I was recently contacted by an old friend from High School. I should mention here that I’m not in touch with anyone from those youthful days and haven’t been for a very long time. You see, I didn’t go to High School in my home town so there’s never been anyone to fill me in on where those folks are now and what they’ve been doing since. Some of them have crept into my thoughts now and then, others I haven’t thought about in 26 years. But now that contact’s been made, I find myself flooded with memories. It’s incredible how experiences and emotions that seemed long-faded, wounds that were thought healed, can resurface in an instant and feel as new and fresh as when they first happened. It’s also a great reminder of who I am and where I come from, in what ways I’ve changed and in what ways I haven’t. I suppose many people have this experience as they get older and find themselves invited to High School reunions and such. But my school has no reunions that I know of (at least none I’ve been invited to!). You see, my school was not like most others. And it no longer exists.
As a teen, I was pretty much what you would call a “troubled kid”. Now that phrase has many different faces and many different meanings, but mine was such that I needed some real-world help that I just wasn’t getting where I was. My parents were–and still are–amazing and, thanks to them, I was able to get that help. It came in the form of a school called DeSisto. Michael DeSisto ran two schools: one in Stockbridge Massachusetts, the other in Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida (yep, that’s right, Howey-in-the-Hills). I went to the latter and had the honor and privilege to arrive the day the school opened. I was among the core group that inadvertently helped sculpt what the school would become. This was in 1980 (since the school closed in ’88, maybe we didn’t do such a bang-up job). DeSisto was a “therapeutic community”; a school for kids whose troubles went, perhaps, a bit beyond the norm. Some were court ordered, some sent by their parents against their will, others, like me, chose to go. However, there were no gates or bars at DeSisto. It wasn’t a prison. The rule was always, “If you want to stay, stay. If not, there’s the road.” They knew from the get-go that you couldn’t help anyone who didn’t want to be helped.
For me, DeSisto was a life-changing experience. Some of the most difficult, exciting, dramatic, unusual and positive moments from my life took place there. And though I left the school without completing the program and was supposedly made persona non grata, I nonetheless have terrific memories and no ill will toward the school, my experiences, or the negativity I received upon deciding to move on. I was ready and I knew it. And for me, my life has shown that my choice was the proper one. I still like who I am (no small thing if you knew me when). And I consider the anger Michael DeSisto and some others felt at my leaving to be quite the compliment as I took it to be more a sign of sadness improperly dealt with, and less actual anger.
In my newfound desire to reconnect with some of these long lost friends and lovers, I stumbled on a number of sites devoted to people who had “survived” DeSisto. As I read on, I found a frightening wealth of misinformation about the schools. People raging about brainwashing, child-abuse, sexual humiliation… The list goes on. People who had gone to these schools and “escaped” talk about their experiences as if they’d been sent to POW camps and had bamboo chutes slid under their fingernails. Now maybe the schools changed dramatically since I was there, but that description bears no resemblance to my experience of the school I went to. The DeSisto of my youth was a place of understanding and acceptance, of respect; a place that allowed me to grow, not by trying to change me, but by appreciating me and, better yet, helping me to appreciate myself. Now this may sound like a lot of mumbo jumbo to some folks–and I won’t pretend that the school didn’t have its flaws (show me a school that doesn’t)–but it sure as hell was exactly what this 16 year old needed and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.
Living at and with DeSisto is an experience that is not easily explained. The rules are different, the world is different. And to try and explain it properly would take both time and–more importantly–the desire on the part of the listener to understand. What I found on almost all of the sites I started reading was the same intolerant anger I’ve found on so many sites before, regardless of topic. These are not people who want to know the truth. This is a forum for people who want to vent their anger and frustration, their feelings of being victimized and not listened to, on the world at large. It’s rare, in my experience, to find an internet forum that does not suffer from this. This is why many forums have moderators, to attempt to elicit respectful, open-minded conversation, not fear-mongering and hateful accusations.
I thought at first that I would add my two-cents to some of these forums, that I would offer an insider’s perspective, my personal experience. But as I read further, the few people that attempted this before me were met with such vile hostility that it seemed clear to me that truth or reality was not what these folks were seeking; they appeared to actually WANT to be angry, they seemed to NEED it.
Nonetheless, I wanted to lend my voice to those whose experience of DeSisto was a great one. Yes, it was an imperfect place in an imperfect time. And maybe the people in charge didn’t learn from their mistakes and went down the wrong path. Or maybe the school was just trying to do something most people simply could not understand and would find easier to condemn. I truly don’t know.
All I know is I spent 2 1/2 years of my life there and who I am today is partly a reflection of the opportunities I was given there. It is as much a part of me as my liver or my heart. Even if I don’t think about it every day.