The Dark Side of Boarding School

Pre-teen kids belong with their parents

This is not a Hillcrest-bashing page. My overall Hillcrest experience was a positive one, thanks to many good teachers, staff and schoolmates in a unique geographic setting -- the spectacular Jos Plateau. Those good memories inspired me in later years to attend Hillcrest reunions in six U.S. states between 1970 and 1997.

But some Hillcresters have never attended a reunion and never will. In the fragile psyche of a child away from home, a single bad event can neutralize years of good ones. It doesn't matter how wonderful the other 99 percent of the apples are. A child will remember the bad one. We remember those who hurt us.

It should be noted that besides good and bad apples, Hillcrest also had some outstanding ones. In my rearview mirror, teachers Lucille Strayer and Olive Tovson look like two of the most awesome women ever to walk this earth!

For the first 30 of its 65 years, Hillcrest was a boarding school. (High schoolers still live in Jos-area hostels, but those facilities are not on the Hillcrest compound.) Prior to 1973, Hillcrest had on-campus dormitories where younger children lived. Studebaker. Livingstone. Heckman. Maxwell. Missionary parents all over Nigeria and in neighboring countries were expected to send their pre-teen kids to one of these dorms. That was just one of the burdens they had to bear as part of doing the Lord's work.

Each Hillcrest dorm had a pair of house parents we had to address as Uncle and Aunt even though they were unrelated to us. Most of them were compassionate people who did their best to guide us through our away-from-home educational experience. But there were a few bad apples among them, and therein lies the fatal flaw of the boarding school concept. Like most boarding schools at the time, Hillcrest had no system in place for identifying and ejecting bad apples. Staff job descriptions did not include checking up on other staff to be sure they weren't hurting the kids.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Most Hillcresters, myself included, experienced at least some emotional abuse from a certain category of staff -- the control freak. People like Clarence Heckman, Hillcrest's founding father, and Lucille Rose, the first-grade teacher, ran their little kingdoms with miltary-style discipline and wooden rulers. As in human societies everywhere since the dawn of time, the power source exploited by Hillcrest's control freaks was fear. Fear of The Paddle. Fear of Hell ("Jesus doesn't like little boys who [do whatever wicked thing you just did]"). Fear of Not Being Loved -- by anyone at all. These people were the sour apples, not the rotten ones. Their power trips were generally open, not secret. Many of them probably thought they were doing a good job of building our character by not sparing the rod.

But a smaller number of Hillcresters had to endure the added abomination of sexual abuse, the dark side of many boarding schools. Sexual abuse is often repressed instead of remembered by a child in a retrievable way, because the event does not fit anything in his or her experience. Sometimes repressed memories do not emerge until years later, when they're triggered by something else... ...and then suddenly clouds of toxic smoke start pouring from the cracks of a hidden stash of emotions the now-adult victim didn't even know he or she had. A few years ago, a Hillcrest parent wrote an emotional letter to victims, describing the anguish suffered by a mother who thought she was doing the right thing in sending her children to Hillcrest, only to learn years later that her kids were abused there.

The time lag associated with repression partially explains why some of Hillcrest's most notorious child molesters like Henry Visser and Doc Shank were able to remain under cover their entire lives. But it does not explain why the mission boards of the Christian Reformed Church and the Church of the Brethren have never publicly apologized for the molesters they sponsored. The boards may have expressed their deep regrets privately to the victims who came forward with their sordid stories, but they should also apologize openly, for two reasons:

  1. There may be unknown victims who have remained silent because they thought it happened only to them, and
  2. Some ex-Hillcresters may wonder why the same Jesus who was so disappointed in them for talking after lights out doesn't seem to have a problem with mission boards who cover up mistakes that derailed young lives.

This is not a Hillcrest-bashing page. It's a page dedicated to the real Jesus, the one who said, "Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God." (John 3:21)


Paul Terpstra, Updated June 30, 2007