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Why I hate Mackworth Island
Imagine if Abu Ghraib was populated with deaf children. One of them was my sister. That’s why I went to see that house burn
BY RICK WORMWOOD


On a recent, overcast morning, the deaf gathered in the quiet corner of a Falmouth parking lot, waiting for their ride. They were once students together. Now they are an alumni association of sorts. When I introduced myself, several of them recognized my name from having gone to school with my sister, so I was quickly accepted into the fold. Using more sign language in the next half hour than I had in the previous decade, I was surprised at how much I remembered. The signs emerged from my subconscious and somehow worked their way down to my hands.

Two navy blue vans and a yellow school bus arrived to load us up for the short drive to Mackworth Island, the 100-acre jewel in Casco Bay that is home to the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf, Maine’s only institution of its kind. Given the afternoon’s emotional agenda, the school’s administration took the unusual step of closing the island, which is also a state park, to the public. Certain people who used to work for the school, and who still vehemently deny the truth of what once happened there, will occasionally make trouble for the former students. Nobody wanted them around. We were going to Mackworth for some healing, not to fight.

Passing through a security checkpoint on the bridge seemed to justify the palpable nervousness in the vans. I couldn’t help but feel that it was a dangerous day. When we were deposited near the guardhouse, not far from a convoy of what seemed like every fire truck the town of Falmouth possessed, people started making their way up the hill towards the house that we had all come to watch burn.

It’s not hyperbole to say that the abandoned farmhouse that had been rotting away in a secluded island meadow for more than a decade was the epicenter of the most evil and shameful chapter in 20th-century Maine history. A quick perusal of the 1982 state attorney general’s report on the scandal that hit the school is horrifying. For many years, this house was the home of Dr. Robert E. Kelly, the Governor Baxter School’s principal from the early 1960s until his resignation in 1981. According to the AG’s report, it was common practice for Kelly to require young male students to report to the farmhouse at night so that he could "teach him about sex for the future." His lessons, say the report, included strip poker, sex acts, bondage, the threat of beatings, and lots of photographs. Kelly was a shutterbug. You know all those pictures you’ve seen from Abu Ghraib Prison? Well, just imagine that instead of Iraqi prisoners, they are young deaf kids, and instead of the pictures being taken to humiliate a suspected insurgent into spilling the beans about terrorism, which is twisted enough, they were shot to shame kids into doing whatever sick sexual thing Dr. Kelly desired.

Now imagine, if you can, that this went on in one form or another for 20 years. Dr. Kelly knew just how to break his targets down. Stories abound in the deaf community, and not all made it into the AG’s report, but try just this one on for size: Any child initially unwilling to comply would be bound naked to a tree outside until almost dawn, when they would be released with a warning; if they were still unwilling to submit the next night, it was back on the tree.

The remote school’s layout provided the perfect setup for Kelly’s activities. Not only was the house just far enough away from the rest of the school to be hidden from view, but who were the kids going to tell? Most of them were too ashamed of what happened to tell anyone, but even if they had wanted to, they couldn’t communicate with 99 percent of the population unless the hearing person was willing to take some extra time and trouble to glean the message.

And where would they see these people anyway? They lived in isolation on an island. There were no police cruisers happening by on routine patrol that might notice something, no early-bird neighbors walking their dogs at four in the morning to wonder why the hell there was a naked kid tied to a tree. Charles Dickens and Stephen King could have worked on the problem for a year and not come up with a more perfect location for such an insidious thing to happen.

Deaf since birth, my only sibling and older sister, Sharon, attended Governor Baxter from 1973 until the watershed year of 1981, when the shit hit the fan in public. Because of her, I practically grew up on Mackworth Island. Our mother was constantly shuttling Sharon to or from the dorms where she spent weeknights, or attending some fair or seminar, almost always with me in tow. I knew the ins and outs of the island and the Governor Baxter School long before attending school myself, and back then, I thought that Mackworth Island was a wonderful place: not only postcard beautiful, but full of playgrounds and curiosities. And if my mom and I encountered Dr. Kelly, or his boss, Dr. Joseph Youngs — Governor Baxter’s superintendent and the de facto King of Mackworth Island — before leaving, then all the better. Even a passing audience in the corridors was a special event.

Bumping into them was like chancing upon the Pope, or maybe Don Corleone. When we met up, my mother would lavish them with a level of deference and gratitude usually reserved for priests, and I, taking my cues from her, did the same. We craved their approval. It makes me sick to remember now, but that’s all in hindsight. At the time, we didn’t know the truth.

As a kid growing up in Sanford, when Dr. Kelly’s name was spoken in our house it was said with enough reverence to suggest that he was a saint in heaven. Dr. Kelly and Dr. Youngs were considered among the leading lights of American deaf education. Maine was lucky to have them, we were told, and so it seemed to be (even in the course of its criminal investigation, the attorney general’s office did find that hundreds of students appeared to receive good educations and sound care thanks to other dedicated professionals not involved in any wrongdoing). The Governor Baxter School was a place that the frightened parents of small deaf children, people wondering how their kids would learn the extra skills necessary for them to make their way in the world, were beyond relieved to learn existed. It was an answer to their prayers. They delivered their extra-vulnerable children to live and learn on the island with great relief and dispatch.

Whenever a kid came home on the weekend and told his or her parents a strange story or displayed an unusual bruise or mark, Youngs or Kelly had an explanation: The student got hurt during harmless roughhousing. The kid was telling lies because he or she was having a hard time adjusting. The child wanted attention; had a fanciful imagination. The deference these men cultivated among the families of their charges, combined with how deeply people needed to believe that Governor Baxter actually was what it seemed, made such lame excuses work time and time again. Kelly and Youngs were hard men to question. Only with the AG report did many of us find out that the injuries were often the result of their fists.

My sister broke her arm out there once, and we still don’t know why or how.

The two men were very different types. Dr. Kelly didn’t affect Dr. Youngs’s paterfamilias, Albert Schweitzer–of–Casco Bay act. Youngs was Mister Community Involvement — the Falmouth Lions Club 1968 Man of the Year, the past president of both the Falmouth and Portland Rotary Clubs, past president of the American Society of Deaf Educators, etc. Dr. Youngs was a public figure. If you had a board, he would sit on it. If you had a civic group, he would come and give a talk about his educational philosophies. He ate more banquet chicken than a presidential candidate, and had more commemorative gavels than Judge Wapner.

 

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Issue Date: June 4 - 10, 2004
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