Ah, yes. My class. My News of the Day. My prism.
I arrived at the hospital at 7:30 this morning, and at 8:20 1 hear the
harsh click of the lock on the door at the end of the corridor running
outside this classroom and the adjacent "activities room"
connected to it. I step out into the "bullpen" to see who is
first up from the cottages. It is Roy, my baby-faced, blue-eyed,
blond, infantile, horribly sexually abused, homicidal 14-year-old. Roy
breaks free from his female aide and comes running toward me; Roy
spends a good part of his day running from one place to another, and
getting nowhere. I stop him just outside the door to the classroom and
point to a poster I have taped to the wall. The poster depicts 64
cartoon faces displaying various emotions that are labeled. I ask him
to point to the face that shows how he is feeling at that moment. Roy
grins broadly and points to the "aggressive" face. I ask him
what else he is feeling. Still grinning, he points to the
"angry" face. I instruct him to take out his green, level C
sheet, and I award him 50 points for "expressing his
feelings"---Roy's Target Skill for the day.
Helma, my pudgy, very bright, suicidal "eater" who is now
perilously close to the age of 18, when, unless she makes some serious
alterations in her behavior patterns, she will be transferred to Big
Ark, is next up. I am particularly pleased that Helma has been
allowed, and is willing, to come to class on this first day of the
summer session, because her record indicates that she has spent the
last two weeks "on the cottage," most of the time in
isolation and under constant observation, because of persistent
self-abuse. However, she is now off Special Precautions and carries a
white, level A PEM sheet. I ask her to point to the face or faces on
the poster that mirror her feelings, and she indicates "sad"
and "anxious." I award her 50 points for "expressing
her feelings," also Helma's Target Skill for the day.
Lance and Adam, my two most explosive and dangerous students, arrive
next, accompanied by "Mr. G," a six-foot, six-inch Therapy
Aide who once played semi-pro basketball and who has worked at Little
Ark for 30 years. I am not at all displeased that the looming,
good-natured but very tough Mr. G is one of the two Therapy Aides
assigned to my class that morning.
Both Lance and Adam indicate that they are feeling "angry."
I ask them if they know why they are feeling angry, but neither is
able---or unwilling---to explain. Lance refuses to carry a PEM sheet,
one of several reasons he is usually on Special Precautions, but I
award Adam 50 points to mark on his green sheet.
When Jessica fails to show up, I call her residence and am told that
she is being kept on the cottage, under Special Precautions, after
being up all night banging on walls and screaming at the other girls
and the night staff.
At 8:30, Ken Goldstein, the Social Studies teacher, arrives to teach
the first formal class of the day. I know Ken from my previous stints
of substitute teaching here in Little Ark, and I consider him a
friend. I also consider him the best teacher of severely disturbed
children I have ever met, a master of misdirection ("What's that
green stuff running out of your ears?" he once calmly and with
great sincerity inquired of a patient who was threatening him with a
knife smuggled into the hospital), and the man who taught me the
difference between neurotics and psychotics: Neurotics merely talk to
trees, while psychotics receive lengthy answers and detailed
instructions for behavior. Ken is a talented folk singer and
photographer, and it is his portrait of me that adorns the dust
jackets of my last five novels. Ken is emotionally troubled himself,
and frequently masks his pain with an acerbic manner, acid wit, and
cruel practical jokes on his co-workers. He has been in therapy for
years. He is in his mid-40's, into his second marriage, and has no
children of his own. He once remarked to me that he would never bring
children into this miserable world.
With my Alternate School Program students, Ken teaches from the
tabloids, primarily the New York Post. He gathers the children around
him, then goes through the bizarre and blaring headline stories of the
day, expertly using them to make points about everything from basic
life survival skills to personal hygiene to sex education. The last
ten minutes are devoted to a "Mr. Know-It-All" session, with
Ken, who has a broad grasp of a great many subjects, seriously
addressing any question, whether about making babies or bowel gas, a
student may have. The class goes very well, with Ken weaving his usual
spell that keeps all four students attentive and participating. When
he is finished he awards each child 100 PEM points for successful
participation, and I award them an extra 50 for courtesy and good
The next class, English, is taught by Kelly Henson, an attractive
young woman in her 20's who has an unfortunate history of
relationships with abusive men. Like Ken, Kelly is an exceptional
teacher. This class also goes well, and Kelly even gets Lance, who is
at best usually sullenly reclusive when he is not exploding in rage,
to read aloud. Again, PEM points are generously awarded.
The class before lunch is the responsibility of the Occupational
Education staff. The OE therapist and two burly male aides arrive and
take the students into the adjacent room. I remain at my desk and try
to work in my journal, but I find myself thinking of the dirty books I
had been hired to write after answering an ad for "writers of
adult novels" in the newspaper.
Two hundred dollars a book. Each book was to be two hundred pages, no
more and no less, triple-spaced. It didn't much matter what the
subject was, as long as it was sufficiently pornographic. That was
fine with me, since it didn't much matter to me what I wrote as long
as I got paid for it. I found the work amusing. I constructed each
manuscript as a psychiatrist's "case book"---ten cases, each
twenty pages long, equaled two hundred pages. Voila. I wrote books
with themes of straight sex, bestiality, and various other fetishes.
My publisher was most pleased with my output, and he specifically
asked me to write my next book on the theme of sex with children. That
did not amuse me, so I quit.
In the meantime, it appeared that, at long last, my first novel would
be published. It was an "experimental novel" titled
Potpourri in Mixed Media, and consisted of sections written as a
screenplay, straight narrative, a stage play, "live
dialogue" among patrons in a theater lobby between acts of the
work, and various other literary devices. I considered it all
devilishly clever, and was most pleased that my writing genius was
about to be recognized. The publishing house was a small company that
called itself Abyss. There was to be no advance against royalties, but
I didn't really care; it was enough that I was about to become a
published novelist. Indeed, I was so elated and confident that I gave
my only copy to another pornographer for whom I had been ghostwriting
"marriage manuals" which were supposedly written by doctors
who were marriage experts, and who were paid fifty dollars for the use
of their picture and name. It had been my hope that the man might be
able to find financing for a film or stage play based on the novel
after it was published.
Four months after Potpourri had been accepted for publication, and
three months after I had stopped writing "marriage manuals,"
I received a letter from the Editor-in-Chief of Abyss.
Dear Garth Fugue,
There have been a few changes with Abyss and I just want to make sure
you are aware of them. Lionel Campbell is no longer with us. He has
left Abyss for other interests. He did provoke one major catastrophe
which involves you and the catastrophe was an accident. Lionel had the
copy of your manuscript and one day he went out and bought a German
Shepherd puppy . . . he kept the puppy locked in his study whenever
he had to go to work and as a result the damn dog literally ate the
entire manuscript of Potpourri, leaving only a small portion of the
outer cover as evidence of his defiant act.
Secondly, our finances have been dwindling since we made this move and
I'll have to reconsider Potpourri from this perspective if you wish to
entrust me with another copy of the manuscript. Will then await word
from you on these matters.
My parents live near you, and if I'm in the area (I may be there within
the next month) I'll try and look you up.
The first thing I did was pour myself half a tumbler of Scotch, which
I drained in two gulps. The second thing I did was pick up the phone
and dial the number of the man to whom I had given the only copy of my
"We are sorry," a recorded voice announced. "This
number has been changed, and the current number is unlisted."
If he's in the area he'll try and look me up?
I downed another half tumbler of Scotch and dialed the Operator.
"Hello," I said. "I'm an author, and a dog ate my
manuscript. The person who has the only copy now has an unlisted
number. Can you give it to me?"
No, he couldn't, but he was sympathetic to my plight and would connect
me to his supervisor.
I finished the bottle of Scotch while I waited to be connected to the
Operator's supervisor. A fucking dog ate my fucking manuscript. His
fucking finances were dwindling, and he'd have to fucking reconsider
publishing my fucking novel if I wanted to send him another fucking
Jesus H. fucking Christ.
"Hello," I said to the supervisor when she came on the line.
"I'm an author and a dog ate my fu... my manuscript. The person
who has the only copy now has an unlisted number. Could you give it to
No, she couldn't give me the number either, but she was also
sympathetic to my plight and would connect me to her supervisor.
And so it went, with my speech becoming increasingly slurred, on up
the chain of supervisors until finally the Supervisor of All
Supervisors did give me the phone number of one of the man's
neighbors. I called the neighbor and somehow managed to drunkenly
explain my problem. The neighbor contacted the man, who eventually
sent back the manuscript. Potpourri in Mixed Media was never
published, which was a blessing since, many years later when I finally
learned how to write, I came to realize how bad it was and what a
horrible embarrassment it would have been to me when I did start to
publish novels, and would still be even now as I sit here in Little
Ark trying to make some sense of my life and think of something to
At lunchtime my students are escorted back to their cottages by the
aides. I skim my New York Time, then lie down on a table in the
back of the room, close my eyes and try to sleep. It is only the
middle of the day, but I am exhausted. I know I should be continuing
to try to write something, anything, down, but I cannot. I marvel when
I think of how once I could force myself to write four hours a day
while holding down a steady teaching job, but those days and that
energy level---and perhaps the fire---are long gone. I was in my 20's
then, and now I'm approaching 60.
I hear the door at the end of the bullpen open, and then the familiar,
and always exciting, click of high heels on the tile. I sit up as
Dorothy, my ex-lover and now my boss, enters the room. Dorothy is my
age, with dark eyes and dark hair liberally streaked with gray.
Dorothy perhaps understands me and my demons best. She loved me once,
and perhaps still does. I once told her, and she understood, that my
main challenge in life was to finally become free---by which I meant
that I would one day have the power and clear-headedness to make
decisions that were plainly in my self interest, and not just
rationalizations for going ahead and doing what I wanted to do,
despite the consequences. If I had been free when I was in college, I
never would have become involved with Dora. I will be free when I no
longer need to write in order to feel whole and at one with the world.
I don't believe that time has arrived yet.
Like her mother, Dorothy is a chronic depressive. She went through
most of her life in a state of despair that she thought was normal.
She once explained to me that the only reason she had not killed
herself years ago was because of her three children. Dorothy, always
reluctant to take so much as an aspirin, was finally persuaded by her
internist to try Prozac, which she now swears by. She says she no
longer wakes up each morning knowing that her day will be a forced
march into deepening darkness. But for 56 years she survived that
daily march. Dorothy is the most courageous woman I have ever met.
She has stopped by to see how the morning went, and I tell her I'm
doing---or at least think I'm doing---fine. Any tension or bitterness
that existed between us after I broke off our relationship has passed,
and now we are the best of friends. If it were not for Dorothy, who
hired me, I would probably be spending this summer sweeping floors,
perhaps tending bar if I got lucky, washing dishes, or working as a
night watchman again. We chat easily until my students are brought
back up from the cottages.
After lunch on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it is my responsibility
to teach a class on "conflict resolution." There is a
prescribed procedure in the Boys Town PEM for doing this, but I have
decided I will use this time for my own purposes, mainly to focus each
student's attention on the terms of his or her contract and discuss
what progress, if any, is being made toward fulfilling the terms of
that contract. Neither of the two aides permanently assigned to my
class have shown up, but I am not particularly concerned that I may
need help; after the morning session, I feel as if I am in control of
I begin by drawing concentric circles on the blackboard, a small one
inside a much larger one. The small circle I label Shangri La, and the
large one Little Ark. Outside both circles, in capital letters, I
write, A WHOPPER AND FRIES TO GO. I tell my students that I
have no idea what crises and pressures brought them to the hospital,
but I know precisely why they've landed with me in Shangri La. I
explain why I consider mine the easiest job in the facility; it is the
responsibility of the other teachers, doctors, nurses and therapists
to prepare them to leave Little Ark and return to their lives outside,
a very complex task, while all I have to do is help them to follow the
terms of their contracts so that they can return to the regular
program and regain the privileges, status and pride they may have lost
when they were sent here. I then proceed to review the terms of each
The session goes well, and I am pleased. I reward them by ending class
fifteen minutes early and giving them time on the class computer,
which is kept in a locked anteroom. Lots are drawn to see who will go
first, and Helma wins. While I am unlocking the door to the computer
room, Roy says something to Adam which I do not hear. Instantly, Adam,
who outweighs the hapless Roy by at least 50 pounds, is on his feet,
thrusting out his chest like an enraged gorilla and balling his fists
as he advances on his tormentor. I jump between them and try to calm
Adam as Roy scurries behind my back. Adam picks up a desk and hurls it
across the room, bouncing it off one of the classroom's supposedly
unbreakable Plexiglas windows. I immediately call a "5-second
drill," meaning the other students will automatically earn 200
points if they leave the scene immediately. The other 3 children rush
out into the bullpen as Adam throws another desk, narrowly missing the
television set in the room. I rush to one of the two phones in the
area, dial the 2-digit number activating the PA system throughout the
hospital, and call for a Crisis Intervention Team. A little less than
two minutes later, with Adam continuing to throw desks as he lumbers
around the room, I hear the door at the end of the bullpen slam open.
A moment later the CIT---two burly Therapy Aides and a male
nurse---burst into the room and immediately head for Adam, surrounding
him. One man wraps his arms around Adam, pinning the boy's arms to his
sides, while another presses both hands to Adam's chest. Adam
immediately protests to the nurse, who is preparing a hypodermic
needle with Thorazine, that he is all right now and will stop throwing
desks. The nurse nods, and tells Adam that he will not be taken down
and given a shot if he can indeed calm down on his own. Adam closes
his eyes and takes a series of deep breaths, and the tension in him
seems to ease. He is asked if he would like to walk back to the
cottage on his own and take extra meds orally to help keep himself
under control. Adam indicates that he would prefer that option, and he
is escorted out of the room, down the bullpen, and out of Shangri La.
A short time later, fifteen minutes before the school day ends in the
regular program, I help the other three children record their 200
bonus points, then escort them back to their cottages. Then I head
back to my room to try to dredge up enough energy to write something
about the day before it is time to walk up to Big Ark to catch my bus.
As a matter of fact, despite his violent outburst I am encouraged by
what happened with Adam. To me, the significance of the event is not
that Adam erupted---after all, that's the reason he's in Shangri La in
the first place. What matters to me is that Adam was able to bring
himself back under control; in the past, almost invariably, his
explosive rage would have been uncontrollable, and would of necessity
have led to his being wrestled to the floor and restrained while he
was given a shot of Thorazine in the buttocks before being strapped to
a stretcher and carried back to his cottage. In addition, Lance went
through the entire day without incident, and I believe I have
established good rapport with Helma, reminding this very bright girl
during the course of the day that she must not eat any
"non-FDA-approved material", and getting a hearty laugh in
response. Roy had obviously provoked Adam, but that is Roy's modus
operandi. Roy is going to need a lot of work, but all in all I
consider my first day a successful one, with a number of good omens.