My memories of high school are nothing like those of most of my friends. There were no pep rallies, no Friday night football games, no sock hops. The biggest event of the year was not prom but the spring concert in which about 90 per cent of the nearly 300 students had an active role as musicians, singers or both. The social aspects of an all-girl’s high school in the late sixties were a bit strange. For many students, school was the place they spent as few hours as possible, then got in their cars and drove across town to meet the guys at the coed schools. But some of my best memories are of hanging out after school talking with a couple friends and one of the nuns down in the music wing, or up in biology lab. Or of being alone in the chapel during retreat watching how the light moved across the altar. Or, after classes, going over to the elementary school where our nuns also taught to spend time with G. I met her my sophomore year. She was thirty-one to my fifteen. We shared a love of books and language. She invited me to her classroom to help tutor, and soon I started staying around after school. She gave me the attention I was starved for, reflected back to me a person I had never before seen myself to be, a smart, quick, funny girl with potential to be more than I had been. She introduced me to Rilke, the poem about "loving the questions" that I still carry in my planner came from her. She talked to me about a God who was different than the one I knew from grade school. She had a pretty close relationship with Jesus and talked about Him as she would a friend, a brother. Sometimes she would even pray with me in words that did not come from a prayer book, and I would feel a sense that Someone was there with us in that moment. She had a group of followers. Girls like me whose sense of self was not so certain, who basked in the attention of an interested adult. Oh, how we loved her. Looking back, I know that she was young and immature, and found in us a way to get some of her own needs for love and attention met, too. Some of us, I’m sure were more vulnerable to her than others. I seemed to have no fences on my heart where she was concerned. So she was able to hurt me badly. And one day, when I was fifteen, she said some very scathing things to me. Things that stunned me and left me reeling. Things that burned my heart so badly the scars have never fully disappeared. Even now, there will come times when I will bump up against the ghost of her damages. For my fifteen year-old self, although the pain was searing and powerful, my need to remain connected with her was just as strong. So I held on. I excused her harsh coldness with me, she was only trying to help me, after all. I apologized to her for the faults she saw in me that had prompted her words. I promised to change, to be a better person, the person she wanted me to be. I forgave her, at least in part, for those things she said, though I never, ever, forgot them. We moved on, and we remained friends of a sort well into my adult life, until she left the convent and abruptly severed all ties with those who were connected to that part of her world.
I learned so many things at the Academy that were never on anyone’s lesson plan. About the ability of ill-used words to damage a fragile spirit, about the importance of using one’s power wisely, about the need for gentleness, and compassion and empathy. I also learned about the need we have for connection and the lengths we will go to find and maintain it, no matter what the cost. On the positive side of the ledger, I learned that when my heart was broken, God was there, and in my deepest shame, God loved me still. I learned that even in my worst despair I was not really alone. Sobbing alone on a stairway at fifteen, though, I would have traded it all for a regular old high school day.