe terrain. By the time we discover that we're not, it's too late. A single step divides the sunlit side of the moon from the darkside, and we have taken that step.

Sometimes we stop in the space of that step. We suddenly sense the danger. We're in trouble and don't want to continue; but neither do we want to turn around and confront criticism as we confronted danger. So we hide our face, keeping it turned away from the glaring sun. In order to keep our mistakes concealed, we have to crouch with them there in the boundary's limbo.

But if we're fortunate enough to think things through, we can understand that we must not only confront our errors, we must admit them, too. Then we will have learned from our mistakes. There is also an element of compassion that cannot be omitted. By helping others to avoid falling into the same errors, we have truly saved ourselves.

A wise man once said that teenagers are hormones with feet. They don't think too well. Just as a guess is not a decision, an urge is not a plan. But teenagers guess and act upon urges. They aren't really capable of making decisions and seeing things clearly enough to understand the difference between a plan and an impulse. I certainly wasn't.

It was during summer break in high school that the urge to determine my own future seized me and let me think that I was thinking. I was absolutely certain that every adult I knew was an ignorant tyrant, my parents in particular. Now that I was mature - and seventeen, to boot, I was wise enough to see them clearly for what they were: concretely old fashioned and incapable of dealing with the modern world or my future in it. Oppressed, I needed to escape.

The opportunity for freedom came when I read an advertisement for a federally funded job training program, a program that offered a career in nursing. Freedom, adventure, education, new friends and a plan for the future awaited me. I went into the recruiter's office as if I were on a treasure hunt. He had something that I wanted badly and I would get it from him.

The recruiter didn't have to sense my naivete. He could have assumed it since, after all, anyone who answered the advertisement would have had to be naive and very vulnerable. He played hard-to-get, a con man's ploy, feigning his reluctance to tease me with beautiful pictures from a brochure. There were photographs of program centers from every part of the country. Trees, green lawns, flowers, mountain backdrops, resident-cottages that might have come out of Stratford on Avon, classrooms fit for the Ivy League, state-of-the-art equipment, happy students smiling in an eternal sun, caring teachers from whom students took their leave fondly and with much weeping. Goodbye Mr. Chips! Farewell, Doctor Kildare! When I left his office I carried a dream and a contract.

Too young legally to sign a contract, I needed my mother's signature, but she refused to sign with her obstinate and customary ignorance. I begged. I nagged. I argued. I accused. My father knew better than to get involved. He knew words would not avail him of anything when it came to this. I had answers for everything. When mom insisted that I should not trust these strangers, I countered that it was a Federal program and if we couldn't trust the government, who could we trust? When she insisted that dormitory living would subject me to sexual attacks, I reminded her that it was an all-girls' school. Point, counter-point. Naturally, I wore my mother down and she, resigned to getting rid of me, executed the contract. I remember my elation as I packed and headed for the bus station.

So there I was - a girl with a minimum of money and a maximum of hope. But I had grasped the chance to make something of myself. I would become a licensed practical nurse. And naturally, I could always enlarge upon that career and become a registered nurse. I had it all planned.

I rode the bus for hours, but when I reached the rendezvous point and met the other thirty girls for the final bus ride to the campus, I was still triumphant. I was free and on my own at last.

I noticed that many of the girls seemed awfully tough and didn't much seem like nursing material; but I quickly assumed that they had come greater distances than I and were simply road-weary. I concluded that underneath the toughness they were very much like myself. And so, with my peers at last, I board ed the bus with the other lucky girls and headed west.

A little group of us talked and laughed and reveled in our freedom and good fortune for miles and miles. And then in a span of a few feet, we ran out of merriment. In this short space we turned into a stockade's two steel gates. Cinderblock walls topped by barbed wire shocked us into silence.

We filed out of the bus, hauling our backpacks like a single row of leaf-cutter ants, staring in disbelief at the treeless compound, standing stupidly in the sun. We could hardly believe what we were seeing... or weren't seeing. This was a peculiar part of Oklahoma, probably the only part of the state that was completely free of scenery. We had expected a campus, oak trees and Tudor buildings covered with Ivy.. but this place had all the charm of a sewage treatment facility or, more to the point, a prison. We watched the bus exit the gate, our dreams in its exhaust.

A uniformed woman bawled, "Welcome to the training corps, Ladies! Follow me!" And as somebody shut and locked the gates, she led us into one of the three cinderblock buildings.

The building, a three story dormitory, reeked of marijuana. We all looked at each other quizzically... more because the woman did not seem to notice the smell at all. There were about a hundred seventy girls already living in the building. The dormitory was divided into rows of cubby-holes, each having two stacks of bunk beds, a chest of four drawers, and four built-in unlockable clothes' cabinets. The two upper bunks of the room were occupied by students who had arrived the previous month. They had just gotten back from class and were reading their books as we arrived. The other new girl, Dee Dee, and I took the bottom bunks.

DeeDee was wide-eyed and nervous. She stammered when she spoke and she spoke only in whispers. "How are the classes here?" she asked innocently. The other girls laughed.

We all introduced ourselves. Shirley and June were our roommates. "What is this place supposed to be?" I asked, and June answered that she wasn't entirely sure of what it was supposed to be. She had been there only a month. "So far all I've learned is medical terminology and personal hygiene... and I'm only a quarter way through that." Shirley laughed at what was supposed to be a witty remark. June explained, "We only get two showers a week." "Why do you stay?" I asked. "Well," said June, "I don't have a choice. It's either this training program or Juvey." "Juvey? You mean reform school?" "Yeah, sure," she answered. "The judge gives you a choice. I took this. We all did." "Not me," said Shirley. "I wasn't in trouble. I'm just stuck here. Scary, ain't it." I asked why she stayed, after all, the contract said we could leave at any time. "Yeah, sure it does. But where am I gonna go? As soon as I got my mom to sign for me, her boyfriend moved his kids into my bedroom." Then she got confidential and said that we couldn't imagine the stories she'd heard of girls disappearing or being subjected to corporal punishment. I thought she was putting us on, but DeeDee took her seriously. "What's the deal?" DeeDee stammered. "Why are they doing this?" June laughed. "It ain't no mystery, 'Ladies'. They get paid for each contract they get signed. The Government gives them the tuition. It's a program. Get it? A program." She lit a cigarette. "We're not supposed to smoke in here but everybody does." Shirley lit a cigarette, too.

I didn't unpack. I wanted to leave. I remember whimpering a little. I had brought a camera and extra film to take pictures of the beautiful surroundings and all my new friends. Now I was so ashamed. But at the moment, I was more angry than ashamed. I got up and announced that I was going home.

I went to the administration building and entered the office of the Liaison Officer and asked for a return bus-ticket, complaining that I had been deceived by the brochure.

She heard me out with a bored "I've heard it all before" expression and then she pointedly looked at her watch and intoned, "You've been her half an hour, and already you know you don't like the place. You want me to null and void everything because the place isn't as pretty as you'd like? Is that a reason to leave? This is a school, not a resort. Give it a few days and then see me again. Make a list of things you don't like... but of things that have to do with the program... not the architecture." She stood up and indicated that she was closing the office. It was Friday afternoon. "Give it until Monday, ok?" she said, pushing me out the door. I agreed.

I went back to the room and then the counter-fear set in. Yes, I was afraid of the atmosphere of the place but I was also afraid to return home and admit my error. Maybe, I thought, just maybe there were good classes that would compensate for the stark ugliness of the place. Against my own better judgment, I unpacked. There was no lock on our bedroom door. We had been told not to bring anything valuable and now I understood why. Shirley warned that the advanced students entered the bedrooms of the newer students at will. "If you've got any money on you, keep it in your bra," she advised.

In the next fourteen hours I learned plenty, but none of it was about nursing. It was a quick course in life on the street. Alcohol and drugs were everywhere... hard drugs, especially cocaine. The girls had formed into factions and challenged each other, like street gangs. Many of the girls wore small colored bandanas tied around their upper arm as insignias of the group they were in. They truly were like street gangs with specific "colors" that identified them. After a dinner of mostly re-constituted food, I went to the recreation room and saw my first switchblade. I can still remember the click when the blade snapped out of its handle. The girls were fighting over the use of a pool table - one group was trying to monopolize the table according to another group. The solution to the dispute was simple warfare. I went back to what I thought would be the safety of my bedroom. Unfortunately, since there were no males available for sex, females had to be substituted; and when I finally fell asleep, I was awakened by a drunken girl who had climbed into my bed. Another girl was trying to get into DeeDee's bed. Since they were both drunk we were able to push them onto the narrow floor space between our beds. They cursed and threatened and I knew I couldn't wait until Monday.

The next morning, Saturday, DeeDee was crying and stayed behind in bed when everyone went outside, waiting for a breakfast shift in the commissary. "Leave with me," I pleaded. She wiped her eyes. "I can't," she sobbed. "I got into trouble back home... but if I can stick it out here, my record will be expunged. I've got to stay and make it work."

I announced to the uniformed woman who had welcomed us that I was leaving with or without a bus ticket. I don't know where I got the moxie. The wonder was that I was the only one who insisted upon leaving. When the woman tried to talk me into waiting until Monday, I reminded her that the contract said I could leave at any time. That time had come and if she didn't give me the ticket I'd contact my Congressman when I got home. She got me the ticket.

I wish I could tell people what terrible things happened to the girls who stayed, but the fact is I never heard anymore about any of them. I often wished I could have contacted DeeDee, but after all the confusion I couldn't remember her last name. I knew that there were other girls like me, girls who had been recruited, who had been in no trouble, who had simply come with a dream for a better future. What was happening to them? Were they too embarrassed to leave? I felt sure that some of them, in one way or another, would never survive their 'decision' to stay.

I left on the bus, and then my problem was figuring out how I would explain my return. What would I tell my parents and my friends? It was all so humiliating. For hours all I thought about was a possible excuse for leaving, a face-saving excuse. Perhaps I could say some contagious disease had broken out at the school and the administration thought it best that we return home and then reapply to attend once the outbreak was over. Scarlet Fever or polio. Or maybe I could say that a boy's facility was too close and the boys too aggressive for many of us to tolerate. Or there was a flood and the electrical and plumbing systems were destroyed. We could all come back once repairs were made. I thought up many lies.

And then, to my own amazement, I realized that I was getting ready to make a pretty brochure of my experience... that I was preparing to do the same thing that the recruiter had done to me when he hid the truth from me. If I blamed a disease outbreak, or some over-sexed boys, or flood damage, I would be concealing the horror of the place. For, if I had a legitimate reason for leaving, then what would I say when they asked me how the food was? Or what my bedroom was like? Or the landscaping? I'd have to say, "Oh, fine." I'd have to cover up for these people and in order to do this, I'd have to put myself in the same category as they were. And all the ill-will I felt for that recruiter, I would have to transfer onto myself. For what? To avoid being embarrassed about making a mistake? About being a fool? About letting myself be duped? "Well, if the shoe fits!" I announced to myself. I remembered the switchblade and the scars it could leave. The knife symbolized the kind of permanent damage that some of those girls would receive.

I knew I had to tell the truth about the experience; and when I reached this decision, it wasn't an impulse, it was in fact a decision I had literally agonized about. Then a great peace came over me. It's hard to explain. I grew up on that bus trip back home because I acknowledged my own complicity in the disaster.

Fortunately my dad wasn't home when I got there. My mother was so surprised to see me. "Put the kettle on, Mom," I said. "Do I have a story to tell you!" And I told her everything. We were like two girls talking about school. "I knew it! I knew it!" she said, but not in a smug way. "I know you did!" I agreed. "I should have listened to you!" And she countered, "But who could have imagined that kind of trouble? It's a federal program, for God's sake!" I found comfort and forgiveness in her voice. Her words were like familiar music. No one was ever more glad than I that everything had turned around. I was back in the sunlight!

During the days that followed we told the story over and over to all our family members and friends. It was as if we had shared the triumph of escape together. We were compatriots, pals. I had grown up in the course of forty-eight hours.

So what do we do when we discover we've made a mistake...when we've joined a troublesome group or gotten into a bad relationship with someone, or allowed ourselves to get involved in an illegal or immoral activity? We don't just stop and try to cover up the truth. If we conceal our error, we'll continue to pay for it. Making a foolish mistake is one thing. Becoming a liar is another. And if our silence or deceit enables exploitative people to ensnare the innocent, we must share responsibility for any resultant harm. It takes courage, I know, to admit that we are, after all, only human. There isn't any victory without courage.

At any age we can commit youthful error and at any age we can be courageous. We don't need to fear the truth. We need to fear staying trapped in a lie, or worse, continuing in the destructive path until we cross the dark side's boundary - where there may be no way back at all.

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