Reform school, a place where workers smoked with the boys, a place where fathers were AWOL and mothers begged us to save their sons.
POETRY OF THE TIMES
—Chicago Reform School, 1979
It was the kind of place where boys marched to school
in two straight lines, and not one had heard of Madeline,
a place where phones rang when you hung them up,
and no one knew why, or cared,
a place where fathers were AWOL and mothers begged us
to save their sons, where boys never learned
oceans are saltwater, and teachers met families
only once a year because that was their contract.
It was the kind of place where a year cost as much as four
at Harvard, where a rare student graduated high school,
a place where boys denied belts wore pants hung
on hard-ons while they dreamed of high-top
Chuck Taylor sneakers and NBA stardom,
a place where Maintenance patched potholes
only when the mayor came for his annual inspection,
where shattered dorm windows let Lake Michigan’s
wind pour through in winter, mosquitoes in summer,
a place where the Admin building had A/C, new carpet,
plush leather chairs, and bowls filled with chocolates,
where new Directors were fired after a crisis or two,
the next messiah hired with a new treatment “model”
staff never bothered to follow, a place where workers
smoked with the boys, bribed them with butts, and got memo’d
not to toss garbage from home into campus dumpsters,
a place where staff got arrested as often as the boys,
a few kids returning years later as counselors, their pockets
packed with street cred and love for the youth.
It was the kind of place where boys arrived on Thorazine
and cheeked their pills, where charts were as thick
as the Chicago phone book but missing histories and lab tests
required for treatment, where doctors in training
functioned like five-star generals, but needed Security
to guard them back to their cars, where boys
were just boys crying at night for their mothers,
immortal when they ran over broken glass that glittered
when sun fell on the school’s only playing field.
It was that kind of place.
Dr Berlin has been writing a poem about his experience of being a doctor every month for the past 23 years in Psychiatric TimesTM in a column called “Poetry of the Times.” He is instructor in psychiatry, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, MA.❒