Forever a Bulldog: I Survived Reform School
A former troubled youth recalls his time spent in the disciplinary system.
In fifth grade, I was sent to a disciplinary school called Shallcross. I was kicked out of my last school for fighting, but, really, I was just seeking attention. This school was completely different from any other school I attended. My first day was like the TV show Beyond Scared Straight.
I pulled up to the school to be confronted by six teachers. Well, I thought they were teachers. Mr. Scott walked onto the bus and yelled, "Y'all better wake the fuck up! Welcome, to y'alls first day of hell." The men who were waiting outside the school bus were all at least six feet tall and no strangers to the gym. Mr. Scott did most of the talking. "Walk off the bus in a single file line without talking, as you walk into the building. Take your shoes off and place them in a bucket. If you are wearing a belt, take it off and also place it in a bucket."
Reform School Is Basically Prison
We weren't allowed to wear backpacks; we held our work in our hands. They made it clear that we couldn't bring anything from the outside world into the school. I went from being an honors student to being in an academic prison with bodyguards who had the right to restrain me if I stepped one foot out of line.
My new school ran on a system of rankings and every student started on level one, hoping they could make it to the fourth level—which is called the bulldog status. Gaining the bulldog status would mean I was a step closer to regaining my freedom. Bulldog status also came with many more privileges. When I finally achieved it, I was able to bring money and snacks into the building. That's how I made money. The students who weren't a bulldog would pay me to get their goodies.
Looking back at it now, the school had so many similarities to prisons. Even when I am watching movies with prison scenes now, the first thing that comes to mind is this Shallcross.
My journey to achieving my bulldog status wasn't easy. Once a month, you had an opportunity to move up one ranking, so I tried my best each day to show my teachers I was ready to level up. We were five months into the school year when I began to get comfortable with the flow of things, how things worked. I formed a decent relationship with most of my classmates, but in schools like that, you can never get too comfortable—at any given moment, anything could happen.
My Mom’s Drinking Kept Me Down
I was days away from reaching bulldog status—that I had been praying for since I got into that sorry excuse for a school—when things came off the rails.
Most days, after school, I would catch my mom drunk, drowning her pain away with some cheap liquor while watching her Lifetime stories. This day was different. When I got home, she wasn't there. She couldn't afford a cell phone, so I had no way to contact her. I stayed up way past my bedtime lying to my little brother: "Mom is at her friend's house, she'll be home soon." I made him some ramen noodles. My mind was racing. Where is my mom? Why would she leave without telling us? Why wouldn't she call to at least check and see if we'd eaten?
I tried to remain calm and relaxed. I didn't want to alarm my little brother, but as the time got closer to midnight, my thoughts began to run faster. Laying in bed staring at my ceiling, praying that my mom was safe and nothing happened to her, my eyes got heavy. I started to go to sleep, but woke up to a hard knock on my front door around three in the morning. I popped up like it was Christmas morning. I ran downstairs to the front door, knowing that it wasn't Santa with gifts on the other side.
When I opened the door, my neighbor yelled in a strong Jamaican accent, "Aye son, ya mama passed out on da porch." All I could do is stare. I was speechless; the neighbor walked away in shame. I looked at my mom and my heart was broken. This wasn't my first time seeing my mom drunk; this was my first time seeing that she allowed the world to know she was an alcoholic. I got her into the house and placed her on the couch, making sure she was as comfortable as possible. I started to walk back to my room when I took one more look at her. I felt my eyes getting watery.
I cried myself to sleep that night because I knew this wasn't going to be my last time seeing that side of my mom. The next morning, I woke up for school and walked downstairs to see how mom was doing, but she was still asleep. I got my little brother prepared for school. Tension was in the air and I felt it as I brushed my teeth, staring into the mirror. I reminded myself everything would be okay. I assembled everything I needed for school and headed to the bus stop.
The Fight of My Life
When I arrived at school, I wasn't in the best mood. I was like a ticking time bomb ready to blow. I knew I wasn't the only student dealing with home or community problems, but that didn't make it any easier. My teacher was in a field of landmines and one wrong step could turn the whole classroom upside down. Rick, another student in my class, had his own issues and no intentions on becoming a bulldog. That day, one thing led to another and Rick decided to take his anger out on me. Usually, I wouldn't pay it any mind. I understood I was on level three and on my way to level four, but I was at my breaking point. I decided to react to him.
Rick and I began to fight in the middle of the classroom: chairs were flying and our teacher was yelling out into the hallway for help. Within 30 seconds, two all-muscle guards pulled us off of each other, they threw us to the ground and put their knees in the middle of our backs. Rick and I were laying on the ground looking at each other eye to eye. I could see the fire in his eyes; he wanted to go for round two, I, on the other hand, was thinking, "In a blink of an eye, I lost four months of hard work, I lost privileges and now my teachers will treat me as if I don't matter anymore."
I found that to be the new normal of my school experiences.
My mistake was allowing the public school system to label me as a student with learning disabilities. My biggest mistake was believing in the label they smacked me with. I traveled from grade to grade with an Individualized Education Plan. I attended 11 different schools. I'd been kicked out of three different schools because of my "behavior." Time after time, I witnessed people count me out—I even counted myself out. I've faced a lot of trauma growing up and many teachers mistook my pain with behavior issues. I let the system destroy me in so many ways. And, now, and only now, have I began to find comfort in my past.