Mrs. O’Quillen

UPDATE: This post has been changed from it’s original incarnation.  A 40 year old photograph of “Mrs. O’ Quillen” (not her real name) had to be quickly changed to a ridiculous clip art female leprechaun.  Mrs. O never read this but somehow her sister in law did.  Sis -in-law angrily told me that Mrs. O would be “crushed” to read something like this. Ordered me to remove it immediately.  Said I was demonstrating “poor form”. I kinda agreed but informed her that the story would stay and then offered the well known “If people wanted you to write warmly about them then they should have behaved better” quote. Of course she was indignant. She then sent her own sister (no relation to Mrs. O) after me to try and bully me with email threats.  I relented and agreed to remove the photograph and change identifying details.  But the story stays.  Although we have mutual friends I have never met sis-in-law face to face.  Nor her bullying sister. But I sometimes wonder how they would have felt if their own children were treated so poorly in school. Something tells me they would be angrily rushing to the kid’s defense and turning their fighting indignation to the shitty teacher.  All a matter of perspective, huh?femalelep
Mrs. O’Quillen was our 6th grade science and homeroom teacher at Villa Maria Elementary in Erie, PA. I truly do not know what her teaching qualifications were but she came from a big Catholic family. I have said before that Catholic schools in the 70s did not actually require their lay teachers to have teaching qualifications. Villa Maria Elementary was no exception. They wanted Catholic teachers that worked cheaply. Did Mrs. O’Quillen know anything about science? At times she seemed to. She was certainly a huge improvement over the previous science “teacher”, a Mr. Nick DeSantis, who spent the entire hour of every science class talking endlessly about his knee surgeries, reading the book Dracula out loud to us and constantly making fun of several of the students’ names. He was particularly fond of calling one of the very few Jewish students, a boy named Israel, “Egypt”. Mr. DeSantis thought he was hilarious and switching Israel’s name was one of his favorite gambits. We all enjoyed Mr. DeSantis’ class but learned absolutely nothing about science. To be fair, Mrs. O’Quillen did run a halfway decent class. We had an aquarium in the classroom. We had gerbils! We had some fairly new books. Almost all the Villa Elementary schoolbooks were from the 50s and 60s so a modern science text was a huge improvement. Mrs. O’Quillen was tiny. Probably no more than 5 feet tall. And she was all about being Irish. Her Irish ethnicity was a huge part of her identity. And we students had better know that. Nothing thrilled Mrs. O’Quillen more than the approach of St. Patrick’s Day. Her classroom was bedecked in green. Irish maps all over the walls. “You must be Irish.” She said to me once. “Those green eyes!” She ordered us to wear something green on St. Paddy’s Day and was angry when I didn’t. I told her my eyes were my green adornment of the day. One of my more enterprising classmates scotch taped a blade of grass to his uniform shirt. Mrs. O’Quillen was not totally unkind as many of her Villa Elementary teaching co-horts were. She was not physically violent. There were two other teachers that taught during the same era as she, Miss Myers and Mrs. Bullock, who were quite slap happy. At least Mrs. O’Quillen taught without smacking students and that was always a relief. She WAS ridiculous though. Although she did not dislike me as much as some of her fellow teachers from the Villa 1970s Decade of Shitty Teachers did, she was annoyed by me. In most particular she HATED to hear me laugh. Odd, huh? I once saw her staring at me while I was in a group of students telling jokes. She told me to come speak to her. She was angry yet smirking. “I heard your laughter above everybody else’s.” She told me, then repeated. “Everybody else’s“. I still had half a smile from the joke telling session so she stared hard at me for a few seconds. “You don’t know what that means, do you?” She finally asked. My smile started to fade. “It means you laughed harder and louder than all the other kids. Do you even realize you do that? I always hear you laughing above all my other students and that’s WRONG!. Girls should not laugh SO hard. And you are to laugh quietly, do you understand me? You are foolish and you’re embarrassing yourself. Now don’t let me hear you laughing that loudly ever again.” My smile gone by this time, I cast my head down and walked away totally ashamed. Isn’t it crazy how I still find myself doing that? Quieting my laughter and walking with my head cast downward. Mrs. O’Quillen enjoyed humiliating students that got her “Irish up”. I cringe at the memory of a mentally challenged boy named Shawn. I liked Shawn. He was into science fiction and weird off the wall stuff that I also enjoyed. Mrs. O’Quillen did not like Shawn. Shawn annoyed her. He was dealing with some pretty severe mental health issues that drove Mrs. O’Quillen off her Irish rocker. He sometimes had difficulty controlling his facial expressions so Mrs. O’Quillen brought in a hand mirror from her home. She made Shawn look into it for an entire 45 minute class so he could see “how ridiculous you look, Shawn”. It broke my heart. I have no idea if Mrs. O’Quillen is still teaching. She must be in her 60s by now. I was always hoping to run into her someday. Supposedly she still lives in town. I want to tell her that Shawn died in a mental hospital. I want to tell her that I was completely unimpressed by Ireland. That Eire was so completely different from the lush, scenic green photos she plastered around her classroom. That it was dull, grey, damp, rainy. It felt like being in a third world country sometimes. I thought about her this St. Pat’s Day. It’s a big day for her. Hope she enjoyed it. Hope she is no longer ridiculous.

Catholic School Nonsense (MUCH More To Come Later)

Sister Margaret Frank, SSJ
Sister Margaret Frank, SSJ

It was recently pointed out to me that I join the Villa Maria Elementary of Erie, Pennsylvania Alumni group on Facebook. Along with that suggestion came the preposterous idea that I should also friend request the former principal of VME, one Sister Margaret Frank SSJ. To me Sr. Margaret has always been evil personified. I once called her the Antichrist but retracted that statement after I realized how unkind it was to say that. Not to mention a great insult to the Antichrist.

Astonishingly I have run into many fellow alumni who adored her. Memory is subjective and we all experience things and people differently. A while back I saw her. The first time I encountered the woman as an adult. She recognized me immediately and praised me for having been in so many theatrical productions. “You always hated me.” I blurted out. The words came automatically to my lips. “Nooooo!” she declared. “Yes.” I countered. But as I just said, memory is subjective.

My earliest letdown in the Catholic school known as Villa Maria Elementary was the day of my first holy communion. At that point, at seven years of age, I had already been kicked out of a religion class. The incident occurred the year before in first grade. I had suggested that the class should not be praying in the chapel that day. The bewildered old nun was quite affronted by this and asked me why not. I indicated that the huge candle in the sacristy was not lit. In a previous tour of the chapel it was pointed out to us that the fire burning on the candle signified the presence of God. “That means God is here with us, children.” said Sister Drool. Now of course Sister Drool was not her real name but we children could not keep up with the numerous old corpses sent down from the motherhouse (which at that time was a few floors upstairs from our classrooms) that we had to name them by their attributes. “God’s not here today.” I explained to Sister D. whose openmouthed gasp temporarily stopped the flow of drool. I was made to stand outside the chapel while the good children were led in prayer.

Well, hey,maybe this would be my first chance to try some of that holy water from the basin sitting in the marble cherub’s outstretched hands. Nobody was looking and holy water must taste awesome, right?! Probably better than Kool-Aid! Better than Tang! Maybe even better than chocolate milk! After all it is holy! Word to the wise, kids. Yuck.

Yet holy water had to be nothing compared to the communion host that by second grade I was now going to be allowed to eat! Now this had to be something special. For one thing, only adults were permitted to take it and for another, it was BLESSED! Blessed by priests who had power that was passed down to them from Jesus Himself! And not only that, we had to partake in a special ceremony just to become eligible to eat this magic bread!

I was anxiously awaiting this most holy of communion days. We had a practice run in which we did get to eat an actual real honest to goodness communion wafer. I was discouraged that it tasted so terrible until we were informed by Sister Weeble that the practice bread had NOT been blessed. Well that explained it. No flavor and no magical powers.

I spent the day of my communion being primped by and for the adults in my life. Curlers, flowers, jewelry and a very uncomfortable starched white dress and veil. All fripperies that I normally hated but could tolerate on this most holy special day.

Communion day came and went. I ate the special bread. And I was not miraculously endowed with special powers. I had really been hoping for the ability to fly. After all, Jesus flew all the time, didn’t He? At least in my seven year old mind he did. ( Four years later, in sixth grade , I saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar whereupon I overcame my disappointment that our savior apparently did not have the power of flight. Now He could sing rock and roll which was even cooler.)

In third grade Villa Maria Elementary became what I affectionately refer to as a school for troubled teachers. My guess is that the decrepit creatures from the motherhouse could no longer make the journey downstairs to instruct us. Since they taught for free (or maybe it was for  room and board) the school had to find alternative educators. That third grade year started a succession of interesting characters at the head of our classrooms. To describe them all would be a blog unto itself. It was as if the new principal, Sister Margaret Frank, shouted out the window at passersby and asked them if they wanted to be a teacher then invited them in if they answered yes. Some were ineffectual, some were actually dedicated wonderful educators and some were downright abusive.

Holy communion did not bestow any particular blessing on me as the ensuing years at Villa Maria Elementary only got more hellish.

Mrs. Susan Bullock was my third grade homeroom teacher. A new hire, Mrs. Bullock was one of Sister Margaret’s pool of low bid foot soldiers. Surprisingly, Mrs. Bullock actually had a degree in education. What she lacked was humanity. Third grade began what was to become a year of horrible difficulties for me…difficulties that I’ll explain briefly below. Difficulties that made ME difficult and Mrs. Bullock took an instant seething dislike to me.

One of Mrs. Bullock’s favorite gambits was to point out my ridiculousness or stupidity to the rest of the class. All activities had to stop while this humiliating event occurred. “Class, please stop what you’re doing” she would start and I knew I was in for it. She would hold up my paper or point out some absurd thing I had done and say “I want you all to see what Karen (redacted) has done this time.” She always blended my first and last name into one. “If you had any brains in your head at all, Karen(redacted), I think they would rattle!” was one of her fondest directives toward me. To this day I get very shy about introducing myself with my first and last name. I still hear Mrs. Bullock’s putdowns even in my adult head.

To be somewhat fair to Mrs. Bullock I have to offer the full disclosure that I did become a very difficult child for any teacher to deal with the year she started teaching. Awful things that happened outside the school changed my behavior for the worse. Early in my third grade year I was molested by my pediatrician and later that year my father went into a coma and hovered between life and death for many weeks. I became an angry, frightened, insecure and defiant child.

I became “trouble”.  An annoyance. And a huge thorn in Sister Margaret’s side.

I saw the unsympathetic, money worshipping side of the Catholic church at a very early age. The same Catholic mentality that sent scores of known child raping priests to poorer parishes.

God and Sister Margaret favored the rich kids. It was too much of a bother to extend time and compassion to the child of working class parents who had difficulty making tuition payments.

At one point during a particularly nasty Sister Margaret Shitlist Session (that would be where the good sister called in her least favorite students one by one to angrily insult us and tell us what rotten Catholics we were) she asked me to leave Villa Maria Elementary. “Maybe you belong in public school.” she told me. The words “public school” were spit out of her mouth with a disgusted sneer. Just saying “public school” in that building was akin to uttering a profanity.

This was good news to me! Surely I could take this statement to my mother and it would treated as some sort of royal command. A decree from her royal heinous, Sister Margaret, that I be banished to the uncivilized lowlands known as public education! Naturally, I did not see this as a banishment but as a release, an early release from prison.

Unfortunately that day only got worse as the next victim on Sister Margaret’s shitlist was my dear friend Ann (REDACTED). She was going into Sister’s office as I was leaving. Ann had not been at Little Villa very long but she and I had bonded deeply. Ann’s troubled childhood and family difficulties of her own cemented our bond. We had glommed onto each other. Nobody else found religion class as boring and as humorous as Ann and I did. Two little blasphemous heretics in sea of pious, compliant urchins.

Ann left VME that very day. Sister Margaret had apparently given her the same “You would be better off in (sneer, spit) public school .” speech. Ann’s’ mother was called and Ann was quickly and quietly spirited away from VME forever. ( I still envy her!) She asked Sister Margaret if she could go back into the classroom to say goodbye to me but Sister was still in heartless bitch mode and refused that request. Ann’s last act of Catholic school rebellion was to write me a beautifully touching farewell letter which she slipped into my locker while gathering her things.

My mother does not remember Sister Margaret’s decree. I certainly remember my plaintive plea that I be allowed to leave that school because it was a plea that was repeated every day for many more years after that. I suspect that my mother quickly tired of hearing the same request day after day and just tuned me out. Even Summer vacation did not go by without a daily appeal to be transferred to a different, preferably non-Catholic school. Still every summer ended the same way.

Back in line at VME. All the students being greeted by a grinning Sister Margaret whose smile abruptly left her face upon seeing me. Perhaps she smiled at my eighth grade graduation , secure in the knowledge that I would never be back

PRINCESS AMBULANCE

HorseyPrincessYou will know how Princess Ambulance was crowned with that moniker towards the end of the story. I do not know her. I can’t even recall her real name. All I know is that she is a local teenager who attempts to ride and show horses. Whether or not she is successful at either of those endeavors is a mystery to me. She certainly failed at both on the day that I encountered her.  I can’t know if she ever picked  herself up, dusted herself off and truly became a competitive rider because I stopped helping out at horse shows. And she would be the reason why.

As mentioned, I have stopped volunteering my time to help out at the local charity horse shows. The charity I refer to is a handicapped riding facility (see link at end of post) that operates out of the stable where I used to ride.  My good friend and riding instructor, Stephanie,  teaches from that barn and I was happy to announce for the horse shows she manages. These riding competitions benefit the therapeutic riding program so I was glad to oblige.

Of all the shows , the hunter/jumper competitions were by far the most popular and well attended.  I arrived at the stable early in the morning to watch sleek horses unloaded from their trailers. These horses were followed by a plethora of teen princesses I could only identify by their assigned show numbers.  These little English riding girls seemed to take on a certain sameness.  Not just because they all wear the exact same jacket, helmet and breeches as the competitor before them,  but also because of their demeanor and attitude.  A certain set of their mouths, length of hair and sense of entitlement.

And speaking of assigned show numbers let’s go there.  It became a problem. First thing in the morning I sat at the entry table with the show administrator and helped distribute the number placards the riders were to wear during the competition.  Apparently we did not do such a great job because problems arose almost immediately.

A few of the young ladies were unhappy with their numerical assignments.  “But I always get number 36!” whined one girl who looked to be about 16.   The administrator informed Wendy Whiner that the number 36 had already been assigned to another rider.  Wendy raised both her volume and pitch and repeated her mantra anew. “BUT I ALWAYS GET NUMBER 36!!!”  A line was beginning to form behind her.  I repeated what the administrator had already told her. She stomped her foot and whipped out her cellphone. “MOM!” she bellowed into the phone. “Get over here! They won’t let me have number 36!”

Moments later Mom appeared. “What can we do about this?” Mom demanded. “She has to have 36. It’s her lucky number. She NEEDS it.” Several more minutes of discussion led to the overly accommodating administrator finding the rider who had previously gotten the number 36 placard and negotiating a trade.  Unfortunately Whiny Number 36 was not the exception to the rule. Quite  a few teenage girls demanded “their” special lucky numbers.  One girl who actually had the good luck to receive her requested number curtly told me not to expect the placard back as she was taking it home to place in her scrapbook.  Informed by the administrator that there would be a fine for the unreturned number the young rider snapped “Well, don’t tell me! Duh. Tell my mom.”

That show, along with the following hunter/jumper shows proved to be very long , trying days for me. I wondered if perhaps it was because I had been primarily a western rider and was accustomed to a friendlier, albeit no less competitive atmosphere. This blog is certainly not at all about English vs. western riding and I am making every effort so that it does not appear so biased. Not every girl who rode in the hunter/jumper shows behaved badly. There were some gracious and lovely young horsewomen in training and it was a great privilege to watch them effortlessly ride a jump course (something I could only do when my instructor shouted out constant commands to me) and display their excellent equitation.

I also admit to some extra sensitivity to the difficult events at these shows because I was often remembering my own struggle riding and showing as a teenager. I was also peripherally aware that I was coming to the end of my own days as a rider and it stung.

As it was those hunter shows were long days of being rudely treated by these spoiled young girls and their indulgent mothers.  I was mystified and slightly heartsick that these riders could not even summon one iota of gratitude for the tremendous privilege of having a life journey that was blessed with the great good fortune of owning and riding horses.

Yet I kept plugging away. I felt their ingratitude stab into my heart. I remembered the difficulty achieving my own young horse dreams.  I tried to keep telling myself that the show was not about them. That I was doing it for the disabled riders who struggled mightily for that half hour of therapeutic riding time.  Then “Princess Ambulance” swept in to take over one memorable hunter jumper competition.

This particular show featured the usual teenage girl tantrums,  hissies and general poor behavior.  I endeavored to take the rudeness in stride. Even laughed at the three girls who rolled their eyes and swore at me when I informed each one that she was to be the next rider in the jumping arena.

Princess Ambulance arrived with her dowdy mother.  Her thin frame and blond hair contrasted greatly with her overweight mother’s short brown hair and glasses.  Although Princess Ambulance was not mean to me personally she did bark orders to her harried mom.  Much to my surprise her mom actually marched to these orders.  I looked at this mother and recognized a cowed woman.  I saw it in her eyes and in the way she carried herself.  I beheld a woman who would walk on shards of fiery broken glass if she thought it would make her princess happy.  She was definitely one of those women who always left the decision making to someone else. Unquestioningly carrying out the demands of others.  I felt both sympathy and contempt for her.

I did not watch as Princess rode out her turn on the jump course but I was asked to announce her disqualification. I pressed the button on the walkie – talkie and asked the judge to repeat her request. The judge responded that Princess had gone around the course in the wrong direction! “Yeah, that’s an immediate disqualification.” said the administrator.  I made my announcement and we got back to tallying the previous class scores.

The sound of a throat clearing made us look up from our scoresheets.  Mother Ambulance stood somewhat nervously before us.  Looking as though she would rather be anywhere else she took a deep breath.  “My daughter needs another go – round.” she said. “She has to have another chance.”  The administrator and I both gaped for a moment but it was the administrator who spoke first.  “Um, your daughter rode the course backwards.” she said.  Mother Ambulance told us it was not her princess’ fault.  I then responded by saying that the course is visibly posted for all competitors to review before and during the show.  I tactfully held back the fact that it was your usual easy to follow jump course that is standard in every novice hunter/jumper schooling show from here to Mesopotamia.

“She’s very upset.” Mother told us. “It’s not her fault.”  Administrator and I both stared silently to wait for the explanation to this gem of information.  Mother cleared her throat again and attempted to become more assertive. “That’s how she was told to ride it.” she finally informed us.  Once again the administrator and I exchanged astonished looks.  “By whom?!” administrator asked.  Mother pointed at Stephanie and our looks of bewilderment grew.  I did not trust myself to speak further and ask why Stephanie, the show manager and COURSE DESIGNER, not to mention experienced rider, teacher and trainer (Heck, Steph taught me, a western rider who had never jumped so much as a log, how to jump sidesaddle!) would tell a rider to jump the course BACKWARDS! Sheesh.

Luckily the administrator is a more tolerant and accommodating soul than myself and she said we could ask the judge. She told Mom that it would be unlikely that the judge would concede to a second ride for the pouting princess but we would ask anyway.  Of course that meant that I was to make this ridiculous request of the judge via walkie – talkie.

As tactfully as possible I sent out this pleading petition to the judge. There was a pause. Even over walkie – talkie airwaves I could read the subtext of that pause.  In that brief moment of silence I definitely  heard “Did I just hear that?! What, are you fucking kidding me?!” Then the familiar crackle and the judge’s voice came through with kind but firm negative response.

The mother stared at us for a few seconds then sighed heavily and went to break the distressing news to her little princess.  I then knew the reason for the heavy sigh as I watched Princess’ reaction to said bad news.  Honestly , if I hadn’t known what just transpired I would have guessed that Mother was telling the girl that the rest of their family had been brutally murdered.  At first an incredulous open mouthed gawk.  Then a crimson face with a look of disbelief.  Then the tears. Oh Lord, the tears.  A burst of tears. Followed by ANOTHER burst of tears. A toddler’s tantrum in a teenage body.  Mom attempted to say more but Princess cried harder and led her horse away.  She planted herself conspicuously in the connecting aisle that brought the competitors into the showring.  My guess is that she wanted to be seen by as many people as possible. An emotional reaction to such a grave injustice deserves a wide audience.

Princess leaned up against the connector wall and began her sobs anew.  I swear that her  horse seemed embarrassed.  I think I even saw him manage a horsey eye roll. I felt for him.  I really wanted to feel ashamed for her. Truly I did. My attempt to muster any sympathy for her failed.  I ended up feeling worse for her poor horse who had to stand there and maintain some sort of dignity while his rider bawled her eyes out in front of everyone.

It made me flash back to a time when I was her age (mid to late teens) and felt like crying at a horse show. I had been terribly nervous just knew in my heart that I was going to have a lousy ride.  My own mother, herself a childhood horse show veteran , was not as sympathetic as Mother Ambulance. “Look.” My mom told me impatiently. “This is supposed to be FUN. Do you understand? If you are not having FUN then unsaddle the damn horse and we will leave right now.”

Unfortunately for Princess Ambulance her day at the horse show was only going to get worse. Her misfortune was my good luck as I enjoy a true instant karmic bitchslap as much as anyone.  It also indulged my fondness for dark comedy with a measure of appropriate slapstick. That may sound awfully cruel in light of the events I am about to describe, but please bear with me…nobody was hurt during the couse of Princess’  hapless accident.

With tremendous will the Princess of LamentationLand brought her tears under control to enter the equitation class.  No jumps in this class but I silently prayed that she would follow another competitor into the ring so as not to start riding around in the wrong direction.  Ever get that feeling that a disaster is about to happen? I watched the equitation class. No riders stood out as being exceptionally good or bad but It did concern me that Princess was leaning up and out of her saddle almost constantly.  Once again I mentally lauded her horse. Not only did he have to put up with her emotional maelstroms he also had to stay balanced while she maintained an absurd position halfway out and forward of her saddle.  The class was going well until the judge asked for the canter.

A few beats into the canter and down came Princess’ horse.  He stumbled. Fell down to his knees and Princess flew off of him and landed with a thud. Her horse righted himself almost instantly but Princess remained prostrate on the ground. I made an announcement to clear the arena.  Several people including Princess’ mom and Stephanie flew to her side.  I overheard parts of the conversation.  Mom asked if she wanted an ambulance. In true dramatic Camille From Her Deathbed fashion Princess eked out a “Yes!”.  Stephanie called an ambulance while Princess waited on the ground surrounded by an entourage of sympathy givers.

I could almost sense the paramedic’s annoyance as the arena doors opened and the ambulance backed up inside.  Several minutes passed. The medics asked all the pertinent questions.  Princess vocally expressed her desire to be taken to the hospital but the medic’s exam negated this request.  Finally the senior paramedic stood up and put an end to Princess’ wailing by saying “Why don’t you just chalk it up to a bad day at the horse show okay? Just a bad day at the horse show.” The other medic also stood up and they walked back to the ambulance. I saw them both shake their heads.  Gosh I hope nobody had a heart attack while they were ministering to that girl.

I turned away in disgust from the rest of the action but was later told that Princess got up and walked out of the arena of her own volition.  Completely uninjured. I’m sure there were plenty of tears but I was not about to watch anymore.  I finished out the day but never returned to volunteer at the stable again.

I don’t know who you are Princess Ambulance, but I sincerely hope that you have grown up since your “bad day at the horse show”.  Maybe you learned a little bit about how unfair life can be. I certainly had that lesson driven into me for about the millionth time by YOU at that very same competition.  Some people do not deserve horses.  Yet they get them anyway because they have wealthy indulgent parents.  Horseback riding,  horse ownership and competing in horse shows are all great privileges.

Let me tell you something about horse shows, Princess.  Sometimes you do not get the blue ribbon (or any ribbon for that matter) even when you know you have ridden well and deserve it more than your fellow competitors.  And sometimes you get an undeserved ribbon when you know you have been outridden. That happened to me once. Got a first place in a jumping class where I knew I totally sucked. Even the person handing me the blue ribbon grimaced and shook their head.  I rode horribly and wondered if the judge was even watching me.

And sometimes we mess up and that is why we get disqualified and ruin our own chances to be in the ribbons.  I rode a barrel racing course backwards one time.  MY fault.  There is no way my mother would have begged the judges for me to have another go.  In fact she laughed! Thought it was funny and admonished me to pay attention next time.

Yes, we all fall. It’s scary. It must be dreadfully humiliating to fall at a show. But that humiliation does not give you the right to disrupt the show because of your own great need for attention.  I was briefly unconscious after one of my scariest falls and you know what my mother did? If you are guessing that she called an ambulance you would be incorrect.  No. She waited until I remembered where I was and what happened then told me that I should probably get back on the horse.  I did.

My grandfather used to have a saying. “Don’t make a monkey out of that horse.” he would tell his young charges before they entered the horse show ring.  It used to be just a silly thing he always said but as I grew, and especially as I watched competitive riders, it meant more.  The great privilege of being an equine caretaker means many things.  Yes of course the typical things. Make sure they are well fed, happy and healthy. But it also meant to remember their dignity and respect them as  the noble creatures that they are.

I hope that your horse taught you that lesson, Princess Ambulance. He really showed you up didn’t he? You need to become as dignified and gracious as your mount. Enjoy the process. The ribbons mean nothing. In the end it really is all about the enjoyment of these magnificent creatures, isn’t it? Be grateful that they let us be their companions and caretakers.  Do you think your horse gives a crap about showing? He does it for you, Princess.   I also hope that you will someday look AT instead of THROUGH your mother. She tries hard and means well.  Do not see her as the lackey that helps you get into equestrian competitions. See her as the reason you are able to ride a horse at all. It’s an expensive hobby. One that thousands of little girls only dream about.  Think about those girls and realize how fortunate you are.  My greatest hope for you, Princess, is that you will lose the entitled attitude, sharpen your riding skills and become worthy of your horse.  Until then, SUCK IT.

http://www.trecerie.org

THE PROFESSIONAL BUILDING

profbldgMy first essay (why do I dislike calling them blogs? That’s what they are!) concerns two childhood events that scarred me deeply. More essays/blogs to follow will be about justice, horses, mystical and metaphysical experiences, horses, birds and other animals, opinions and creativity. And how every one of these subjects relate to my healing journey. And possibly yours. We are all on a healing journey. Some of us have much farther to travel than others.  You are not alone. It’s never too late to reclaim that vibrant fearless mind/body you posessed when you were a child. Before life happened. Before shame and conformity happened. You are not weird. You are you. I am trying to plow my way back to health and noting some aspects here and there as I go along.

My first entry into the world of blogdom is called “The Professional Building”

I wonder if it needs an introduction. I name two individuals who abused me as I child.  One of these men is named by the first initial of his last name. Not to protect him but to protect his family who still live in the area. I realize that it wouldn’t be that difficult to find out who he is.  Go for it. A later blog will address a much more recent event that triggered these horrible recollections. Now these memories were never repressed. They remain as vibrant in my mind as when they originally occurred. Something awful and unjust brought them to the forefront of my mind. But that is a story for a later essay. There is much more to say. Let’s start.

The two men who destroyed my childhood innocence worked in the same building.  A square utilitarian box known as the Professional Building on Peach Streeet in Erie, PA.  It still stands today , it’s exterior completely unchanged.  Not too many tenants inhabit the building today but back in the day (listen to me , all curmudgeonly!) it was mostly medical offices.

The first of the two men was named Dr. James Kerr. He was a pediatric dentist and a violent child abuser. A frightening old man with repressed rage that was hardly contained when he smilingly called children into his dental office. The waiting room was colorful. Brightly lit and cheerfully filled with toys. I had just turned 5 and was happily playing with a plastic tea set when Dr. James Kerr called me into his office.  He had a strict policy of no parents allowed in the exam room. “It just upsets them.” he reassuringly told my mom.  “It goes so much quicker and easier without Mom in the room. And..” he added “Please don’t ask her about the visit. That upsets them too. Just don’t mention it. We don’t want to make them nervous by going over it.”  And with that he led me into his exam room.

The exam room was a stark contrast to brightness of the waiting room. It was dark. Sparse. One far corner held the dental chair where I was never seated.  Dr. Kerr walked over to the chair and grabbed the flexible overhead light. He shined that light on me like a big follow spot and the smile instantly left his face.  A massive sense of foreboding swept over my 5 year old body. At that age I had never felt that kind of heavy malice. It surrounded me like a blanket of doom. I looked up at him.

“You goddamned little bitch.” He said. And then louder. “You goddamned little bitch!! What the hell did you do to your teeth, huh?” I tried to speak. In my house you always answered an adult when one spoke to you. I had never heard the word bitch before but certainly heard plenty of Goddamns from my dad and knew it wasn’t a good thing.  I opened my mouth but no words came out. None of my dad’s angry Goddamns had ever been directed at me and the sensation was new…and frightening.

“Well?!” Dr. Kerr demanded “WELL??!!”   I desperately tried to answer him but my throat constricted and still no words formed.  I started to speak again but he backhanded me so hard that I couldn’t.  I was too shocked and scared to even cry. In my 5 short years of life I had never felt such fear. “You’re bleeding!” he yelled, handing me a tissue. “Clean yourself up, you messy little bitch. Wipe your face right now. If you tell your mother that you were bleeding I will hit her too.”

I did as I was told.  A few tears threatened to spill but he warned me that if I didn’t cry I could leave his room, go back to the waiting area with my mom and play with the toys.  Did I understand? I nodded and with remarkable self control for a 5 year old I instantly stopped the tears. I was led back to the toys and quickly picked up the plastic tea set I had been playing with earlier. Unbeknownst to me, my mom was scheduling two more appointments.

The second appointment began much the same as the first. A smiling Dr. Kerr beckoned me into his exam room. I dropped the plastic tea set and followed him inside. He shut the door, grabbed me by my shoulders and threw me into the wall.  Instantaneous shock racked my little body. The pain of hitting the wall made me want to cry but I quickly remembered his no tears rule.  I was about to get up when he pounced on me, pinning me tightly to the floor by grabbing my thighs. It saddens me now to recall how little I was…how his entire hand fit all the way around my upper leg.

I stayed silent and he held me there for a brief moment, also silent.  He glared down at me and when he decided I’d had enough of being restrained he then lifted me by my shoulders and dragged me to the side of his dental chair.  I suddenly noticed that we were not alone.  A little girl lay in the chair her head turned to the side watching us.  She was blond, older than I was and lay passively staring. Her face was blank but silent tears streamed down her face one after the other. I was surprised to see her.

I couldn’t stare at her for very long because Kerr demanded that I look at him.  He asked me a series of questions about my teeth but I cannot remember them. They sounded as if they were coming from an echo chamber because he had shaken me so hard that my ears rang.  He ordered the girl in the chair to stay quiet.  She looked at us and seemed to decide that the struggle was too much. She turned her head upwards to face the ceiling obviously unable to watch.  Maybe she was pleading with God, as I was, to protect her. To make it all stop. I often wonder what became of her. Does she remember watching me get smacked around by that monster? Was she beaten by him too? Did she become a frightened little girl? Did she feel that God abandoned her?

The third and final appointment never really happened.  It was going to happen. It was scheduled to happen. My mom brought me to the Professional Building. We made it to the door of Dr. Kerr’s office. Before my mom could even open the door I was told (I have no recollection of this) that I uncharacteristically peed myself.  My mom was astonished. After all I was way too old for that sort of thing. Something clicked in her mind. She thought about the bruises I’d had after the last appointment and told me I didn’t have to go in.  She claims she told me that I never had to go back to Dr. Kerr.  It must have been true for we never returned to his office.  Unfortunately for me another monster layed in wait only a few doors down the hall.

My esteemed and well respected pediatrician had an office in the Professional Building. Dr. D. was a man whose face was never without a condescending sneer. In fact something in his countenance reminded me of Dr. Kerr. An authoritarian smirk that barely hid furious contempt.  He always looked down at you from beneath his dark rimmed glasses as though he was disturbed that you had bothered him at all. He was a domineering man who spoke very gruffly to my mother. And she was extremely intimidated by him. She was a young, fresh off the farm unsophisticated, nervous new mother and he was a bully who hated women.  Although we very rarely saw him (I was a pretty healthy kid) he never missed a chance to chide my mother for her nerves and the fact that she had wasted his time even contacting him at all.  She took his bullying with the belief that her childrens’ health depended on her being entirely submissive to this older professional, highly educated man.

I shudder when I recall the harshness of his touch. How he pushed me to move or turn around without even asking as though I were a recalcitrant horse who needed swatted on the shoulder to move out of the way.  Dr. D. did not, as far as I know, deign to actually speak to his young patients.  At least not ones that were brought in by irritatingly naive uneducated working class moms.  Dr. D. seemed to enjoy deliberately frightening my mother once he saw how cowed she was by his authority. It’s sad to think that she believed that keeping her kids healthy meant weathering this contemptible old man’s gruff putdowns.

Dr. D. seemed to see right through me. My shy demeanor coupled with the fear of men that was firmly put into place by Dr. James Kerr set me right in Dr. D’s predatory sights. Even at 8 years of age I knew that he had sized me up as an easy mark. And that is when he made his ghastly move.

“A routine checkup” is what my mother had told me days before the appointment. She knew I was afraid of him and wanted to prepare me ahead of time. She assured me that the appointment was nothing to worry about.  No shots, no medicine, just a checkup.  I was dubious. Already a cynic at 8 years old. And rightfully so.

I will never forget the smell of Dr. D’s office. The vinyl chairs, the alcohol, the Cepacol mouthwash used to disinfect the thermometers.  I always felt instantly smaller when I walked into that office. As diminished as a small child can feel. The fear, the lack of control, the adults telling me what to do…it all made me feel inconsequential.  As though I had no voice.

That morning Dr. D. pushed me down onto his exam table as he always did, wordlessly and brusquely.  But this visit didn’t go as previous checkups had gone.  This “routine” exam took a frightening unexpected turn when Dr. D. abruptly yanked down my panties as I lay prostrate on the table. I gasped, startled, and immediately moved to sit up only to be roughly pushed back down.  He said nothing.  He made no eye contact with me, but then again, he never had before.

I felt my heart beat faster.  I felt the beginnings of what I now know is a cold sweat.  Can such a young child feel foreboding? Definitely, and it’s a feeling that should never be in an 8 year old’s emotional repertoire.  My sweaty palms gripped the paper that covered the exam table. It was then that Dr. D., without speaking, inserted his fingers into my vagina.  I stopped breathing with the shock of that sensation. It hurt terribly. His fingers were so big and I was so tiny. I was being invaded and not understanding. When I at last caught my breath I managed to to squeak out a feeble whimper.  He drove his fingers in further and the pain shot through my entire body.

I lay back, gripping the paper even harder. Waiting and praying for it to be over. But it didn’t end quickly. I do not know if the stabbing pain made the entire event seem prolonged in my young mind or if (as I am guessing now as an educated adult)Dr. D. sadistically enjoyed my terror and suffering so much that he was loathe to end it quickly.

When the pain became too much I begged him to stop.  “But it HURTS!” I recall saying at least 3 times.  Each time I spoke his fingers probed rougher and harder.  He finally pulled out and relief flooded my body so intensely that I couldn’t even cry. The relief was instantly replaced by shame. I cannot recall a time where I was ever so totally consumed by humiliation.  The shame actually felt physical. I was diminished, smaller, weaker and voiceless.

As a child you don’t realize what’s abnormal. I came to believe that Dr. D’s molestation was a normal part of a physician’s visit. I became terrified of him and did everything I could to avoid a visit.  Drastic steps for a child to take. I suppressed and hid any symptoms of illness. I went to school with awful colds. I held back coughs. I taught myself not to vomit. To this day I still cannot throw up. I never got a pelvic exam until well into my adulthood.

It was also unfortunate that my fear of Dr. D. led my mother to the ridiculous idea that she should not inform me of impending appointments.  I fought her so hard when she tried to bring me in for a doctor’s appointment that she decided witholding the information until the very last minute was the best possible option.  I remember being at school only to be pulled out of class in the middle of the day and not informed that I was about to be taken to Dr. D’s office until I was in the car. I felt betrayed and shanghaied when this would happen. Hot tears would run down my face as I begged my mom to turn the car around. I shook violently. This would always lead to an admonishment to stop crying and get myself together before we arrived at our destination. My mother’s firm belief was that you NEVER betray your emotions in public and crying was not to be done in front of others.

Future visits with Dr. D. were unavoidable. To be fair, he never molested me again.  I did keep a death grip on my panties during each subsequent exam. He snickered at this. It was the only time our eyes ever met, his and mine, and I knew with every fiber of my being that he understood why I would not let go of my undergarments and got a huge fiendish kick out of it.

“We like to get rid of them when they’re 12.” Dr. D. callously told my mom in my 11th year. Now I understand in a way I could back then. Back then I only felt immense relief. The burden of having to pretend I wasn’t ill when I actually was now left my life.  I was finally too old for Dr. D. Pedophiles have an age limit. They place themselves in professions where children are abundant.  This was only recently pointed out to me by an excellent therapist.

Not long ago I was at the beach with my 8 year old niece when I spotted a male acquaintance.  I was about to introduce my little niece when she confidently stepped forward and did the honors herself. She extended her hand and proceeded to tell my gentleman friend all about school, ballet class, girl scouts and her new baby sister.

As I watched this conversation I was surprised to feel a lump form in my throat.  I embarrassingly blinked back unexpected tears.  With shame I realized that what I was feeling was a deep stab of jealousy.  When I was my niece’s age I had already been robbed of the capacity to deal with grown men.  I would have cowered. Kept silent.  Adult men became suspect in my 8 year old mind.  I had even taken to avoiding the harmless adult men in my childhood. I hid from my uncles. Stopped sitting on my beloved grandfather’s lap. Innocent men who loved me very much and were no doubt confused at my sudden withdrawal from them.

I have no idea what has become of Dr. Kerr.  I’m guessing that he is dead. I hope his tortured life is over.  He leaves a legacy of many beaten children .  I have met several of his former patients over the years. It stands to reason. Erie is a small city and for a time he was the only pediatric dentist in town.  I went to high school with a girl who proudly told the story of how she kicked him square in the nuts and ran screaming from his office.  I asked her why. She told me that he had threatened to hurt her mom. I wish I would have had her courage. That I could say I trounced this violent jerk and made a daring escape. Instead I am somewhat shamed by the knowledge that I folded like pill bug.

Dr. D. is apparently long retired and living the good life in Florida. At least that is what the local society page says when he makes an occasional return trip to Erie to visit his children and grandchildren.  He is usually referred to as “beloved” and “esteemed”.  Those words don’t bother so much as the fact that he is visiting grandchildren. I hope they are over the age of 12.

I do not have any idea how many other children were affected by Kerr’s violence and D’s molestations.  I am positive that there had to be many others.  I hope life has been kind to those anonymous others. That they had enough support and kindness to live a life without fear. I think of them. I wonder about them.  Are they haunted by the memories? Have they reclaimed their lives?

In a later blog I will write about an incredible healing experience that led me to forgive Dr. James Kerr.  Dr. D. may never be forgiven by me. Very un – Christian I know. It’s difficult to even consider absolving a man who invaded a sacred space with such malice. Dr. D. disregarded a child. He is a disgrace to his profession. A healer who wounded rather than cured.

But maybe our journey isn’t always about forgiveness of others.  Forgive is a hugely popular self help buzzword. Forgiveness of even the most monstrous wrongs done to our person is alleged to be powerfully healing.  I propose that idea to be false. A silly notion put out there by the myriad of ” happy happy joy joy positive attitude everything is rosy when it really isn’t” self help crowd.  Why don’t we start our healing journey by concentrating on ourselves. Healing from the abuse. The betrayal. The pain (physical or psychic) caused by somebody else when we were too vulnerable to avoid it.  Reclaim your body. Reclaim your mind. Reclaim your sexuality. Reclaim your joy. Can it be done? I’m not sure. I’ve seen glimpses of it. Let’s take this journey together.