You always travel in a line of your peers. You receive a number based on your position in line, and you preface each movement you make with a loud, clear pronunciation of your number. You do not look anywhere but straight ahead. You do not touch any part of your body for any reason. You do not speak unless addressed. If you are facing a matter of life or death, or if you are about to soil yourself, you may raise your hand and wait to be called on. Any noises, exaggerated facial expressions, or eye contact with other students constitutes nonverbal communication; this is as serious an offense as speaking out of turn and will be dealt with as such. You will be strip-searched three times a day, and additionally at our discretion. You will be filmed continuously by security cameras, and will not leave staff’s line of sight for any reason or length of time. You will be bound by these rules from the moment you wake up each morning to the moment you fall asleep. Do not waste our time asking questions: where your parents are, when you can go home, when you can eat, when you can piss. These are not our problems. And finally, do not try to escape. No one has ever escaped, and the few who have tried have regretted it gravely.
Welcome to St. George. You are fourteen years old.
After my initial briefing, I was left to learn the rest of the rules osmotically. The rules at St. George are so diffuse and manifold and unpredictable that one becomes acquainted with them the same way one does shards of glass on a kitchen floor: accidentally, painfully, and over great lengths of time. Nine months in I was still learning new rules.
My vocabulary underwent radical emendation. I learned new meanings for words like restrain — where I was from, to restrain someone meant to prevent them from doing something, or to keep them still. At St. George, though, restraint was incurred as a consequence for refusal to perform a task, or for failing to perform a task with sufficient speed. It meant to be physically overcome by staff in a way intended to induce obedience; to have one’s pressure points stimulated such that one would either lose consciousness, defecate on oneself, or both. (I never saw anyone shit, so I guess I can’t actually attest to the latter. That’s just what we were told, and it scared us.) The word manipulation became synonymous with visible tears and pleas to go home. Contraband suddenly applied to shoelaces, hair pins, personal notes. Nonverbal communication was a term staff brandished against laughter and raised eyebrows.
St. George undermined my understanding of words like privacy and rights, which I had mistaken for intrinsically valid, ecumenically acknowledged concepts. After twelve months of iron-fisted silence, of being stared down while I pissed, they seemed so abstract I don’t know if I could have defined them. They charted negative space — things that existed once, somewhere else, a long time ago.
In a place like St. George, one forgets words, too, like deserve and belong. I understand now that there is no such thing as either. Take just a few steps back from wherever you happen to be and you will see that no one belongs or deserves to be where they are. Everyone is just somewhere. That’s all.
Our daily routine: Wake-up call at 5:30. Bed must be made by 5:32. Calisthenics begin at 5:45 and last an hour. Breakfast: gruel, slice of bread. Then we’re due back for morning chores.
Afternoons are less structured. We run the mile, do more calisthenics. We pull a cart full of rocks and self-help books in vague, circular paths, sometimes the same path over and over. The rest of our time is spent yanking thorny weeds from uncultivated turf, digging ditches in mud; exertion for exertion’s sake. One learns to ignore it when her hands start to bleed.
One afternoon, a new intake whom we knew as 7 raised her hand and asked why we were digging ditches. The staff on duty replied that we didn’t need a reason, because hard work is its own reward, then demerited her for speaking unnecessarily. As I watched her jaw drop, I heard myself giggle, and was as surprised as anyone to hear the giggle dissolve into hysterical laughter. I wasn’t amused so much as I found the absurdity physically overwhelming; something cracking in my body and brain. I was demerited for nonverbal communication, and laughed even harder. I was demerited again, and within moments, my laughter had become tears.
Threatened with solitary confinement, my body emitted no more noise, but continued to shake.
If you let yourself walk out of here with less than a full year’s worth of what you want out of your life, it will be no one’s fault but your own.
It was a January night, and it was freezing, and I was dreaming. An old, bleach-haired angel visited me in my sleep. I had been crying. Her face was wrinkled and tough. She looked like one of my grandmother’s friends I had met at her funeral.
You know, if you can’t be happy here, you won’t be happy anywhere.
That was ludicrous. I was no one here, and I had nothing. I was dead.
You think that the day you walk out of this place is the day you’re set free, but you’re mistaken, she told me. The day you’re set free is the day you decide to stop beating yourself to death with all your rage and indignation and self-pity and grow up. Stop waiting for your life to begin again. This is your life, and you’re not getting another one. Trust me. The sooner you realize that, the better off you’ll be.
One of the students in an NYU writing workshop I’m taking submitted a persona poem last week about agricultural labor. The piece climaxes with a rhetorical question for the reader: “Have your hands ever bled?” I suppose the answer is assumed to be no. My professor dwelled at length on the poignancy of this question, its bite, given that people like us who go to a nice school in a big city couldn’t fathom that kind of nightmare, picking at thorns until our hands were scabby and raw and red and brown. I looked at my hands.
After nearly four years back in our familiar world, they’ve healed, save for only a few quiet scars on my index and ring fingers. I could have gotten them anywhere.