I was in first grade when my mother first made her intentions to send me to boarding school known. It was Thanksgiving and I complained about something, a reaction to my constant unhappiness that was becoming more and more common. My mother looked up from her place at the head of the table and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “If you don’t behave, I’m going to send you to boarding school.”
Seven years later, she made good on her promise.
I had zero desire to go away to school. All I wanted to do was stay in San Francisco where my friends were. But when it came time for everyone in my class to apply to high school, my mother refused to let me fill out applications for anywhere within 3,000 miles. I would be attending a prep school all the way across the country in New England that next fall, whether I liked it or not.
Visiting New England prep schools in 8th grade.
I understand how bratty it might sound to complain about being shipped off to one of the best high schools in the United States, but when I arrived at Choate Rosemary Hall the following September, I was miserable. It was clear from day one as I stood there in my Doc Martens and Faith No More T-shirt that I didn’t fit in with these girls and their J. Crew Henley tees and Tevas.
Of course, I was 14 and resilient, so I did my best and soon made friends. I dreamed of returning to San Francisco where I felt I really belonged, but there was also something quite liberating in being so far away from my mother. I stopped taking her occasional calls that would come through on the dorm pay phone (“Just tell her I’m not here”) and eventually cut off as much communication as possible.
This wasn’t hard since she’d used having me out of the house as an opportunity to move to Italy for a few months. My 16-year-old brother was still living at home, but she trusted him enough to put him in the care of a “babysitter.” And it was this babysitter who was there when I came home for spring break.
At this point, nearly eight months into the boarding school experiment, I’d almost completely conformed into the prep school version of myself. I wore pleated skirts and cardigan sweaters, went to the school dances on Saturday nights, and only broke the rules in order to hang out (make out) in my boyfriend’s bedroom. Who just happened to be a Senior. And a prefect.
But it only took one week unsupervised in San Francisco for all of that to unravel. Without my mother there to permanently ground me (and believe me, that is exactly what she would have done), I was free to roam the city and make horrible decisions.
On Day One, I wore a pink T-shirt with a tiny bow at the neck. By Day Four, I’d dyed my long dirty blonde hair black and was shopping on Haight Street for an incognito pipe to take back to school with me.
I honestly don’t know how 14-year-olds smoke marijuana. Every time I did it, I ended up incredibly stoned and even more paranoid. There was nothing fun about it. But that’s the horrible thing about being an insecure 14-year-old: I did it anyway. I worried about not “doing it right” every time a pipe was passed my way (How does the carb work? How long am I supposed to inhale it for?) and even when I knew I couldn’t handle one more puff, I never said no when the pipe made its way back around the circle.
Getting stoned was cool. And being cool was important.
Even better, I realized, if I brought pot back to Choate with me, I’d be one of the only people in my class who got high. Of all the ways there were to differentiate myself from the crowd, in my silly little child’s brain, this one seemed like one of the best.
So I bought an eighth of incredibly strong California kind bud and a pipe that hung on a thread and doubled as a necklace shaped like a clay face with trippy swirling colors and metallic eyeballs, and I hopped on a plane back to Connecticut.
Once I was back at school, it didn’t take long for me to convince my friend Mike (not his real name) to get high with me. Mike kissed like an eager lizard, but he was from New York City and I knew he’d be down with my plan.
Of course, considering I didn’t even really like getting stoned (though I’m not sure I was honest enough to admit that to myself then), there was no actual point unless other people knew it was happening. So when I ran into my three best friends a few hours later, on my way to meet Mike, I told them my plan.
My friends begged me not to, but I shrugged them off. They thought marijuana was a big deal and I knew better. They thought I might get caught, but I assumed that was impossible. They thought pot was a gateway drug. I thought they were silly, immature little girls.
I met Mike off campus in the courtyard of a middle school where everyone went to smoke cigarettes. I packed the bowl -- and oh did I pack that bowl to the brim -- and then we hid in a bush -- like IN the bush -- to smoke it.
After two hits, I was stoned out of my mind. After three, I was so paranoid that I thought there were people hiding in the trees. By four, I’d convinced myself that Mike wasn’t even inhaling. And by five, I probably could have passed out in the bush and slept for a month. But we kept handing the pipe back and forth until there was nothing left to smoke.
After that, I could barely walk, much less speak, but it was only 8 o’ clock and Mike wanted to go hear a band play on the Upper Campus. I agreed. I wanted to die, but I knew if I went back to my dorm so early, I’d raise suspicion. Plus, I’d signed up for some sleepover at the Student Activity Center that night with my best friends. I just needed to make it through the next couple of hours.
I can’t remember how long we were watching the band before I saw the Third Form (freshman) Dean walking through the crowd. But I knew instantly that she was there for me.
She pulled me out of the crowd and into an empty room.
“Have you been drinking?” she asked.
“Are you telling me the truth?”
“Yes. I promise. I haven’t been drinking.”
She studied my face. “Why are your eyes so red?”
“My contacts have been bugging me all day,” I responded. She looked at me closely. “I’m just really tired.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m going to need you to come to the infirmary with me. I need to give you a Breathalyzer test.”
She walked out of the room and I followed her. When she opened the door to the building, I was hit by a wave of cold air.
“Don’t you have a jacket?” she asked, looking at my thin T-shirt.
But the pot and the pipe were in my jacket pocket. So I just shrugged and said no. And left my jacket hanging on the hook with dozens of other jackets.
Her dog was waiting for us outside and as soon as he saw me, he started to bark aggressively, something I’d never seen him do before. Of course, it was immediately clear to me what was happening. Her dog was a drug-sniffing dog and he could smell the pot all over me. His barks were a way to let my dean know what he’d discovered.
“WOOF! WOOF!” he barked. “She’s high! She’s high!” I knew he was telling her.
When we arrived at the infirmary, my dean lead me inside and told the nurse on duty why we were there. The nurse got out a little black device and instructed me to blow into it on the count of three. I did.
“Hmmmmm,” she said. “Let’s try that again.”
I could barely understand her directions, I was so stoned, and now I was certain that I was giving myself away by screwing up the Breathalyzer test.
I blew again.
The nurse shook her head at my dean.
After one more try, the nurse finally shrugged her shoulders. “She hasn’t been drinking,” she told the dean.
I’d passed. And just like that, I was sent on my way.
It was almost time for the sleepover, so I walked over to the Student Activity Center. I was exhausted and all I wanted was my own bed, but I didn’t see how I could get out of this commitment now, since no one was expecting me back at my dorm. I looked around and realized none of my best friends were there. And even worse: that I wasn’t friends with a single other soul in attendance.
I wandered around alone, paranoid, worried and miserable. I made my way into the bathroom and stared at my face in the mirror before splashing it with water. All I wanted was to leave, but I was too stoned to figure out a way to make that happen.
Luckily, I had my best friends for that.
A few minutes before check-in, my best friends showed up at the S.A.C. “You have to come with us,” they said, out of breath from having run all the way there.
“With you where?”
“The Dean knows you smoked pot. If you get to the infirmary and turn yourself into Crisis Intervention before she finds you, that’s the only way you won’t get kicked out.”
Crisis Intervention is what it sounds like: a program for students who might be in a life-threatening situation involving alcohol or drugs, but who might refuse medical help because of the fear of being kicked out. It was definitely NOT for stoned people, but at that point, it was my only option.
The infimary looked slightly less daunting in the daylight.
I followed my friends out of the S.A.C. and across the field to the infirmary. “I don’t understand how she found out,” I said right before we arrived.
One of my friends knocked on the door of the infirmary. “We told her,” she said.
I didn’t have time to react because the nurse opened up the door. “How can I help you?”
“She’s here for Crisis Intervention,” one of my friends said. “She smoked pot.”
“That has to come from her,” the nurse said.
I took a deep breath. “I smoked pot,” I said. “I need Crisis Intervention.”
The nurse brought me inside the infirmary and I watched my friends head back toward our dorm as the door shut. The nurse took my vitals and then put me in a bed with crisp, clean sheets. I was passed out within seconds.
I woke up to a shit storm the next day. Turns out that because the Dean suspected I’d been partaking in illegal activities, Crisis Intervention might not keep me from getting kicked out. They were going to hold a meeting with the school headmaster to decide. I had to stay in the infirmary until a decision was made. It was not looking good.
My mother, who'd been told about the incident already, called from Italy. I couldn't ignore the call this time, so I picked up the receiver and held it against my ear. The conversation was one-sided
“You’re behaving in a low-class manner with your dyed black hair.”
“Your psychological makeup is of concern to me.”
“I love you, but you have rejected my love.”
“You come from a family of addictive personalities.”
“Did you think no one would notice if you walked around stoned?”
“You have a drug problem.”
“You’re blowing it.”
She was understandably furious and only slightly less so when she found out later that day that I would be allowed to finish out the remainder of the year, but that my enrollment for the following year was under review.
There were less than two months left in the school year. I finished them without my former best friends. I was so depressed that I accidentally missed almost half of my required Crisis Intervention therapy sessions. I dreaded my return home, where life would certainly be even more hellish than it was when I left. All I wanted was to be allowed to return to Choate. All I wanted was the freedom I’ve completely taken for granted.
I arrived back in San Francisco in June and immediately left for summer camp for a month. There, I was the happiest I’d been in years. Desperately needing to prove to someone -- anyone -- that I wasn’t a bad kid, I thrived. On the last night, I was awarded "Camper of the Session." For the first time in a long time, I believed my life might turn around.
The day after I returned home, trophy in hand, the letter from Choate arrived in the mail. My mother called me into the living room.
“They don't want you back,” she spit at me, waving the letter in my face.
I was silent. Heart broken.
“Well?” she screamed. “How does this make you feel?”
“Whatever,” I said. And I spun on my heels and ran to my bedroom. Where I collapsed on the floor and sobbed.
I sobbed for my lost friends and my lost freedom. I sobbed because I knew my life was never going to be the same. I sobbed because I knew my mother would never let me live in her house and that this just meant I’d be sent off to another school.
I just had no idea that the next school would have alarms on the doors and solitary confinement as punishment. I had no idea my mother would tell them I was a "run risk" and allow them to lock my shoes in a cabinet until I could prove myself. I had no idea that I would be stuck up in Utah against my will with kids who gave themselves tattoos with eyeliner, left bloody tampons in the shower, and ate lightbulbs in an attempt to kill themselves.
And I definitely had no idea that it would be months and months before I was even allowed to think or talk about ever going home.
Getting stoned in Amsterdam, age 19. OR: Reform school, clearly a huge success.