The King George School is an emotional growth boarding school
in Sutton, Vermont founded around 1997. (Emotional growth is a
euphemism for therapeutic boarding school). I hope my experience
there in 2000-2001 will help to explain what living at King George is like.
I will not begin at the beginning. I don't even remember it.
Instead, I will tell one day of this strange life I
I wake up at about 7:25. I am supposed to wake up at 6:45 every
morning, do morning exercise, shower, brush my teeth, shave,
clean the sinks and surrounding counter with simple green,
clean the mirror with Windex, sweep the sink-and-mirror area floor,
mop it well with simple green, and do countless other things that I
don't remember. These are all rules we're expected to follow. Someone
knows them all, but they're not compiled anywhere.
My routine is quite different. I am lucky to have a lax
dorm head, Mike. Our dorm is dorm E, called Alvin Ailey,
and nowadays it seems to be the only one where
people get along. We hear all about
everyone else's problems in communication classes, but that
needn't concern Mike and me. We are good friends: we talk about
any beautiful thing that comes to mind while our other dormee just
listens. My sleep in this dorm has been unusually peaceful.
Last night the conversation melted from Bach's fugues
to the Vermont Youth Symphony orchestra summer session (his
band camp) to the Center for Talented Youth (my academic camp) to
girls to "A Clockwork Orange" to
public school life to Ishmael to the King George life
to me leaving tomorrow and him staying for at least another year.
We talked for a while, I showed him photographs, and this morning I
have a short conversation about something from last night. I pack up my
laptop, take a three-minute shower, brush my teeth for a minute,
wipe the sinks and mirror, pacify the faculty member worried about
the time, sweep the floor, make my bed, and go outside. It is good to be
able to wake up late.
I wear jeans, sandals, a t-shirt of hemp fabric, and a
collared linen shirt with slits so I can wear it untucked. I
should wear a belt, but hey, it's my last day: what can they
do? Mike and I go outside, find people from the other dorms
waiting for us and complaining, and walk up towards Eddy, the
I drop off my laptop at the fence and suddenly go the wrong way,
along with everyone else, downhill towards the girls' dorm. It's
about a mile away and the girls walk to school
every morning; recently, some of the girls complained enough to get
us to walk the path too. We go down the road, complaining ourselves
the whole time, meet up with the girls at the bottom
of the hill, and turn around again! None of the guys like this
state of affairs.
Eventually the ordinary day is starting. I put my computer in
my computer cubby and grab a book from my academic cubby, making
sure to keep the rest of the cubby straight in case the cubby room
heads decide to confiscate its contents
Then I skip down the eddy hall to the dining hall (for I mayn't run),
grab an apple, and help the table heads set their tables.
One morning I had gone to the theater, where pre-breakfast
meeting is held, before I went to the dining hall and wasn't allowed
to grab my morning apple. I've never made that mistake again.
Soon the pre-breakfast meeting starts. We sit down
"theater style", facing the stage, where the student leader
takes roll. Everyone who has anything to say makes a drawn-out
announcement on what they want or what we should do
("find my jacket", "perform random acts of kindness",
etc) while we wait and whisper and hope that the student leader's
name-takers don't give us extra chores. We go to breakfast; I rush to
the student fridge, grab a bag of bagels, push through the crowds of
others who seek the same, place the bag on the counter, grab a plain
bagel, and wait in line for the toaster. Soon it is my turn to put
my bagel into the toaster, and I carefully regulate the speed, for
others have different yet equally strong preferences on the doneness
of bagels. It inevitably burns; I put
peanut butter on it and lay
it on a small plate.
Once I track down morning faculty and request permission to sit
outside as politely as I can, I rush to the door and
lean back. As it falls open, the sounds of breakfast melt away;
slowly I make my way to the wooden bench at the empty picnic table
where I get my bliss for the day, thinking on what has
happened, what will happen, what is important, what is thinking, and
slowly letting even thought melt away. Others join me, we talk, but
peace is retained.
My solace is suddenly disturbed when the student leader
comes out and calls me. "Neider! You need to do prewash!"
Everyone here calls me Neider, and I have done prewash (spraying off and
scrubbing dishes before they enter the rather weak
washing machine) two or three times daily for several months now. It
may seem dirty, stressful, tiring, and fairly unrewarding, but I love
it. But anyway, I must go. There might be a backlog of dishes if I don't
I stride to behind the garage-door window in front of the dish
washer and put on an apron with one hand. I turn on and fill
the dishwashing machine with the other, then start stacking dishes,
clearing food off plates, sorting dishes into piles, and adding
dish soap to the silverware within a couple of minutes. I grab
a rack from under the washing machine, rack the plates in rows, and spray
food and grease off of plates as them come. When there is no plate ready
to rack I spray the silverware. Once the plates are spotless, I open the
machine, push the track in, slam it closed, and start on another rack. This
continues; I am constantly
spraying, scrubbing, sorting, yelling,
pushing racks, and keeping the drain of the prewash sink unclogged. I
catch enough spare minutes while washing other dishes to soak and scrub
pots and pans before they need to go in, so I achieve my goal of
always having something washing in the machine.
Exhausted, soaked, and covered with nastiness, I ask the student leader
how I did, ask if he needs anything else, and leave content. My mind's
peace during prewash is almost as strong as during breakfast outside.
Once I tried to make my entire life as satisfying as prewash,
breakfast outside, and camping trips to Utah.
I even asked my mentor (who reads my mail to make sure
it's appropriate, supervises my phone calls, determines
consequences for my actions, and generally supervises my
emotional growth) for help, and I put my heart into the assignments
I received (such as "Describe what home is to you"). Nothing
came of it. To find home here was futile.
Ever since I've been here I have been seeking this same sense
When I first came (I remember it vividly), my
parents drove up to a strange building,
and I wasn't paying attention to anything because we
had been driving around and looking at schools all day. I had asked
the same question many times, many ways: "Why are you sending me away
to boarding school?"
I had received the same answer, many times, many ways: "We
can't explain how, but we're trying to help you.
You wouldn't succeed in public school,
the private schools around wouldn't accept you,
and Dr. Anderseen
When I angrily found and began to read the report Mr. Anderseen
had written on the subject, my parents had snatched it away just
as angrily back.
"We don't want you to misunderstand," they had said
with intense false compassion.
"We'll take you to see Dr. Anderson and he can explain,"
Mother said and Father agreed.
Father occasionally leaked some small detail from it about how my
brain worked, and I would wrack my mind for a reason that this
necessitated boarding school. I still don't know. What does thinking
analytically but thinking I think conceptually
have to do with my needing to be sent away? What does "ADHD,
combined type" mean, and where does it fit in? Why does an English
score about 30% below my math matter when both are far above average?
Eventually I got to see Dr. Anderson again, and he talked to me
as a 5-year-old. I could only pull two pieces of
information out of him. One was that ADHD, combined type means I
can hyperfocus in some circumstances but I am attention deficit
hyperactive in others. If this is indeed the whole ADHD business
then I don't see how the diagnosis should change anything; we
already knew that I could focus on programming and chess
to an extent that "Jonathan, it's time for bed!" wouldn't
disturb but it could take me hours to start writing an essay without
getting distracted. The other was that the only way that I could read
the report about how my mind worked that had determined my life for the
next year would be if my parents let me. They didn't until a
couple of months ago.
So, as we walked out of the car to go the the Clark House
(main office), my mother said something to the meaning
of "if you don't cooperate and tell them you want to go here,
you know what could happen." I did know: she could send me some place
worse. I did cooperate, somewhat sincerely, because compared
to the other options I had seen, this place seemed great. For months
afterwards, I continued to cooperate out of fear, and soon I had
convinced myself that I liked the school, but disliked certain
rules. I continued to rationalize: the rules were always going to be
there; this was good for me; I was learning to exist in
a society that wasn't made for me and form my own semblance of
society for myself. For some reason
the people, both students and faculty, were amazing; through some
of them I achieved great things, like learning to snowboard and
mountain bike, and camping in the Adirondacks
and Utah. I told myself that this was what King George should be
and what I should make it, and that when I was frustrated I was
doing my work in resolving my conflict with society.
This drove me forward, and it was a year packed with
one-sided progress, but I never could get rid of that
occasional feeling of oppression and needed for escape. I
learned the joys of running, programming, swimming alone,
and sticking my head in snow. Yet the need for escape only grew
stronger. I became a hairpin trigger, ready to snap at any moment.
I was assigned a self-study involving homework, manual labor,
strange written assignments, solitude, and suspension of privileges,
so I could snap and get it over with.
I tried very hard, and everyone could see how hard I was trying.
When I wanted to go to a summer camp called
C.T.Y., where I would be doing academics
and being social in the hands of John Hopkins University (while at
Loyola Marymount University), they were willing to oblige, as long
as I kept up with the classes I was missing. I said my goodbyes,
finished the sociology paper I had been working on, and an hour later,
left for C.T.Y.
There I found home. I fell in love, did biology at an
appropriate pace, got a nickname I liked
(Cole, because I looked like a girl's cousin of that name), relaxed,
and learned more about life in three weeks than I had learned in my
year of emotional growth. It took no struggle to feel at home there,
because my life was structured around me. Even when the
R.A.s said that I couldn't travel off campus
and I couldn't sit in trees, I actually could and actually did. I felt
freer than I ever had before.
When I returned, I resigned on my quest to find a home at
King George. I found a home at the picnic table outside, at the
prewash station, with a group of people that by the rules were
a clique who shouldn't hang out together so much. That last
month was the most bearable month I had there; I let myself go,
met people away from the context, broke rules,
and talked about what I wanted without thinking about appropriateness.
I live my last day with one thought constantly in my
head: just one more day. During what should be class periods,
I program my lasting legacy on the school, a program to help
Lauren (my mentor, and the assistant to the academic dean) with
faculty schedules. During lunch, I eat with the clique and talk
about how to write a proposal to stop walking with the
girls in the morning. During the last class period I hang out
in the cubby room, give things I don't want away, and sift my things
into my backpack to make packing easier later. On the way up to
our "afternoon Head of School focus", I talk with a friend
about Be Here Now and L.S.D., and the advantages
and disadvantages of the drug. After the focus I practice piano for
my closing at tonight's meeting. As the day is ending, I say preliminary
goodbyes, and soon the closing meeting begins.
There are two closings today. One is Shannon's: she recently
returned from an internship where she helped take care of
orphaned bears in a large forest. As she gives a slide show on
the trip, I think about the weekend the entire school spent
on her father's land after the older students had graduated or
transferred to other schools, and about the slide show we who had
gone to Utah gave upon returning. It really was something special,
to see what people did in the outside world and how we
welcomed them back inside.
Then there's my closing, and people fuss over putting the piano
in the right spot while I run off to grab my music. I haven't
performed here since the closing to my week of self-study away from
the community, but I play anyway, ignoring the many mistakes I make
and pouring out all the emotion I can muster. I play a Sonata in G
by Beethoven, the one I play to impress people,
then I play a Prelude and Fugue in C minor, then a short reflective
piece, then a Prelude in E Minor, and the crowd still calls for
encores. My skill at piano is not very great, but they love
it here; they don't get exposed to any virtuosos or anything. I continue
to play until my music disintegrates.
Then I sit on the stage while my ex-mentor and my
ex-self-study-facilitator try to embarrass me with a final closing
ceremony. Hidden at the fringes in others' comments are
drug references. Mainly, they say "you're lucky - free at last!"
rather than "farewell, you've learned what you needed". People
line up and all come to hug me and they give me a card like a
yearbook signing page with a quote I don't believe in in the
center. It's all very touching, but I'm not embarrassed and I am
glad to leave.
After the closing, I go to Lauren's office and install the
finally completed scheduling program. This takes about a half
an hour; now I can go down to the dorm, after drawing all my
stuff into a bag. I finally am allowed to listen to the
jazz CD that my father sent me months ago without getting it approved
and donating it to the school, so I do. Mike complains about its
simplicity. We hang out, talk openly, listen to Tory Amos, and
kick out everyone I don't want in our room. Gradually, everyone else
goes to sleep and I am left alone.
As night continues and I pack to leave tomorrow, I find myself
growing sentimental. I find my self-study notebook,
the list of hugging instructions Aska had given me as a joke, the
sonnet crown starting with "I will do my homework every day" and
ending with "Some day perhaps I'll find a better way" that I had never
finished, the cards people wrote me from after the Truth and Trust workshop,
the letter on why I was here that I had demanded of my father after an
argument, the picture of my ex-dorm-head Jared I had put on my
bulletin board to fill up space and comply with his rule, and the
quarter I had kept from the first day though we weren't
supposed to have money. Together, it reminds me how much K.G.S.
has taken out of me. My thoughts refuse to organize themselves enough
for me to sleep, so I stay up all night listening to Tory Amos and
type a random freewrite and put it, white on black, on the
background on my laptop.
The only way I could explain what I saw in myself that night was
to compare it to a piece of terrible amateur piano composition I had
written, a hideous repetition of B natural and C in
various simple rhythms layered upon itself. The world around me was
a poison, corrupting any simple, innocent thoughts and converting
them to a blend of psychoanalysis, Eastern philosophy, logic, and
metaphor. My view of the world had, in a year, become irreparably
crazed; never again would I be able to hold a simple opinion without
worrying cynically about all the evil there is in any
implementation of an idea, in any action.
Maybe I just grew up a little. I know one thing: the
King George School did not accomplish what it set out to accomplish. I,
like most other students who went through a year at King George, still
have the problems I came in with. I am still rebellious, and I still do
not do all of my schoolwork. I fear that this means I am not
exactly succeeding at the school I attend now.
The King George School has a website at <http://www.kinggeorgeschool.com>. It has become part of the CEDU
school system since I left there, for strange political reasons.
But the school politics of King George are another story for