How do you undo a thoughtless injury to someone vulnerable?
I’ve been thinking lately about the summer of 2002–my second term as a GSP RA, and the story I promised to tell and didn’t. It’s about a girl with a drinking problem. I don’t know her name anymore, if I ever did.
The girl was from a small town–part of the half of Governor’s Scholars who don’t come from Louisville. She had a drinking problem. She’d disclosed this to her school counselor, who had disclosed it to GSP admissions; she’d made an agreement with both of them to quit before the program started. GSP was her best chance at a scholarship, and they all knew it.
GSP has a list of non-negotiable rules. If you break a rule, you go home: no second chance, no protest, no appeals. Everybody knows the rules. They include stuff like “don’t sneak into opposite-sex dorms” and “don’t have fireworks, weapons, alcohol or other drugs.” They’re more a matter of liability than morality, but nobody at GSP has the power to overrule them, up to and including the director of any campus.
This girl’s friends visited on Family Day and brought her a present: a couple bottles of vodka. She hid it, drank most of it, and eventually got caught with it. Joe, our campus director, told her unhappily that she was expelled; they called her parents and she packed her things. The entire campus knew by that night, when Sherleen Sisney arrived.
Sherleen Sisney is the stunningly arrogant, singleminded, self-righteous Executive Director of GSP. She’s highly decorated and powerful in Frankfort, and probably has more power over the program than the governor himself. Until that year I’d considered her a self-aggrandizing annoyance.
Sisney was supposed to be there to sign off on the expulsion form. After Joe and Aris Cedaño (the director of GSP) briefed her on what had happened, she called the girl in to talk to her. She administered a Meyers-Briggs personality test. She told Joe and Aris that the girl could stay in the program, as long as she apologized publicly to the campus, and that they could deal with any problems this caused. She was gone by 11:00.
There was no other topic of discussion on the halls that night. Some Scholars were glad that nobody got kicked out of their campus, and many were angry at the girl for screwing with everybody’s GSP experience. All of them wanted to know whether they got a second chance for breaking the non-negotiable rules. We had to tell them no. We also had to follow staff policy and present a united front, saying that we supported the decisions made by the administration.
When Joe showed up at his office the next morning at 7:00, every RA was waiting for him, bleary and grim. He looked at us and said “okay, let’s go upstairs and talk.”
Joe, Aris, Otto and we all knew what the Scholars didn’t: Arizona once had a GSP, structurally similar to the Kentucky version. A group of documentary filmmakers snuck onto their campus and got tape of the Scholars there drinking, dancing (the way high schoolers dance), running around long after curfew and getting tsked at by their staff. They aired it on a PBS affiliate, and there wasn’t a GSP in Arizona ever again.
I’m not saying they were wrong to show what went on there, and I’m not saying that one girl drinking is the same thing as a whole campus run amok. But there are a lot of people who don’t like that the smart kids keep getting funded for free summer camp when our state can’t even put together a budget. We knew that if it got out that we allowed kids to stay in the program after breaking our own rules and the law, that information could be used to shut down a campus, or two, or three.
That’s why the Residence Life staff told Joe that unless we could enforce the rules equally for all Scholars, we’d walk out. We’d already written and signed a letter of protest to Sisney; we didn’t think she’d read it. We were willing to shut down EKU GSP that summer in order to keep the program itself running the next year, and the year after that.
We came pretty close, and if Joe hadn’t taken us seriously we might have done it. Instead we talked and held meetings with outsiders and set plans into motion that, I think, are still moving. Then it was two days after the attempted expulsion, and everybody was sitting in the assembly hall while the girl stood at a podium.
She read an apology she’d prepared with the program counselor. Her voice was small, but she had a microphone. And at the end she said something that wasn’t prepared: “Finally, I think that my presence here is disrupting GSP, so I’m leaving. I’m sorry. Goodbye.”
She walked up the aisle between the auditorium seats, in silence, alone. She went out into the lobby and called her mom. She disappeared.
It worked: the community healed. I had to tell the kids in my seminar group that I’d been willing to abandon them if it meant keeping the program alive, and that wasn’t easy. I’m sure it was more difficult for the girl’s roommate and her RA to deal with the aftermath.
I don’t know if I could have done what she did.
This story is kind of about how I accidentally injured a friend with my thoughtlessness, yesterday. It’s about that girl, too, and how she had a magic bullet–one that cost her a great deal–that I didn’t have then and don’t have now. She undid Sisney’s injury to our vulnerable community. We had no way to undo the injury that all of us had done to her.