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Once Upon a Time: Forging a future through education to help break self-binding chains

It was January 1970.

Remember that time?

“Bonanza” came on every Sunday night; the snow was no less than five feet high and the mood of the country was as cold as the weather. America’s involvement in the Vietnam War raged on.

We were seniors at Norwich Free Academy. We were the unambitious, so-called general students, trapped like rats in a dark, drafty classroom at the bottom of Slater Building, out of sight, where we would not disturb students with a future. We may have been seen as unworthy to many, but in the eyes of our English teacher, Alan K. Driscoll, we were the best and the brightest.

When Mr. Driscoll gave directions for the final exam, we knew Christmas break was over. His voice had the unique ability to make our eyes close. He caught our attention by waving Charles Dickens’ most famous book through the air.

“I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

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The look on his face spoke volumes. This was one assignment we could not avoid.

“Dickens wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ in six weeks,” he said. “I’m giving all of you six weeks to complete a two-page essay on the chains we forge in life. Your mission is to travel to the ends of the earth, to every despicable, deplorable place where you might find someone in chains, and I want you to ask them if those chains are breakable. And then, I want you to return and write.”

I didn’t travel to the ends of the earth, only as far as the gas in my 1961 Dodge Rambler would take me. When the dust by my feet settled, I stood in Preston looking at one of the most infamous buildings my young eyes had ever seen — the Norwich State Hospital.

I signed in as a student on tour, but already knew how to get to the Kettle Building. I rode the gray steel elevator and then watched a man in white unlock several barred doors.

Finally, I arrived in a room as large as a church hall, where patients gathered socially after their bedroom doors locked.

The people I saw were clearly not well. Some laughed hysterically as others sat restrained with cloth belts tied loosely around their waist. Some women had white hair even though they were still young. Others looked like the living dead, wandering lost and forgotten.

They all wore bathrobes and blue foam slippers.

I interviewed my subject, quietly restrained in her chair.

Handing it in

Jan. 17, the day to turn in our assignments, came quickly. Mr. Driscoll listened as I told the young woman’s story.

“I do wear chains,” I read aloud, “yet I hope they can be broken. I always loved Christmastime and the words of Charles Dickens, ‘I hope the one who made lame beggars walk and blind men see, will also break my chains.’”

Mr. Driscoll nodded with admiration. “How did you get a stranger to speak so candidly?”

“She is not a stranger, Mr. Driscoll. She’s my sister.”

The silence of the room brutally cut through the dusty light, and Mr. Driscoll lowered his voice to almost a whisper.

“We wear the chains we forge in life — but sometimes we can break them.”

Concetta Falcone-Codding is a graduate of Norwich Free Academy and the author of “The Lonely Nest,” She can be reached at sarah_falcone@yahoo.com.

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