Not Fade from Our Hearts
BY M. MONTGOMERY
When the headmaster of my bougie pedophilic high school was kicked in the face by a horse and hospitalized, my father sent me an email reading, “Bask in the glory of revenge!” So I did. I was happy that day. At the time, I knew nothing of Mr. Mulligan’s collusion with sex offenders, but I still hated the dude, with his dumb Thacher baseball caps and self-indulgent speeches at assembly about the hazards of marijuana, my favorite flower. It was known to everyone: we were a sex school, not a drug school, so you could host an orgy in an unlocked classroom and still get a diploma, no matter how carelessly you sought consent for the weird shit you pulled, but one puff of cannabis and you were dead to the world. And at seventeen, all I wanted was to go to a drug school, where I would belong, yes, truly belong.
Today I got an email from my new doctor, asking me to complete a survey about my mental health, but there’s no box to check to explain how much I daydream, how I spend the sober part of each day waiting to enter a cannabis stupor and let my imagination run wild. According to my new doctor, I have a “moderate cannabis abuse disorder.” Here are things I daydream about: girls, wreaking havoc on my bougie pedophilic high school, that’s really it, just girls and the trauma of adolescence. Now that Thacher is paying for my therapy, which is extensive in scope, I get to play the fun game of figuring out how many of my problems I can reasonably blame them for.
On the survey, I note that I’m depressed, anxious, and perpetually bored. These things were true in my youth too, when I holed up in my room, friendless, reading novels. Mr. Mulligan was always crowing about how Thacher was the best place in the world, an absurd and offensive descriptor of any high school, which became still more shocking and cruelly ironic when he was outed in an independent investigation as a protector of pedophiles. As assistant headmaster in the 1980s, he’d knowingly approved two sex offenders to teach, reasoning that one of them was “a great soccer coach.” Both became serial predators, and both were allowed to quietly depart campus when their bad behavior caught up to them. During my time in the mid-2000s, two perverts prowled the grounds, Mr. Gordon and Mr. Johnson, though I never caught the red flags. Once, Mr. Gordon invited me to his house late at night to work on a project, but instead we just shot the shit for two hours, which didn’t feel weird or creepy at all, the dude was like my best friend and I had no idea he was grooming other girls for sexual assault. I said, “Mr. Gordon, I just want to be somewhere else, anywhere else in the world,” and he said, “M., if you were somewhere else, you’d be on drugs.”
Between bumps of ketamine, my friends and I swap stories of our stupid teen years. Raised by a pastor and a pastor’s wife in the deep South, Chewy was homeschooled, which meant his parents gave him textbooks and left him to his own devices, but the guy is an autistic genius who managed to learn just about everything in the world without much help. Napoleon also taught herself most of the things she knows, having been educated in a Sudbury school, an experimental model that centers student-directed learning. So while I was thumbing through the Norton anthology of American literature, churning out essays for Mr. Gordon, my pedophilic English teacher whom I loved, Napoleon was hanging out with the other teens in her program, sexually harassing each other for lack of specific curricular goals, and Chewy was learning who he was through reruns of Friends. Does high school always suck? Is it true that only assholes like high school? In 2019, at Mr. Gordon’s urging, I went to an alumni party full of people who still like Thacher.
Here was how it started: I picked a fight with a guy on Facebook who was whining about the school flying the Pride flag for National Coming Out Day. He thought the Pride flag was stupid, that the gesture was performative nonsense, and he spelled the acronym “LGQBTB.” Straight people are always complaining that our five-letter acronym is an alphabet soup, but somehow they can keep track of everyone’s exact hormone levels in order to kick children out of sports and bathrooms, so I asked if the additional “B” stood for “basic-ass straight dude,” if Tom had just wanted to feel included and therefore justified in disclosing his shitty opinion. In short, I made a scene, because I’m gay and on drugs and always pissed off and lacking in impulse control, and I dragged Mr. Gordon into it. “Do you know this punk-ass bitch?” I asked him over Facebook messenger. “I’m going to fight him!”
So Mr. Gordon, who was “friend-raising” for the school in San Francisco, his words, invited me to a hotel bar on Sutter Street. Of course I got drunk. I felt embarrassed and vulnerable for lashing out at a stranger on Facebook, outing myself as gay to a community in which I’d always been quite undercover, but drinking helped and so did Mr. Gordon, who was a smart and funny bastard. When he later got exposed as a sexual predator, I would learn that he also liked substances too much, was always wandering around the girls’ dormitories while sloshed, but at the time it felt normal and nice to be chugging beers with him, like we were good old friends. I hadn’t had any other friends in high school, and I guess I still wanted one.
“Who do you identify with most from The L-Word?” I asked, as I ask all my good old friends.
“Bette,” said Mr. Gordon immediately. Bette is a powerful yet destructive woman who cheats on all her girlfriends and probably kills Jenny, the craziest and most loathsome character. It’s a great show, we both agreed, and I read nothing into his answer. Then he invited me to the alumni party, promising that it would be fun.
“Why would I subject myself to that?” I asked.
“It’s an open bar,” Mr. Gordon said, and I was like Ohhhh, okay, you get me, you still get me.
At the alumni party, I drank free tequila with my date, Christine, whom I introduced to the room as my mistress. I told everyone that my name was Marigold Montgomery and that I’d met Mr. Gordon on Seeking Arrangements, a story that now strikes me as surprisingly plausible, but they all knew exactly who I was and insisted on hugging me. I hugged the boring straight white guys from my class. I made dumb small talk about all the nothing I was doing with my life. I clung to Christine, feeling validated by the fleeting attention of a pretty girl, and eventually we were approached by a woman named Amy White who had graduated a year before I got to campus, who seemed intrigued by my flaming homosexuality and added me on Co-Star. A Gemini—I should have predicted trouble. When she stole my pack of cigarettes, I thought she was flirting and decided on the spot that I was down, but actually she was just a criminal personality, and though we swapped numbers, I was never able to reach her again. There went ten dollars. There went my dignity. I felt embarrassed for having wanted to fuck the boring straight blonde lady who went to my high school, so I texted Mr. Gordon three days later to complain about it, attaching a picture of Bette from The L-Word: Gen Q. “I will only go to another Thacher party if you guarantee that I’ll be seduced, robbed, and ghosted by a bicurious cigarette thief annually,” I wrote. “But at least our bitch is back!” In the picture of Bette, the subtitle reads, “I want to know what keeps you up at night,” which is incidentally very similar to a line that Mr. Gordon emailed the student he sexually assaulted. But I didn’t know about that yet, so his cry-laughing emoji meant the world to me, such a warm-hearted gesture of friendship and alliance, it meant the absolute world.
At fourteen, I landed at boarding school to escape my shitty homelife and quickly discovered that this place was shitty too. Everyone was obsessed with horses, which all freshmen were required to care for and ride. Everyone was also obsessed with character. You had to build it all the time, usually through humiliation and physical discomfort.
The Thacher Horse Program makes the place unique among prep schools: “What’s on the outside of every horse is good for the inside of every boy!” opined Sherman Day Thacher a century ago, so I got stuck riding horses all the time, even though I wasn’t a boy and all my insides were rotting from stress. We had to wake up at 6am to muck our stalls, feed our horses, and clean an assigned section of the barns; if you fucked anything up, which I did constantly, you got assigned “work crew,” where you did menial labor for three hours on Wednesday afternoons. I dug holes for reasons unknown to me, like goddamn Stanley Yelnats. I cleared trails of debris. I scrubbed saddles. Quickly I’d made myself public enemy of the Horse Department, almost failing the program twice, and Mr. Gleason, the head honcho, never hesitated to let me know what a loser I was. “I pray you’re not as hopeless with people as you are with horses,” he told me once, and I was like, Yikes!
Because the fact of the matter was, I couldn’t make a single friend at this school, and my loneliness was getting to me. My life had turned into a nightmare cycle of horse-related responsibilities interspersed with sadistic prep school rituals like formal dinner, so I began to yearn for the embrace of death. Not until I started 10th grade English with Mr. Gordon did these feelings subside slightly. He gave us a bunch of books by dead white guys to read and for some reason I was like, Holy shit! I thought they were the best ever. Mr. Gordon was the only Black teacher at Thacher, but he never assigned us books by Black writers. It was all Milton and Shakespeare and Faulkner and Hemingway, and I gave up on making friends. I read the whole-ass western canon. That year, secluded in my decrepit dormitory, where mice squeaked from inside the walls and the smell of horse shit and orange blossoms wafted through the windows, I read over one hundred novels.
At Thacher, after graduating the Horse Program, students play sports in the afternoon, but there was one escape route: independent projects, which could be creative in nature. I’m not sure how I made the cut as a mere sophomore, but I submitted a proposal to write a play and was granted freedom. My project was called “The Globsons” and told the story of a depraved horse breeder who runs over a teenage girl with his tractor, paralleling my own adventures with Mr. Gleason. After the performance, which was a debacle, I got called to Olympus, the office, for a lecture.
The Dean of Students was too horrified to confront me, so she sent me to the assistant headmaster—Mr. Robinson, a widower who bore a slight resemblance to Allen Ginsberg. He taught art history and possessed some literary sensibilities, so he was gentler with me than the other Thacher administrators might have been. Nonetheless, you can’t trust an Olympian, or a high school administrator who likens himself to one, to be benevolent.
Mr. Robinson opened the conversation by telling me he’d liked the play, and went so far as to call me an artist. “I mean, an artist has to have a cold heart,” he said. “An artist has to be ruthless. So you’re off to a good start, I think.”
I nodded and thanked him.
“But you need to apologize to the Gleasons,” he said. “No, really. You made Mrs. Gleason weep.”
Perhaps due to my cold and ruthless artist’s heart, this image thrilled me. Mrs. Gleason was a white-blonde woman with narrow, deep-set eyes; whenever she looked at me, I worried she was contemplating how to murder me and get away with it. She was tough, just like her cowboy husband, so I liked the idea of her suffering from the same emotional fragility that made me hate myself so much, that made my youthful efforts at life seem so fruitless.
After that, I went back to my room and my collection of novels. If a man was dead, white, and a writer, I read his book, harboring the notion that in order to matter, I would also need to be a waspy man, or at least write like one. So, penning long emails to Mr. Gordon for no particular reason, he lived a five minute walk away, there was no need to write to him aside from wanting to be Arthur Rimbaud, I signed off with only initials.
The Gleasons never responded to my brusque apology, nor did the faculty forgive me—though in boarding school fashion, the events were swept courteously under the rug. Assaults on my character were voiced without direct reference to the play: “M. is a smart girl,” one teacher wrote. “But unless she learns to show a palpable measure of compassion, she will have a difficult time getting through life.” I still wonder about that—specifically, who doesn’t have a difficult time getting through life? Maybe horses.
At the alumni party, seriously, Amy White was all up in my grill, I swore she wanted to bang. I was in the midst of my third gay awakening so that sounded fine to me, wasn’t it a unique form of intimacy to complain about the Horse Program? After snatching my pack of cigarettes, she took my hand and said, “Don’t worry, you’re gonna see me on Sunday and get these back,” which made Christine jealous, which made me happy, because it was rewarding to get sexual attention from multiple women in the context of revisiting my high school traumas. But then Amy ghosted, which transformed her from vaguely interesting to just annoying.
My first gay awakening came when I got the hell out of Thacher and went to France for a school year abroad. Overseas, I thought, I would fulfill my dreams of becoming Arthur Rimbaud and finally smoking weed. I bought stationary and handwrote a letter to Mr. Gordon to reach for the former dream, but he maddeningly replied on Facebook, so I gave that up and took my host mom’s advice to get drunk with my American friends. With them, I achieved the latter dream. But I still feuded with my new English teacher, Mr. Engles, a pretentious old white guy who didn’t live up to my standards.
The first time I felt a true pang of recognition reading was that year, when we studied To the Lighthouse. In that story, Lily Briscoe has an impulse “to fling herself… at Mrs. Ramsay’s knee and say to her—but what could one say to her? ‘I’m in love with you?’” I raised my hand for the first time ever—I never raised my hand in Mr. Engles’ lousy class, just burst out stupid jokes—and said, “I’m sorry, but is this about lesbians?” and Mr. Engles said, “That’s a good observation, we’ll come back to it,” and we never did. I hated that guy. After class, I went with my friends to smoke by the vending machine and plot how to frame him for sexual misconduct. Kat volunteered to take the hit for us: she would tell everyone that Mr. Engles had made a lascivious remark to her, which wasn’t hard to imagine him doing, since Kat was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen, lanky and bright, I thought she was just amazing. It was fun to hang around with girls, smoking one cigarette after another.
The next year, back at Thacher, I didn’t know how to get through the days anymore. Early in the fall trimester we had our first assigned date dance, a creepy tradition complete with age-inappropriate pairings of seniors and freshmen, and I bellowed out my window for my pathetic freshman boy date to go alone. I kept ditching assembly and required events, so when Mr. Gordon invited me to his house late at night to ask what was going on, to talk to me for two hours, I didn’t think it was weird but maybe it was, I only felt seen for the first time in a while and relieved to be seen. And Mulligan? He just strutted around the place like a proud and imbecilic rooster, blathering about the poison that is marijuana, which I didn’t know yet was racist propaganda lifted from the War on Drugs, I didn’t know anything about anything, I just called him an asshole on Facebook because I felt it in my bones. And when he emailed demanding to know why I’d called him an asshole on social media, of course someone narc’d on me, language failed and I stared at his signature, Spike, thinking only this: Dude! You can’t nickname yourself Spike.
The third-to-last time I got sloshed with Mr. Gordon, we were having dinner at Zuni’s with my old classmate Rose. She’d been my first high school crush, I’d thought she was the sun and the moon and the stars and she’d thought I was funny, so we became pretty good friends after graduation. Mr. Gordon told us that Jenny, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Mr. Gleason, was now applying to Thacher, and I probably made a gagging sound or something. But Jenny would never attend the school, because just a few months later she killed herself.
“She either shot herself in the attic or hung herself in the barn,” Mr. Gordon elaborated when I asked him about it.
“You don’t know which?” I asked. “Are you making this up? Did you just pick a few dramatic ways to commit suicide on a farm?” But I was less concerned with the how of her death and more troubled by whatever had preceded it and pushed her over the edge. Mr. Gleason had tortured me as a mentally ill fourteen-year-old, when I’d been enemy of the state, and now his own mentally ill fourteen-year-old daughter was dead. A small, sad part of my psyche shrieked, Better her than you! But that was not how suicide or mental illness worked. I wasn’t alive now because Jenny had been destined to die in my place, I was alive because I had gotten obsessed with reading dead white guy novels and telling Mr. Gordon about them, and miraculously, that had been enough to save me.
After graduating from Thacher, I went through a million doctors, a million diagnoses, a million little pill capsules. I was living in Montreal, where I’d started college at McGill, and my brain seemed to be rapidly deteriorating: I was skipping all my classes, which I couldn’t focus on anyway, to tromp around aimlessly in the snow and play guitar until my fingers bled. Sadness had plagued me for five years now, coming in spurts, on and off, and it was alarming to have my problems finally acknowledged by medical professionals as something real. I wrote a letter to the Gleasons, explaining that I was mentally ill and that their treatment of me had contributed to suicidal ideations, which was why I had sucked at riding, sorry, and I did not send it. I wrote countless, absurdly lengthy emails to Mr. Gordon, which he only sometimes deigned to respond to, but always with affection and concern. Later, when I heard about his long exchanges with the woman he assaulted, in which he asked her probing questions about her sex life and fantasies, I wondered why I only got two sentences back, weeks late, when I told him I’d been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder—but I didn’t really care, I hadn’t minded shouting into an abyss, I’d counted on him to catch the echo of whatever I said. Reading the report, noting the differences between myself and his victim, I thought, He can’t have been grooming me, there’s no way, but I knew I’d never talk to him again, that I absolutely couldn’t, and that was a betrayal too.
“He was the one good thing about the school,” I texted Rose when the report came out, “and now he’s just icing on the trauma cake. What the fuck?” And she was also spooked as hell, reflecting on her own interactions with Mr. Gordon, so we comforted each other. I was doing okay now. I’d been stable for over five years and no longer experienced the plummeting lows that had plagued me in high school, not since Mr. Gordon had helped bail me out of a psych ward, after which I finally got on the right meds. That really happened! I’d called him from the lobby, where the phone cord was about an inch long, an anti-strangulation precaution, and said, “Mr. Gordon, can you tell them I’m not crazy so I can go home and have a cigarette?” I was really craving a smoke, I would have done anything to get out of there, including humiliating myself in front of someone I trusted completely.
Thacher has a school song that we drunkenly sang at the end of the alumni party, arms thrown over each other’s shoulders. Christine, my date, thought the whole thing was weird and cult-like as hell. May old Casa Piedra not fade from our hearts, begins the bop, and it’s true, I can’t dissolve the place or my memories no matter how hard I try. Recently, I revisited my play, “The Globsons,” and read it in full for the first time in years. More than anything, the story explores accountability and blame as the townspeople gather to debate whether the death that shook the town was an accident, or not. “As far as I’m concerned,” croons Rhonda, the local gossip, “Delmont Globson is a murderer now!”
It’s strange how a single detail, a fleeting moment—a drunken grope at a party, detailed in the law firm’s report, in Mr. Gordon’s case—can throw whole realities into question. My roommate at the psych ward had been trapped there for days, drugged and sedated at times, and brought me a sprig of lavender to sniff, asking if I wanted to talk. So I told her, among other things, about Mr. Gordon, how he was my friend and had vouched for me and I might be getting out that night. To my surprise, she thought the whole thing was incredible, that I was not only on speaking terms with my 10th grade English teacher but enlisting him to bail me out of a psych ward, something that no one else was pulling off. I didn’t tell her about the sexual violence, because I didn’t know about it. I also didn’t tell her about the stupid horses or the avocado groves or the enemies I made or the friends I couldn’t. I didn’t need to, because she already had the place figured out. She said, “It sounds like you went to a really special school.”