Sunday, November 6, 2011

the end of childhood

just shy of 3 weeks' into her freshman year at the rhode island school of design (RISD), sasha finds herself bleary-eyed and lost outside the district courthouse in providence. she's running on 2 days' with very little sleep because she got back from her first weekend back home in new york city the night before. she's still wearing the sweatshirt she wore back on the train, "The United Nations International School, NYC." it's the idealistic school she attended from kindergarten to 12th-grade. the lunch ladies had known her since before she was too small to carry her own money.

she's a bright but shy girl. when she was a toddler, city testing showed high levels of lead in her blood. we think that's probably why she developed ADD in adolescence. it makes her dreamy and easily carried away in her thoughts, so it takes some mustering up of will to ask a stranger which way to get back to the college. she looks up the road to a church steeple that looks vaguely familar.

last night, she had a sleepless night in a freezing cold jail cell, because RISD public safety had her arrested for coming in to tell them she mistakenly ignited a piece of paper on a bulletin board as she was leaving the dormitory (even though she didn't leave the spot before she was certain the entire thing had been extinguished). it was out in less than a minute.

when every wisp of smoke was gone, she walked out of the building and heard the fire alarms and the engines coming. she thought she'd better reassure everyone that it was not a serious fire, nothing was damaged and no one was in danger. she did what she had been taught to do all through her education at the United Nations School. be kind. be conscious. be caring. when she made a mistake, she admitted it, apologized and tried to rectify the situation as best she could.

even that night, she was tired. the first semester at RISD is known for being grueling. she'd had a studio class from 8am to 7pm and then she worked on her homework in her room for 3 hours before she and her friends had decided to go out for a cigarette break at about 11pm. she was spacey and she was sorry.

providence is small but the RISD freshman schedule is so dense so she's not been off college hill much except to the library. she'd never been in this part of town before. there's no one there to pick her up, her I.D. and cell phone had been confiscated, and they didn't let her get her wallet so she guesses she'll just have to walk back. her wrists are still sore from being handcuffed to another prisoner for hours.

the security guard at entrance of the courthouse nods her to the direction of the college and she heads up the road. sasha had never lived on her own before. until now, the biggest trouble she'd ever gotten herself into was bringing waterguns to school at the end of the senior year. they were confiscated by the teachers before anyone got wet.

that said, she's used to being the oldest of three sisters and taking responsibility for the pack, especially since she and sisters were on their own with me for the past 12 years. she realized how serious her job was while I was recovering from months of chemotherapy. so she doesn't complain and she doesn't get angry.

she is blinking in the sunlight and still trying to make sense of what happened during her arraignment. it was her first time in a courtroom. unlike her sisters, she's not a fan of "Law and Order." one of the men asked her if she was pleading guilty or not guilty. her father told her afterwards that that was the public defender. she wasn't sure what she was being told to sign, but she did it because she was told to.

afterwards, her younger sister told her that "the guy who said what happened," was the prosecutor. sasha said he told the judge that she had turned herself in and the police report showed that she was forthcoming and remorseful. the judge allowed her to go. sasha thought it was over.

that night, police were loathe to arrest sasha but the burly RISD public security officer insisted. he'd probably had it up to here with the boisterous new pack of freshmen. sasha said that when she "confessed," he said, "this is serious! the police are coming!" the arson police. they questioned her and quickly realized it was neither deliberate nor malicious.

disapproving, the scowling RISD public security officer closed the door on the little room sasha was held in while he conferred with them. sasha heard the same RISD public security officer say, "let's teach her a lesson - let her spend the night in jail." the next thing she knew she was being handcuffed and put in the back of a squadcar and drove her down to the station. she was still in her UNIS sweats - and she ended being stuck wearing the same clothes for the next 24 hours.

sasha had never heard the term "paterfamilias." when I was in college, the college administration became your guardians. they were protective of their students and our reputations. they tried to keep us out of trouble with the police and help us learn our lessons within the safety of the school administration. they would never have wanted to ruin the entire academic career or mar a life with an arrest record - especially when their job was nurture us and help us grow.

when sasha got back up to college, she was worried because she'd missed her morning class. her next class wasn't til 4pm so she thought she might have time to shower and change and have a quick nap before. she went back to RISD public safety to get her ID and phone back so she could call me and her father.

when she got there, they told her she was suspended.

she was forbidden to be on campus without supervision. they told her she could not leave the office. no longer a person, she is an insurance liability.

half-asleep and disoriented, she was made to sit in a chair for the next 7 hours until james (her stepfather) could drive up from the city to collect her. she had no cell phone, no computer, no book but she kept falling asleep anyway. a kindly school administrator brought her back a bagel but she was too tired to eat.

back in NYC, I got a call at 1:03am from the head of RISD Student Life. "your daughter's been arrested and she's in jail," he was seething, so angry i could almost feel him spitting through the phone.

i said, "are you sure? sasha? why?"

he said, "she set a bulletin board on fire."

at first, I almost laughed, thinking this was some kind of joke. "really?"

"we take fire very seriously at RISD. sasha has a lot to answer for!" he speaks through clenched teeth.

"there must be some mistake, sasha isn't that kind of a kid. she doesn't do those sort of things. what happened?"

"sasha is 18. she is an adult. if you want to know what happened, you'll have to call the police station." he gave me the number of the police station and his cell phone - though he made it clear he despised all the freshmen, and sasha most vehemently.

like sasha, i am equally baffled. i have never been handcuffed or put in jail or had an arraignment. i call the police station and the kindly police officer who had arrested her, reassured me. "she's a good kid, don't worry," she tells me. "i'll try and tell her i talked to you. they'll release her in the morning and she can call you then." she tells me that she wouldn't have even arrested her at all if RISD public safety hadn't insisted. "there was no real damage to property, no harm to anyone," she says. "i don't know why they wanted to send her down here, but it will probably be dismissed in the morning. there's not even a real charge."

i call the director of resident life again and tell him i am a single mother with two more teenagers at home. i am six hours away from providence and not sure what to do now.

he sneers and tells me that his only comfort is that he never made the mistake of producing his own teenagers. "i really shouldn't do this since sasha is 18, but i'll call you tomorrow and tell you what's been determined."

the next morning at about 11am, he calls to tell me that it's likely sasha will be sent home. he's not sure yet, but one should make arrangements to collect her. i've got parent-teacher meetings for rara and zarina and james is shooting a movie but he manages to shut down his crew by 2pm and drive up to providence.

a week later, sasha is summoned back to the school for a "disciplinary hearing." in a panic, i take her to a clinical psychiatrist to see if i didn't understand - and she was secretly malicious. but no, a thorough examination makes it clear that she is the girl we know and love. no desire to hurt anyone or destroy property. on the other hand, she is diagnosed with ADD inattentive disorder. in other words, she is shy and spacey but gentle, not defiant. we bring the psychiatrist's report to RISD.

RISD suggests she find an advisor for a disciplinary hearing. after 3 weeks in RISD, she has no one to turn to. she tells them that, so they suggest another student, just one year older than her, who is equally clueless about how to respond.

for two hours, sasha is grilled by four administrators and four students, none of whom had read her telling of what happened or the psychiatrist's report or any of the additional papers she included. sasha is not given any of the information used against her by the college. though there is a scratchy, black-and-white security camera film - which only shoots a frame every 3 seconds. in it, sasha passes with a group of kids, laughing and horsing around. her hands are never in frame, so without her own testimony, there was no proof she ignited it.

despite the scowling RISD public safety officer, sasha has to prove that she turned herself in. that is not on the record. now those campus safety officers, locals with a reputation for harshness towards the artsy rich kids who attend the college, have full police powers.

of the other students who witnessed the event, two came forward and corroborated sasha's story while the third one was so intimidated that he simply threw sasha under the bus. he was a boy who'd had his romantic advances towards sasha rebuffed and wasn't inclined to help at the risk of looking bad (he'd been there and done nothing to help).

of course, under the pressure of scrutiny, sasha dissolved into tears and was unable to speak.

the results of the hearing? sasha is suspended for two years. she can re-apply to RISD then.

the chances that she can get a place in another college after a disciplinary suspension are infinitesimal.

one of james' friends wrote a letter to RISD protesting sasha's treatment. as the father of a college freshman at another art college, he talked about his fear of the current criminalization of students.

he talked about the way in which the world has changed and humanity has been replaced by the requirements of insurance and legal structures. the way in which what is happening at all the #occupy movements is echoing what happened in the arab spring - and the way in which brutal police force has become accepted in retaliation for minor infractions. that we have become so accustomed to being treated harshly by the authorities that we are too frightened to protest.

in the meantime, sasha is sitting at home, in limbo. she's been cooking for her sisters, helping around the house. going with me to movies and surviving on the texts and emails of her friends who are all in throes of their first semester in university. they tell her about all their new friends and their favorite classes. occasionally, she bursts into tears, saying, "it's just so unfair..." but usually, she just says she's lonely.

more bizarrely, she wants nothing more than to be allowed to go back to school. she loved RISD. even though she spent the past two years studying art intensively for the International Baccalaureat, she focused on her passion, photography. RISD opened up a whole new world - drawing, painting, design. it was terrifying and thrilling. she knew she was behind the curve because she'd never learned those skills, but she was inspired by her classmates. "everyone here is so creative! they are always thinking of cool new things to do," she was exhilarated by the energy around her.

since our apartment flooded this summer, we've moved from one temporary home to another. our current tiny apartment is now crowded with all the things from sasha's dorm room. sasha shares a room with me and zarina shares a room with rara.

at 18, sasha is an adult according to the law. though if something goes wrong, or the college needs to be paid, they call her parents. despite that, what we can do to help sasha is limited. like everyone else today, we are subject to laws and rules that seem to defy intelligence and common sense.

everyone - from her school guidance counselor to people who've known her since babyhood - sent letters and emails to RISD vouching for her kind nature. we've had artists simply email to protest RISD's draconian response to a childish mistake. the administration responded with emails saying they needed to consider the safety of the other students.

as if sasha was not a student. as if her presence alone was a threat. however, no one from RISD telephoned or emailed sasha to see how she was.

we are all growing up through this incident. learning that all the idealistic things we've taught our kids - always take responsibility for what you do, apologize, be honest, protect your friends, trust your teachers and the authorities to look out for your best interests - are no longer valid in the present society. we've learned that authorities are not reasonable and wisdom is less important than face value.

this is where the innocence of childhood ends. but what goes in its place?


  1. I'm somewhat devastated after reading this account. It is a different world now. Compassion is becoming but a fleeting memory and being replaced by intolerance. My hope is that some positive outcome is in store as a result of this abrupt life change. I've no doubt that Sasha has the strength to supersede this stumble. This too will pass.

  2. So sorry to hear this. Sasha is back in NYC and right here she can learn drawing, painting, design. It is too bad her experience at RISD was cut short but it is only a bump. The best has yet to come.

    1. Hi Ameena,
      I just came across this - terrible. As my daughter heads to college this year, it is even more alarming! So, is Sasha back at RISD now ?
      Lots of love,

    2. hi tapasi -

      the end of the story is that my mother and i went and spoke to the vicepresident of RISD. in the end, she agreed to let sasha back in as a freshman in fall 2012. so this semester, sasha is at syracuse university. and cold as it is, she seems to love her teachers and they are nurturing her in a way i couldn't have guessed was possible. she is also working very hard and seems to have become very responsible.

      where is your daughter going? whatever happens, be prepared, this first year away from home seems to be tumultuous for many kids. there are a few who sail through but many hit some roadblocks and need to regather themselves.