34/52: I Was Afraid of the Dark (and I Still Am)


This week’s assigned lyrics: “I was afraid of the dark, but now it’s all that I want.

From Maroon 5’s “Daylight”

No, Maroon 5.  No.

This was my second visit to the former Pennhurst State School and Hospital, a state facility that opened in Pennsylvania in 1908 as an institution for the developmentally, intellectually, and physically disabled. It was a place where the “feeble-minded” were to be kept away from society, for as one of Pennhurst’s doctors reported to the State Legislature in 1913: “Every feeble-minded person is a potential criminal.”

Within a few years of its opening, Pennhurst became terribly overcrowded, accepting not only the disabled but also orphans, unwanted children, and criminals.  It was grossly underfunded and understaffed.

There were many well-meaning attendants who just could not handle the patient load, which resulted in widespread neglect. Many residents spent their days overmedicated and in restraints. Many regressed considerably. There were five-year-olds who had never left the confines of their cribs and could not walk.  Urine and feces covered the ward floors.

Some attendants abused their charges.

Punishments were harsh. If a resident continually bit others, his teeth would be removed. If a child misbehaved, he would be downgraded to a lower ward, sharing quarters with the criminally insane.

Patient-on-patient assault occurred frequently.

In 1968, TV reporter Bill Baldini exposed the horrors at Pennhurst in a five-part report entitled “Suffer the Little Children.”   A class action lawsuit was filed in the mid-70s, and finally, in 1987, Pennhurst closed its doors for good.

Now privately owned and accessible only through private tours or its (controversial) Halloween attraction, Pennhurst stands in a state of decay, its disturbing history hanging heavy in the air.

The buildings were abandoned as is, leaving behind furniture, bedding, clothing, resident and personnel files, wall calendars, posters, etc., now in a state of deterioration.

Visitors often leave toys or candies for the ghosts who reportedly still inhabit Pennhurst.
Resident rooms were set up like cubicles, with two to four individuals sharing a common space. Their names remain on the walls.
X-rays and various patient records were found scattered across a desk in one of the rooms on the third floor of Mayflower.
This is one of my favorite rooms in the Mayflower building for its many colorful layers of peeling paint. And OK, I like that it’s well-lit. Even so, there is always an unshakeable feeling of despair.
This old-fashioned wheelchair on the third floor of Mayflower has been photographed often.
Our guide later told us an “aggressive male entity” is known to occupy this third floor bathroom in Mayflower.  Gulp.
“Candyland” in the pitch-black basement of the Devon building used to be an indoor playground for the children. I only ventured down here because I had an escort of three other people, one of whom was carrying a very bright light. :)
Rust, grime, and decay are everywhere, and after awhile, I felt anxious to get back to daylight and fresh air.
View of the Administration building from Mayflower

On this second visit, I forced myself to spend time in some of the areas I avoided the first time, but I still find it an unsettling place to be.  It is heartbreaking to think of the suffering that went on here as a result of society’s abandonment of its most vulnerable members—truly a dark and shameful period in our history.

32/52: This Photograph Makes Me Laugh

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This week’s assigned lyrics: “Look at this photograph. Every time I do, it makes me laugh.”

From Nickelback’s “Photograph”

Leave a Halloween wig lying around and it’s liable to get into the wrong hands, as shown in this old Polaroid, taken sometime in the early 90s. Here we have a man ahead of the times: doing duckface before it became cool.





30/52: Monster



Assigned lyrics:  “I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed, get along with the voices inside of my head.”

From Eminem’s “The Monster” featuring Rihanna

Our munchkin’s off to kindergarten this fall, which may explain why she is so enamored with this new picture book. :)  Can’t wait to share it with my students as a first-day read-aloud.


29/52: For Katie


This week’s lyrics: “They give us those nice, bright colors; they give us the greens of summer.”

From Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome”

This week’s post is in honor of one of my former students who passed on Saturday, July 19 at the age of 19, surrounded by her loving family, after living courageously with brain cancer for the past 18 months.

Though it has been five years since she sat in my 8th grade classroom, I remember vividly how bright and lively she was—like a sunny, summer day. Someone who was kind to all. Liked by all. Beautiful inside and out. I can almost still hear the squee in her voice when she and her friend Anna held up baby Uggs they’d purchased as a gift for an expecting co-worker. Their excitement was contagious, their generosity so touching.

I last saw her on a Friday night in March while supervising a charity basketball tournament at school. She had been there to cheer on her younger brother. She seemed tired, ready to call it a night, but still managed a smile during our short conversation. I am grateful to have seen her one last time.

Rest in peace, dear Katie, and thank you for the light you gave us. It was an honor to know you.

28/52: Giant Number Photo Collage {DIY Project}


This week’s assigned lyrics:  “Your love is like an ocean that always takes me home.”

From Serena Ryder’s “What I Wouldn’t Do”

Initially, I had another idea in mind for this song, but when I finished Munchkin’s 5th birthday collage this week (finally!), it seemed like an appropriate fit, too. Because really, is there anything I wouldn’t do for this kid? :)

It was truly a labor of love and a learning experience, too, since I’ve never attempted paper mâché or photo decoupage before.

Here’s how I did it:

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First, I used two trifold presentation boards that were bound for recycling. I drew and cut out two number fives. As you can see, it was done freehand. Later, it dawned on me that it might’ve made some sense to apply some math to this thing. More on that later.

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Next, I glued some plastic cups onto the bottom five…


…and then used a bit more glue to place the other five on top. I had to use a few weighted objects to hold down the top while it dried.

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Next, I used the remaining pieces of trifold board to cut the sides of the five, which I secured all around with masking tape.

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Now that the form of the number was secure, I used some kitchen trash bags pulled as tightly as possible around it to prevent mold.

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Time to get messy!  For the paper mâché paste, I mixed one cup of flour to two cups of water and added a pinch of salt.  I dipped strips of newspaper into the paste, squeezed off the excess between my fingers, and then applied the strips in an overlapping fashion. This was a pretty labor-intensive part of the process as it took about 4-5 layers of newspaper. Each layer had to dry completely before the next was added. I was careful to smooth the newspaper (or so I thought), but a few lumps and bumps appeared later on. I also found that because I cut some of the newspaper strips, they didn’t quite blend as well together as the strips that were torn.  Paper mâché n00b here, so “live and learn,” right?

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With that many layers, the five felt solid enough to prep for painting. I hit it with a couple of coats of primer, but the newspaper absorbed a lot of it, and it didn’t seem quite right.  There were a few places where the newspaper had bubbled or was peeling up slightly. I wondered if this might have been because of humidity or maybe because of the time that passed in between steps.

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After a couple layers of gesso and some light sanding, the surface looked much smoother. I topped that with a single coat of white acrylic paint (Munchkin’s choice).

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The prints I had made were all photos taken in the past year. Most were 3 ½x5″ size. As I experimented with layout, I found I had way more than I needed. Here’s the part where I realized more uniform dimensions might have made life a little easier.

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I trimmed some of the photos as needed and then used Mod Podge to mount them to the front of the five. One thing I found out  is that it’s harder to Mod Podge with photo paper. You end up needing more of it because of the paper thickness.  I applied the Mod Podge to the back of the photos, and when that was dry, I brushed 3-4 thin layers on top, allowing time to dry in between coats.  I really should’ve stopped there. But because I still had so many photos left over that I wished I could have used, I decided to place photos along the top and sides of the five. This was not a smart move.

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It was really tricky getting the photos to stick to the curved and uneven parts, and I had to sit there like this applying firm pressure for several minutes at a time.  Some areas were especially stubborn. I also used quarters and rubber bands to hold things in place, so I wouldn’t totally lose my mind. :)

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After that not-so-pretty battle, the last step was to cover it with two coats of matte sealer.  Whew!  Done!

Although it’s not perfect, I do like the way it turned out. It’s a unique way to display so many treasured moments of Munchkin’s 5th year of life. That was my favorite part of the project: sifting through the photos and lingering over the memories, marveling over her growth.  I don’t print a lot of photos, but completing this project makes me think I should do so more often. It reminds me, too, that documenting her life the way I do may sometimes (like 98% of the time) be a nuisance to her, but maybe someday she’ll thank me. Whether it’s a technically sound image or a snapshot, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that these moments have been captured, and that is a power to move that’s as great as any ocean’s.