Memories of EXCEL: Holly’s Story, Part One
HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Holly” is a pseudonym.
I did not want to go.
That is the first thing I remember about EXCEL, The Advanced Training Institute (ATI)’s eight-week program for teenage girls and young women, which stood for Excellence in Character, Education, and Leadership. My parents had sent me to ATI’s Indianapolis Training Center for a ten-day counseling seminar a little over a year before I went to EXCEL.
I didn’t want to go there, either, but I told myself that if I were very good maybe they would leave me alone and not make me go anywhere else.
The next fall, my dad asked me if I wanted to go to EXCEL. I remember that it was a gray fall day, around this time of year, and he took me for a walk. I made the mistake, as I often did up to that point, of thinking that I had a choice in my own life, and so I told him I did not want to go. He pressed the issue, telling me all the good things he knew about the program and how it would teach me to be a young lady. I remember that we ended the conversation with him promising never to force me to go, and with me agreeing to “think about it.”
I knew I would never change my mind.
During that winter, friends of ours also in ATI hosted a mother-daughter luncheon at which two attendees of a recent EXCEL (I believe it was EXCEL II) were to be the guests of honor. To my dismay, the luncheon turned out to be a hard sell for the program, and my mother seemed intent on sending me. What was happening?
From that point on, my dad didn’t listen either. Mom wanted me to go, so he broke his promise.
They took money out of my college fund for the program and the plane ticket.
I began the process of filling out the application, with its numerous essays and commitments. I don’t remember the exact number of commitments I was expected to make, or what all of them were, but I had definitely not made any of them. One of them was to not listen to rock music, one was to remain morally pure, one was to dress modestly, and the others were similarly legalistic and restrictive. I remember trying to decide whether to honestly fill out the application saying that I had not made the commitments, or to lie. I decided it was wrong to force myself to make a serious lifelong commitment, but it was also wrong to set myself up to be made into a project either at EXCEL or at home. I filled out the forms as if I had made the commitments, deciding that it wasn’t so much a lie as it was a creative work of self-protective fiction.
The following winter, in the mid-1990s, I arrived at the Dallas Training Center, an historic hotel converted for the EXCEL program. Even though two of my friends from home were there as well, we were not allowed to room together. I had everything I expected to need for eight weeks, including toiletries, in two bags. During the evening’s orientation to the facility, the facility leaders explained our daily routine: early wake up (around six am, I think), get ready for the day, Bible study with our team, breakfast, class, a short break, another class, lunch, break, class, exercise in the park across the street, change for dinner, class, free time, and bed. Even though we were 15 years-old and up, we were not allowed to leave the property except to go as a group, escorted by staff, to walk in the park across the street once daily.
If any of us needed anything from the store, we were to ask training center staff to get it for us. We were not allowed to have food in our rooms. If we were hungry, we would be fed at the next meal, except on Sundays, when we fasted.
During our breaks and free times, we were expected to coordinate room cleaning with our roommate, as our rooms would be inspected daily. We were also expected to study for weekly tests on class material, memorize daily Bible passages, coordinate laundry with our roommates on our assigned day of the week, and find time to call our parents. We were never to be even one second late for any class or team meeting, or we would be disciplined.
I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t just the hotel that felt claustrophobic. It was my life.
The classes focused on etiquette and women’s submission instead of real academics. We even had a sewing class for several weeks, at which I was a miserable failure. Apparently good ATI girls were expected to have basic sewing skills, because the class did not start at “this is a sewing machine.” All of us had to make brocade vests to wear at our graduation ceremony. Since I could not sew and could not be taught, the instructor and my friend, an advanced seamstress, surreptitiously sewed mine. At home I was used to being allowed to read literature, science and history books, in addition to the ATI Wisdom Booklets.
Being at EXCEL made me doubt my future.
Were my parents trying to mold me into a cooking, cleaning, sewing, babymaking young wife? I wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t even sure I wanted that.
Fasting on Sundays was a spiritual discipline, but I can’t help thinking that it may have also been a financial consideration. Walking to church was, however, a practical consideration. The training center didn’t have enough vehicles to drive 80-some girls and additional staff to church, so we walked a little over a mile each way to First Baptist Church.
On one of the first Sundays I fainted during church, which shouldn’t have been surprising, since I was obviously underweight and just as obviously suffering from an eating disorder.
From then on, I was allotted four Nutri-Grain bars every Sunday, along with the other girls who had health problems or who had also fainted on a Sunday. As much as I generally enjoyed a chance to lose more weight, I was thankful for those meager Nutri-Grain bars. The hunger I felt at EXCEL overpowered my desire for control over food.
My survival technique of being perfect worked well for me while I was at EXCEL. I never got in trouble for being late, forgetting to wear pantyhose, or failing to memorize the Bible passages. I did the laundry and cleaning for myself and for my roommate, who took advantage of my fear of failure. By graduation I was exhausted and had learned nothing except how to stay in line. On the one hand, I saw through the foolishness of the system. I never bought in to the ATI school of thought. On the other hand, the stress of pretending to agree with the program and of managing my behavior was taking a heavy toll on me. I was tired and needed a break.
When I got home, the expectation among family and friends was that I would be spiritually mature and more ladylike. Instead, I was withdrawn, exhausted, thinner, broken. I don’t remember exactly how it happened or what the details were, but I spent a lot of time in bed crying for the next few weeks. My parents referred to this as my “breakdown.”
After that, I never did another Wisdom Booklet. I don’t remember what was said, but I couldn’t do it. Within the next eighteen months I had finished homeschooling through high school and my family had left ATI. I was free.
I have never gotten free, however, from the memory of what ATI expected me to be.
Part Two >