My Six Months in a Mental Hospital
Last week I paid homage to the substitute teachers of the world, sharing personal experiences from long ago. I wasn’t a very good sub. I bent the rules, showed up late, and usually raced the kids out the door. Somehow, despite all that, I got a job offer. The call came late in December.
Caller: Mr. Wootten, we have a full-time position we’d like to offer you.
Me: I’ll take it!
Caller: Can I tell you about it first?
Me: Does it pay a regular teacher salary?
Me: Not thirty-six bucks a day? A full salary?
Me: I’ll take it.
On January 4, 1982 I reported for work at Louisville’s Central State Hospital. Formerly it had been called Lakeland Asylum; before that, it was the Central Kentucky Asylum for the Insane. The building you see below was the original building, still in use in 1981, but since razed.
An aside – mental illness is not something to joke about. It is very real, and I’ve seen its effects. The treatment of mental illness and those who suffer from it has changed dramatically since 1981. That said, the rest of this post will share my experiences. Some are funny, others are sad. The people are real, many lost in the state mental health system. Others placed there for reasons ranging from rational to absurd.
My assignment was to teach English and Social Studies to 14-18 year-old male patients. I showed up ready to hit the road running. Dress slacks and shirt; sportcoat and tie. Tie? First mistake. The lady in charge told me to lose the tie. Ties were dangerous. Someone might use it to hang themselves, she said.
Violence was a problem, I was told. Fortunately, I had a classroom aide. Mrs. A. was in her early fifties, and probably didn’t weigh a hundred pounds. She was brought in for a quick introduction, then I started orientation.
The First Lesson of Orientation – subduing violent students. I was instructed to sweep their legs out from under them and sit on them until help arrived. We would then remove their shoes and take them to a self-containment room. Believe it or not, rubber rooms really existed. Soft rubber walls and floors that kept residents from hurting themselves. We practice for a few minutes, until they were satisfied I had it down. Fortunately, I never had to put this lesson into practice.
Next lesson – Okay, there wasn’t another lesson. I asked about curriculum, and was told there was stuff in the classroom, and to use what I could find. And that was it. Off to class I went. Fortunately, there were some GREAT teachers and support staff at Central State. As I found my way, I came to rely on them daily. Soon after arriving at my classroom, a colleague came in to introduce himself and let me know I was the fourth teacher since the beginning of school. Oh boy.
Surprisingly, the kids were pretty special too. I remember many of them, such as…
Jeff– Jeff was the only student who became physical with me, and it was partly my fault. Fourteen, baby-faced, obese, with a long record of violence, today Jeff would be in a self-contained classroom in public school, getting the help he needed. Back then he was dumped into the mental health system and forgotten. Once, when Jeff was having a bad day, I made the mistake of questioning something he said AND leaving a stapler out on my desk. When I turned my back, Jeff hit me with the stapler. He was placed in solitary confinement, and I felt bad about that. The next day it was forgotten.
JJ – A great kid. Tall, gangly, with a great white-boy afro. For some reason, we didn’t get along until I visited the outdoor recreation area one day. JJ asked if I wanted to shoot some hoops, then play one-on-one. Within a few days we were playing for money. If I lost, which I usually did, I’d put fifty cents in JJ’s store account, which he used to buy cigarettes (Most of the kids who were sixteen and older smoked). If I won, JJ had to help me clean the classroom. As the year went on, I started smuggling in cigarettes for when I lost, because of the exorbitant price they charged in the hospital canteen.
Jessie – Jessie had a violent past AND a love of anything related to the Civil War. We could never get him to do any work, until Mrs. A. had the idea of tying all his work to the Civil War. Bang! Civil War math problems, Civil War reports for history, everything was Civil War. After I’d been at Central State a couple months, we moved to a new classroom facility. State-of-the-art, they said. Shatter-proof glass panels on all sides, so the hospital staff could see and respond quickly to problems. Sadly, no one bothered to make sure the shatter-proof glass was really shatter-proof. One day, angry about something, Jessie decided to find out for himself, by picking up his desk and throwing it against the shatter-proof glass. Guess what? It shattered. A couple students decided to follow Jessie’s lead. Mrs. A. and I hid under our desks until it was over. Five of sixteen shatter-proof windows were shattered. After that, we were an open-air classroom.
Dino – Dino was a spitter. Staff members were directed to spit back, but I could never bring myself to do that. The night of a full moon, Dino jumped a fence and ran away. I never saw him again.
Robert – Robert shot his father, supposedly for cheating on his mother. A good boy. A quiet boy. At seventeen, he was classified as criminally insane.
Bryan – I never knew Bryan’s clinical diagnosis, but he swore he had a pencil in his head. “I can’t work today, Mr. Wootten,” he would say. “This pencil in my head hurts too much.” One day Bryan fell asleep in class. Unbeknownst to me, while he dozed, JJ placed a pencil on his desk. When Bryan woke up, JJ exclaimed, “Hey Bryan, look! The pencil fell out.” We never saw Bryan again.
Raymond – A sweet boy of fifteen. His father, a jockey at Churchill Downs, had badly abused Raymond, including force-feeding him soda laced with tabasco sauce and red-pepper flakes. Despite that, Raymond was sent home after an eight-week stay. Two weeks later, he was back, as delighted to see us as we were to see him. A mental hospital was preferable to home.
Donnie – Donnie was mentally retarded, as it was called back then. Nothing else. His presence made me fully aware of the deficiencies in the mental health system of the time. Donnie came to class every day, but could do little more than color and read his ABC’s. Had there been more staff and more time, he could have learned more. Years later, I saw Donnie’s picture on the front page of the Louisville Courier-Journal, in a story about the city’s homeless population.
The job could be grueling, and one reprieve was a ninety-minute lunch break when fellow teachers and I bolted from the building. As the year went on, The Middletown Pub became the destination of choice. The pizza was good and the beer was cheap. By May, several of my colleagues were returning to work intoxicated. Somehow, they pulled it off. The school supervisor either didn’t see or didn’t choose to see.
Then, there was the curious case of Mrs. N. A mousy woman of sixty who rarely spoke to anyone, Mrs. N. taught art. As the year progressed, Mrs. N’s attendance and appearance started to slip, and she became more and more distant. One Monday in April, she didn’t show up at all. By noon we discovered she had left work the previous Friday, gone to the adult side of the facility, and checked herself in as a patient. She returned after a couple weeks and resumed teaching.
There was no summer school at the hospital, and as June approached, I was pulled into the principal’s office and offered a position for the next school year. By then, I had committed to a teaching job in Missouri, but it was still a tough decision. I’d taken the usual education courses in college, student taught, substitute taught, and worked as an elementary school aide. Nothing prepared me more than my six months at Central State Hospital. When the last day came, I was sad. For a couple years, I kept up with some colleagues. Thirty-five years later, all I have are the memories. Most are sweet.
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This is my last blog post of 2016.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
12/19/2016 06:09:11 pm
Wow how very interesting! So glad mental health care has been more regulated and better all around. It puts in perspective not only how far we've come but also how far we have to go!
11/13/2017 06:08:07 pm
Just like physical health, mental health should be addressed by everyone. It is important to give emphasis to mental health issues to remove the stigmas. I remember the time when I was at a public hospital in London. When I was sitting at the back of the counter, I heard two voices shouting at each other. When I came to look, I saw them having a mental disability. Because I was an open-minded person, it didn't bother me. But I was bothered by the people around them. They seem to easily judge these individuals because they have that kind of illness.
Judy Falin Dellinger
12/24/2016 07:37:20 am
Interesting blog, Paul. I taught special education on an emergency certificate in Jackson County West Virginia in the late 60s. What an enlightening and at times sad experience. It is surprising I pursued my teaching degree! I am sure you were able to draw on
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