My home life was a nightmare. I attended 12 schools from 7th to 9th grade and I dropped out when I was 15 years old. I had finally run away to North Carolina where the legal adult age was 16 years old. My mother tracked me through my social security number, showed up at my job, got me fired and sweet talked me into coming back to Illinois. The police were waiting for me as I exited the plane. After a three month stay in Audy Home, for the 8th time, I was sent to Geneva Girls School for being what they called “a habitual runaway” in the April of 1968. I remained there for ten months.

Upon my arrival to a regular cottage, I was given a skirt that hung almost down to my ankles. A matron was showing me to my room, when we passed the sewing room. She stopped, looked in and told the girl, “I want you to hem this girl’s skirt.” Later, as I was passing the sewing room to go to my room after dinner, the girl said, “It’s gonna cost you a dime of your commissary.” I looked her dead in the eyes and replied, “Then don’t sew it. I’m not showing my legs off for anyone in here.”

I knew I could not show fear, as bullies thrive on fear. I also had learned if you stood up to a bully and showed them you would fight, they would leave you alone and look for someone else to pick on, because they didn’t really want to fight; they just wanted to build their ego on the power they could hold over others and take your commissary. My response to the sewing room girl set me up for a fight with one of her friends. I was glad when the teachers broke it up as she was getting the best of me, though I’m not sure if she knew it. But, that fight let the bullies know I wasn’t an easy mark. They left me alone.

Each cottage went to beauty parlor once every two weeks to get our hair washed. Washing it in the shower was forbidden. The first cottage I was placed on was going to beauty parlor the next day when I got transferred to the honor cottage. The honor cottage had just got back from beauty parlor that day. I asked if I could go and was told no by the head matron, Mrs. M, who for some reason disliked me. I never knew why. I had oily hair that needed to be washed every day back then. She made me go without washing my hair for a month, then had the audacity to accused me of putting black girls grease in my hair.

She picked on me every chance she got. You weren’t allowed to get your hair wet in the shower, impossible if your hair was below your chin, as was mine. And bobby-pins and rubber bands were contraband. She would write me up every shower because the ends of my hair were wet.

At meal time, they unlocked the door to your room and you lined up. Talking wasn’t allowed. Once you entered the dining room, you went directly to the square oak table you were assigned to and stood behind your chair in silence until you were told to sit. You ate without talking. The honor cottage afforded you salt and pepper on your table, a luxury for the very bland food.

If you had money in your account, you were allowed two dollars to spend in the commissary each month. If you didn’t have money in your account, you only got a dollar. In the latter half of my stay, I was farmed out into the community to clean houses for ten cents an hour on Saturdays, though I didn’t get to spend the extra money I made.

Once a month, if everyone on the honor cottage was good, we got to go swimming at St. Charles. That happened two times during my stay. If everyone on the cottage was good for the week, we got to go down into the basement and listen to the radio for an hour or play records. That happened two or three times during my stay. I never really got to know other girls, as there were so few times we could talk.

The picture I saw of a room had a rug. We didn’t have rugs. I remember this well as I spent the first month on my knees praying to God to get me out of there. The floors were hard making for very sore knees. I did have a desk and chair in the room, though nothing in or on it other than my tooth brush and paste and a plastic glass we got to fill with water at night. We had nothing on the walls and no personal belongings.

When I first arrived, I went to school. Shortly after, I was coaxed into their keypunch program. After finishing the program, I was placed on kitchen duty, which entailed preparing the dining room for meals and cleaning the kitchen and dining room afterward. After you finished work, you went back to your room to stare at the walls. I was bored out of my mind. We did were not allowed books!

I remember the day I put in a request to go back to school. After setting the tables, I walked into the hall to stand in line with the rest of the girls. I was thrilled with the idea of going back to school. I had a smile on my face when I lifted my apron and twirled around. I didn’t see her coming.

Mrs. M was staring down at me with pinched eye-brows and a scowl. “And as for you, you aren’t going anywhere!”

I stood there dumbstruck and in shock. For so long I had done everything asked of me. This woman had picked on me for months. What I remember was standing behind my chair, with my head feeling like a searing ball of fire about to explode. Adrenaline surged through my veins. I wanted to pick up the table and throw it on her. And I think I could have with that much adrenaline pumping through me. She was lucky, as was I. Had I acted, I might have killed her and my life would have played out very different. I have never felt anything like that moment again, in all my years since then. She did try to block my request and keep me on kitchen duty. But in the end, I did get to return to school.

On Saturday mornings, you were given ONE sheet of paper to write a letter. You were only allowed to write on one side and Mrs. M read every word. I’d go to school, pull out the dictionary and look up the biggest words I could find. I wrote the spelling down on my hands, until I memorized them and their meaning so I could use them in my letters to home. And I wrote tiny, filling the page completely. I know Momma had no idea what I was talking about.

As a resident of the honor cottage, we did get to see a movie on Saturdays afternoons a few times, when everyone was good. One Saturday afternoon, about a month after the kitchen duty incident, we were lined up to go to the gym to see the movie when I heard Mrs. M footsteps coming down the stairs fast. I turned my head, as the stairs were behind us, to see a red face surrounded with white hair charging at me. She stopped just a foot from my face, and curled her lip as she spoke. “You little bitch.”

I remembered what my father told me on his only visit and I mimicked him. “Profanity is used by those with no other means to express themselves.” All the girls standing in line went “ooooooooooooh, Mrs. M.” There, with all the girls as witnesses, she could not do anything. That moment I declared war with her. The next day, and the weeks that followed, I’d come out of the shower with my hair completely wet, look directly at her and say “Now you have something to write me up about.” I defied her every chance I got. The letters to home had so many huge words in them, I’m sure they weren’t coherent, but my satisfaction lay with the knowledge that she had no idea what I was talking about.

They let me take my GED in Feb. of 1969, a month before my release and they told me I scored higher than anyone in the history of the school. As I was leaving out the cottage door for the last time, Mrs. M gave me a smug smile and said, “You’ll be back.” She was wrong.

Looking back, I think Mrs. M was just another bully. Healing from the child abuse and becoming psychologically healthy took decades of medication, therapy, multiple hospitalizations, and a lot of hard work on my part in facing my demons. I am so glad none of my suicide attempts succeeded. I now have a full and wonderful life, with a kind husband, four daughters and seven grandchildren. I have learned what love does and doesn’t feel like and how to let go of people who do not contribute my well being. I now surround myself with people who lift me up and help me to feel good about myself.

I am taking classes at the Loft Literary Center and am in the process of writing my memoir. I write and speak about the subjects I know; child abuse, domestic abuse, mental illness and co-dependency. My website is http://www.lindagail.com. I speak for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) “In Our Own Voice” program. And I have spoken on behalf of the Domestic Abuse Project, which can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RLj47U_Lqk&feature=em-share_video_user. A piece I wrote about child abuse was showcased in the Minnesota State Art’s Board 2012 “Art of Recovery” exhibit; http://www.arts.state.mn.us/aor/2012/artists/roy.html.