THEME: GOOD INTENTIONS
I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be. ~ Douglas Adams
I wonder if it smells the same. Rotting citrus. Meatloaf. Sour milk. Peanut butter. Disinfectant over vomit. Like an ignored school cafeteria.
Or if it sounds the same. Whispers, flushing toilets, sobs, pounding on metal doors, screams, record player needles scratching on forty-fives, keys clanking against the swish of black robes.
I remember my last conversation with the director, Sister Mary Esther, who by that time was Jeanne Marie in street clothes, but to me she was still a Sister of the Good Shepherd, regardless of the switchover to secular management.
She snorted. “It appears you don't like it here at Marian Hall.”
“I don't.” The words caught in phlegm. “There's too much chaos. It's dangerous. The girls aren't getting proper care.”
“Well, then,” she said, “there's no reason for you to stay. Go back to your area and get your things.” She opened a side drawer and rummaged around. I leaned in to get a peek at the rumored whiskey bottle, but she closed the drawer too quickly.
I wanted her to say it—to give me the exact reason, especially in the middle of my shift.
She looked up. “That's all,” she said. “You can go now.”
“Is there a particular reason . . . ?”
“I just told you.” She rolled back her chair and folded her arms. She looked strange in her green suit—less daunting, almost silly. “You don't like it here.” She rolled forward, picked up a pencil, and tapped it to punctuate each next word. “So you don't need to stay.”
“Then . . . it's not because . . . of something . . . .” I wanted to hear her say it.
“Marvin will take you home if you don't have a car.” She handed me an index card. “Give your summer address to Sister Paul . . . ah, Bertha René, so we can send your final check.”
She slapped her hands on the blotter and stood up. “One. More. Thing.” She leaned in. “What, exactly, did you say to the social worker?”
Little pins pricked at my cheeks and into my chest. “Nothing,” I lied. “I didn’t say anything.” My face burned.
“Nothing? You sure?”
I shook my head like I had palsy—little jerky tremors. “Mm, mm,” my phlegm said.
It was July 14. Bastille Day. And I no longer had a job at Marian Hall. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The empty two-story brick building still sits at the end of Elm Avenue across the tracks from the Canadian-Pacific Railroad tracks in Beaconsfield, Quebec, twenty miles west of Montreal. In its last years, it was a middle-income rental retirement home until the owners kicked out the residents and closed its doors because it was too expensive to keep up. Before that, it was a youth protection home— a reform school, a locked institution for wayward, court-placed teenage girls—and I worked there.
It was July of 1971, and Ed, Katie, and I had just moved into our tiny Montreal apartment on Ridgewood Avenue, just off Côte-des-Neiges, practically across the street from the road to Parc du Mont Royal. Katie was three years old, Ed was about to begin his theological studies at McGill University, and I had found a job as a childcare worker at Marian Hall, an English speaking institution operated by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. I was lucky. In 1971, on the tails of the FLQ (Quebec Liberation Front) crisis, Anglos, especially Americans, weren’t highly favored by the French and had difficulty finding work.
My teaching experience would serve me well in this establishment. I’d never been to Catholic school, but I had heard about it. Structured, regulated, ordered, contained. I figured the Sisters would keep a tight rein on the place; all I’d have to do is hang out and babysit for eight hours. It didn’t bother me that it was shift work—seven to three during the day, three to eleven at night. No overnight shifts. Ed arranged his schedule around mine so finding a sitter for Katie was of little concern. It was perfect.
Sister Pauline interviewed me. She was a small, middle-aged, dark haired woman with a round, stoic face—hard to read. But I could tell from her questions she wanted someone who could retain credibility and build rapport with a bunch of disgruntled girls. She asked all about my teaching experience and seemed pleased with my answers, which apparently sounded strong and confident even though the place unnerved me—bleak, dismal, wrapped in a chain link fence.
She told me what to expect when I started working. The girls would act as if they didn’t like me. They’d test my authority and talk back. “Expect sass,” she said. “They’ll want to get your goat right away. Remember, these girls were sent here by the courts for bad behavior. They’re from dysfunctional homes. They’re used to being pushed around. They’ll resort to arguing—fighting—with anybody, especially if they think things aren’t fair—and things are never fair.”
“What are they in for?” I asked.
“Theft, threatening behavior, causing bodily harm, continually running away from home, sexual promiscuity, abuse—all kinds—both perpetrator and recipient. Pretty much any trouble a girl can get into—and get out-of-control while doing it. They’re usually just put on probation, but if they’re repeat offenders, or if the parents can’t manage them, the courts send them here.”
Sister Pauline unlocked the door to the apartment where I’d work. “The main door to each of the three apartments is locked. The girls can’t get in or out without a key, and they don’t get keys—ever.” She stopped and looked at me. “That’s a big rule around here. Wear your keys around your neck under your shirt.” Sister Pauline lifted her keys. “I attach mine to my waist band and stick them in my side pocket.”
I already knew that. She rattled when she walked.
She guided me into the main hallway. “Once you’re inside, no other room has locks – not any of them. Except the medication office in the basement and Sister’s room just beyond the entrance here. One Sister lives in each apartment.” She knocked on the door of a little room just off the hallway. A petite elderly woman in a religious habit opened the door. “Sister Margaret, this is Ellie Searl. She’s the new childcare worker in the apartment. I’m showing her around.”
Sister Margaret smiled and put a soft, withered hand on my arm. “So nice to meet you, dear. I’m always here if you need anything.” Her eyes stayed on mine for an extra second, as if she wanted to say something else. She didn’t look at Sister Pauline. “Well, have a nice visit.” And she shut the door.
Each of the three apartments housed twelve girls and had a main floor, an upper floor, and a basement rec room. This basement had two brown, vinyl couches, some shabby upholstered chairs, a ping-pong table, TV, record player, and an open cabinet strewn with board game pieces, playing cards, coloring books, note paper, crayons, pencils, magazines, and coverless paperbacks. Sister Pauline huffed and straightened the shelf. “Somebody’s not doing her job.”
At the back of the rec room were a two-stalled bathroom with no window and an office with glass walls. “We keep all medications in here.” Sister Pauline unlocked the door and the medication drawer. She brought out a folder. “This has to be followed exactly.” She tapped the folder and pointed to about fifteen bottles of medication. “You dispense these pills every morning right after breakfast before the girls leave for their classes. Never, ever remove the pills—or the files for that matter—from this room. That happened once—about a year ago.” She hesitated and stared into the drawer. Her voice faltered. “One of the girls saw the medication crate in the kitchen and snuck it to her room.”
She shook her head as if to bring herself back to the present. “So . . . you must do all dispensing right here through that partition. Gloria, your apartment co-worker, will show you how it works when you start.”
“What happened to her? That girl.”
It was obvious I had more questions. What was the outcome? What about her family? How did the girls react? Who was in charge? Did she or he get in trouble? but Sister Pauline held up her hand—like a stop sign. I closed my mouth.
She returned the folder. “That’s why we don’t let the girls anywhere near this stuff. And that’s why it’s locked.”
There were eight bedrooms on the upper floor, all painted a sad, dirty ecru, like the color bananas turn when left to rot. I was surprised the beds were made and the clothes picked up. I expected the rooms to reflect the inner chaos of unfortunate lives and frenzied personalities.
She answered my thoughts. “They have to keep their rooms organized, or there are consequences. They don’t like the consequences.”
Sister Pauline led me into a single bedroom. “Most of the girls share a room. The girls in singles are new and require more supervision.” She smoothed the bed cover and walked out. She didn’t see me rearrange the teddy bear that fell over.
“Once they get the hang of being in close proximity to their housemates, the singles can upgrade to sharing when someone graduates, turns eighteen, or is sent to juvenile jail.” She caught my grimace. “Doesn’t happen often, but it happens. When they go home for a visit and get caught doing something really bad—like armed robbery.”
The communal bathroom was a paint-chipped moss green with four graffiti-scratched toilet stalls, a row of sinks, and an open, separate shower room with three showerheads and a drain in the middle of the black and white tile floor. Privacy didn't seem to be a concern.
The main floor was a large open room with a kitchen and another three-stalled bathroom at one end near Sister Margaret’s room. Near the kitchen were a couple of long tables with folding chairs. The living room section had two blue plaid couches, two vinyl brown recliners, and several ladder back chairs. There were no rugs, no blankets thrown over the recliners, no pillows on the couch, no books, no color, not even plastic flowers. The lack of comfort screamed at me. Could I stand this place?
It was too late to back out. I had signed all the forms. I would start in two days.
I began on a morning shift. At first, everything seemed strangely serene. By 7:05 a.m., the girls were scuffling off to the bathroom. I tried to introduce myself, but they ignored me. Weeks later, I would learn that so many childcare workers had been in and out of their lives that a different face on the floor didn’t matter. I was just another authority figure. Just another bully to dole out consequences.
The girls went through their morning routine with robotic precision, like a choreographed dance—from ablutions to cold cereal to anti-depressant medication to classes. Their lack of chitchat seemed unusual in light of what Sister Pauline had told me. Because I was new, communication with the girls and the infrequent orders, “Make your bed,” or “Wash your bowl,” or “Take your pill,” came from Gloria. The girls didn’t respond much to Gloria nor Gloria to them. Her attitude seemed stiff and limp all at once, as if too much starch had been ironed into her spirit—or not enough. I couldn’t tell if she disliked the girls or flat-out didn’t care.
After the girls went off to class, Gloria and I sat at a dining table and went over the daily routine. Girls got up at seven, dressed, ate breakfast, and went off to their classes in another part of the basement. They came back for lunch at eleven, went back to classes until two, and returned to the apartment to have one glass of milk and two cookies at the dining tables, then do homework. Once homework was finished, they had free time to hang out in the rec room before and after dinner. Down there they’d watch TV, dance to records, argue over whose noise was too loud, play cards, color, write letters, anything that kept them occupied until nine o’clock when they’d go up to their rooms for nine-thirty bedtime. All planned out.
The other rules were simple.
1. Make beds; keep room neat.
2. All girls on the same floor at the same times.
3. No girls upstairs between breakfast and bedtime.
4. Eating only at dining tables and only when scheduled—in assigned seats with assigned food.
5. All homework signed by childcare worker.
6. Chores done Friday afternoons on scheduled rotation—wash toilets, sinks, and shower area, mop floors and hallways, wipe tables and kitchen counters, dust furniture, clean out refrigerator, empty trash, straighten game shelf, wash windows, clean inside cabinets, sort and prepare personal laundry for weekly pickup by Sister Angela, the laundress.
7. Dead silence at lights out.
On Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, girls who didn’t go home to visit family spent the entire day in the basement doing rec room things or eating at the main room tables. Gloria said they were the longest days. “The hours really drag because there’s nothing for the girls to do. That’s when the arguing and fighting gets going. You’ll have to be on your toes for that.”
“Why don’t all the girls visit their families?”
“Some families don’t want them. Or the girls are being punished.”
“Punished for what?”
“Not making their beds. Going upstairs or onto another floor by themselves. Stealing food. Talking back, especially to Sister Pauline. Doesn’t take much.”
“Talking back? She said they always talk back.”
“Wait ‘til you find what will get them sent to detention—the hole.”
“What’s the hol. . .?
Sister Pauline unlocked the door and swished in. “So, how are things?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Is Gloria explaining everything to you?” She looked at the empty tables. “Lunch will be here in a couple of minutes. Got things all ready?” She raised her eyebrows and smiled at Gloria. Her voice sounded like melting treacle.
Gloria jumped up, grabbed silverware, plastic glasses, and napkins, and started setting the table. She motioned for me to help.
“Good,” said Sister Pauline as she slammed the door behind her.
Lunch and dinner were prepared in a main kitchen and wheeled in on warming carts. The only foods kept in the apartment were breakfast items and snacks—cereal, milk, bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, fruit, and cookies. All girls ate their meals and snacks on a rigid schedule, hungry or not.
I heard a commotion in the basement.
“The girls are here for lunch. Brace yourself.”
A storm of humanity blew out of the stairwell and landed on the furniture. Just then, the main door opened and in rolled a steel cart. “Who’s on meals?” came from behind.
“That’s Sister Eunice, one of the cooks,” Gloria whispered. “She’s a stitch.”
Two girls sauntered over. “Yuck,” said one. “It’s salmonella craploaf again. With peas and jeez louise Jello.” The two girls took plates of food out of the cart and placed them at the table settings. The other girls, groaning in disgust, sat at their assigned places.
“Now, now, ladies,” said Sister Eunice. “I know you love it. You always eat it up.”
“’Cause we’re starving!” someone muttered.
“See you in a few.” Sister Eunice waved and left the apartment.
The meal was truly disgusting. Pale pink lumps played dead beside an oozing coagulant of mashed potatoes and beige gravy, sickly green peas, and a square of red Jello.
“What’s your name?” A girl across the table asked with her mouth full.
“Greta’s getting friendly,” someone sang in a na-na, na-na, naa-naa tone.
“Ellie,” I said. “Ellie Searl.”
“Cereal?” Greta laughed.
“Hey, guys, it’s Ellie Bellie!”
I laughed. I had heard all this before, so it didn’t bother me too much. At least they spoke to me. Maybe letting them tease was the only way into their lives.
Gloria put the kibosh on the greetings. “You girls don’t want to be reported, do you?”
Silence. Absolute silence. They all went back to eating. I was stunned.
“I’m from America,” I said, hoping to build some rapport. “My husband goes to McGill. We have a little girl, Katie. She’s three.”
“How nice for you,” Greta said. “Can I leave the table? I’m done.” She scraped back her chair. She had barely eaten anything.
I followed the routine the rest of that first day. Snacks, homework, free time. All regulated. All very much controlled. I ended my shift at three o’clock and went home. Exhausted. Curious. Uneasy. What was really going on at Marian Hall?
(Part Two - February)
EVS - 01/12