Craig M. Roen
Somewhere in the triple digits, a TV network is running The Breakfast Club for the nth time. The setting for this homage to teenage angst is a suburban Chicago high school. I went to that school. That is to say, it was a real school before it was a make-believe school. It was largely populated by middle-class suburban white kids, like me. Hold that in mind, now go back 100 years to the stink and squalor of Upton Sinclair’s Chicago, its roiling immigrant population packed into unheated tenements, crushed in factory accidents and trampled to death at the slaughterhouses. Picture tribes of motherless boys running the streets in sub-zero winters, feet wrapped with rags, stealing food, and when caught by their emaciated arms, beaten senseless by black jack wielding cops.
My high school and the City, separated by a century and 15 miles—these parallel universes touched for a brief time.
In 1883, the first Archbishop of Chicago built a rural boy’s home way out of the City, in bucolic Des Plaines, Illinois: Maryville Academy. It was his utopic vision of how to save these lost children. By the time I entered high school, however, Maryville had become a dumping ground for troubled City kids who had run out of options. The place was a cesspool of violence and drugs. They were almost all black or Hispanic and they attended my high school.
They weren’t individuals to us—we just called them the Maryville kids. They mostly stayed to themselves and we kept our distance. I knew only one of them, slightly. We had a gym class together when I was a freshman. This boy, Rolando, told me about Maryville. He told me about the beatings and the theft and the indifference and the contempt of the counselors. Lucky me, I thought, not to have ended up someplace like that, surrounded by people like that.
Late in my senior year, after having been accepted into college, a few buddies and I, full of ourselves and hopped up on our shiny futures, signed up for Basic Cooking, a home-ec class for losers. It would be an easy A, a goof, and anyway, we were so done with high school. More than 30 years later, I look back and think, “What a bunch of assholes.”
There was a girl in Basic Cooking, younger than me, with chestnut colored skin and onyx hair. Her body was years ahead of her age. She was beautiful and I would steal glances at her, probably more obviously than I realized. I never heard her speak and I never spoke to her: she was a Maryville kid. I cannot remember her name. She deserves to be remembered by name.
It was May and the school year was almost over. It was unusually warm as summer announced itself early. We filtered into class, chatting about girlfriends, or beer, or God knows what, and this girl, the one without a name, appeared in the door. There was something not right. She was slightly tipped forward at the hips and moved as if there was something wrong with her, something wrong between her legs. She did not so much walk as shuffle her feet. The way she moved seemed comical and my buddies. When they noticed her, they laughed. She looked at me directly: she looked me right in the eyes. As I looked back at her, though I don’t know how, I knew she had been raped. I looked away.
She was just a Maryville kid. Not my problem, not my world, not a thing I could do, or would do even if I could. I graduated and moved on. The next year, my high school was shuttered. In 2002, the State of Illinois closed Maryville after an investigation uncovered rampant violence there, including widespread rape.
In the telling, there is no catharsis. Nor should there be. A girl, a child, in our midst, was raped. And no one did anything. Because she didn’t matter. Because she was one of them and not one of us. I recently looked through my old yearbook. I could not find her picture and therefore I could not learn her name. She deserves to be remembered by name.