A number of years ago, while in therapy, I did an amazingly deep session regarding my time at New Tribes Mission’s boarding school (Hogar Misionero, Chame, Panama).
Today, as I look back on that day, I realise that there was one thing I failed to say, and today I can say it:
I felt guilty for being okay.
I said it at the time… but only in reference to me, my sister and my mum & dad. But the guilt I have carried has been much bigger than that.
I still feel guilty for being okay.
The reality is – I felt guilty then, and have moments when I still feel guilty now, because I was one of the few that perhaps managed to get out mostly unscathed!
Is this survivor guilt? I don’t know.
What I do know is that my survival techniques were pretty well honed.
I’m an introvert by nature – I love my alone time. But I’m also a socially adept introvert – I know how to speak with strangers, easily. I am not awkward in a crowded room, and never afraid to speak in public. I know how to pretend to pay attention and ask the right questions to keep another person talking.
But, being an introvert, I love being alone. I have a feeling, that the situation and circumstances increased my introvertedness.
Because at New Tribes Mission boarding school, I was perfectly happy to shun all company and sit alone on the swings.
Hours and hours on end.
Swinging. Now that I look at that… seems a little bit like a kid with autism that will sit and rock themselves…
I’ve said it before in conversation – the swing set was a safe place. A safe space.
I didn’t have to talk to anyone.
I wouldn’t get in trouble, as long as I came inside when the dinner bell was rung, ate my meals when served, did the dishes when told, cleaned the house as instructed, and took care of my chores as expected.
I quickly learned how to follow the rules, and ignore anything else.
Keep out of trouble.
Don’t confront. Don’t talk back. Don’t ask for instructions to be repeated. And most certainly don’t ask for an explanation.
Another great escape, and skill that still serves me well to this day – reading. If you’re brainy and like studying, you pretty much get left alone.
So, I adapted to reading and studying. Practicing my hand-writing. Getting good at maths. And a whole lot of stories to feed my imagination, for those hours on the swings.
Being a nerd at boarding school was a pretty safe place to be – you might get ribbed by the kids, but you wouldn’t get in trouble with the adults. And guess what was easier to take? Most people say that kids made their lives hell in middle-school. That wasn’t true for me: those were some of the best friends a kid could have asked for!
Being “locked up” with my books suited me just fine. But it doesn’t make you oblivious to what is happening around you.
See – I wasn’t the kid that spoke up and said “this is not fair”. If I was unfairly punished, I kept my trap shut – because pointing out that this was not fair would only get you more trouble. I remember one time getting “spanked” for laughing at my best friend when she fell over – her mum was a dorm parent. I was angry – if I had fallen and she had laughed, nothing would have happened to her.
Boarding school was rife with these petty injustices. But I kept my mouth shut and didn’t buck the system. It was safer that way.
On the other hand, I am also quite conscious that best friend status probably saved my arse a couple of times – because we both got away with it. We also managed to drum up having a room to ourselves, that was just big enough to fit one bunk bed. The perks.
I do remember one time helping her move our bunk bed to block the door opening, because she was in trouble and going to get “spanked”. Bunk beds can be quite effective for barricading doors. We negotiated ransom of “we’ll come out, if you promise we won’t get spanked”. I have a feeling we probably got punished another way – but I don’t remember “corporal punishment” for that.
I could cry on cue – so any time I was going to get spanked “cue the tears, you will need them now”. Damn – I got so good, now they show up even when I don’t need them! (My 5 year old seems to have inherited this ability to cue tears when I say “no” to buying new toys, having ice cream for breakfast… ).
When we moved into the “big dorm”, I learned how to play the piano. Practicing piano for hours is quite effective at keeping you disconnected and out of trouble! You can disappear into the bubble of “I’m doing this” and people will simply walk around you and leave you alone.
So, when you ask me what do I remember about boarding school – I have snippets of memories of reading books under the almond tree in front of the little dorm, spending hours on the swings (by the little dorm and then later the big dorm) and many, many hours of piano practice. Hell, I even learned how to read a book while swinging! And I was pretty good at hiding in a mango tree with a book as well.
As I put things together now, I realise that these were all coping mechanisms. At the time, I thought they were “normal”.
For years, I’ve beaten myself up over this guilt – unlike other victims who went into fight or flight mode, I chose simply “freeze” or “fold”. Instead of fighting back (getting into more trouble), or trying to run away, I simply became passive. I didn’t speak up against what was happening.
When Marlin was trying to get everyone to sign the petition, asking for the field committee to intervene and investigate, I begrudgingly participated – hoping it would not get us into trouble. Fear motivated my choices, rather than courage. It wasn’t about wrong or right – it was about playing it safe.
I wasn’t focused on changing or improving the situation – my focus was solely on survival. Even if that was disconnecting from reality and hiding in “my safe space”.
Today I see the irony.
Our parents were expected to be brave and courageous: to go into the unknown to save the indigenous. But they weren’t allowed to be brave and courageous about standing up for their own kids and putting their kids ahead of “the good news of the gospel”.
Us kids, on the other hand, were expected to be seen and not heard. Like kids dressed in their Sunday best to show the visitors and then you better go be quiet, because we can’t have anyone thinking our kids are unruly. Somehow, we were just prize bulls, to be shown at fairs and circuses: looking great but silent and obedient.
And whatever you do – don’t rock the boat or dare to confront any adult, no matter how grave the injustice.