This is not a rhetorical question.
I have just been sent a photo from my high school reunion – a reunion that I was not at, being in London as I am – and I have to say that I really don’t know who these people are. Seriously. No idea. If absolutely forced to put a name to a face, I could probably do it once or twice. But I wouldn’t be confident that I was right. And I would really have to think about it. A lot.
How is that possible?
It might be understandable if we were talking about Rydall High here, but we’re not. It was a small school. A very small school. There were only 26 of us in the entire year, so almost half are in the picture. Why don’t I know who any of them are?
Ok, it was getting on for a rather long time ago now, but even so. We went through a lot together. We bonded. Being taught in a chandelier-filled, marble-staircased, brownstone townhouse by mad nuns who didn’t realise that we were actually living in the 20th century, in the middle of Manhattan, will do that to you.
We must have a million memories in common.
Having to wear white gloves to school every morning, and little pillbox hats, despite the fact that no one else even owned those items anymore, at least not since Jackie Kennedy that day in Dallas. Certainly no one else who was travelling, during rush hour, in a subway train full of New Yorkers, who were not afraid to say what they thought.
Sister Mary Jean, the septuagenarian Latin teacher, having us pray every morning, to thank God that we were born Catholic, white and American. In that order. The same Sister Jean, who upon being informed that we wanted to sing We Shall Overcome at a church service, told us that she hoped we all woke up Black.
Sister Mary Augustine, who was even older, chaperoning the one dance we were allowed to have each year. Patrolling the crowd, barging in between couples who were dancing a bit too close to each other for her liking, and telling them ‘make room for the Holy Spirit’.
Sister Mary Gemma, the Biology teacher, who was so large that her knees used to buckle every now and again and the people in the front row would have to leap up to catch her. She was never seen outside her basement lab, probably, we thought, because she couldn’t fit through the door. The very same door that had to be firmly shut during our lessons on The Facts of Life in case Mr Garrity, the father-of-seven caretaker, overheard where babies came from.
Sister Mary Agnes, probably the rudest human being I have ever met, who used to glare at us over algebraic formulae and tell us that we were suppose to be the cream of the crop, but we were really ‘the cream of the crap’. Who thought that nuns even knew such language?
All the people in that photo absolutely have to remember being served ham for lunch, in the period right after we had dissected a fetal pig; or having to wear stockings the entire time we were on a class trip to see a solar eclipse because the sun’s total disappearance from the sky ‘shouldn’t stop us from looking like young ladies’; or having air raid drills where we would all sit on the back stairs with our hands over our heads to protect us from nuclear fallout; or the time the fire alarm went off in the middle of ballet and we wound up standing on Madison Avenue, in our gym slips, while all the young ad men wolf whistled and the nuns told us that God was watching everyone’s behaviour. Or Susan asking us to pray for her Uncle Carmine, who was at the centre of a big Mafia trial that was just starting, and Sister Mary George saying ‘Yes, that he gets everything he deserves’. He did.
None of them can have forgotten Miss Jantzer, the speech and ballet teacher, who had a lisp, and a limp. Or Ode to a Skylark, which she made us recite every week, week after week, year after year. Or Valerie practicing her speech for Parents’ Day, the one that all these year’s later I still know started ‘As I sit here, looking across my bedroom at my open flute case…’ and ended with her being proud to be an American, although she didn’t at any point mention how she felt about being Catholic or white.
I can’t be the only one who still has the little stuffed dog we were all given on the morning that we graduated. Mine sits on my desk, still wearing his cap, although his scroll bit the dust years ago. He’s called Rufus Noscoe, because he has a red nose, obviously, which is the only bit of Latin I remember that does not involve farmers and girls.
Actually, I do remember more Latin. Tempus Fugit, time flies, which was engraved on the carriage clock, that sat on the marble table, at the top of the red-carpeted stairs, next to the stained glass window, in the chapel.
All of this, and so much more, I remember. I also vividly recall the girls who were part of the experience with me. I can still picture them, the cool ones, the nerdy ones, the sporty ones -not that there were many of those in a school in a brownstone in Manhattan – the ones who were going to be rocket scientists, literally, and the ones who were going to be ‘good Catholic mothers’. All of them. Well, almost all of them. Certainly more than half.
My friend Karen, who has gone through life with me and who also doesn’t recognise anyone in the photo, hasn’t changed at all. Neither have I. So what happened to everyone else? Who are those women? Why do they look like total strangers?
How did they get so old?
Either tempus really did fugit, or they are all total imposters. I’m going for the latter option.
Not Leo Tolstoy (aka Eileen Riley)