Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Mid-Week Musings

Those Were the Days My Friend

It began with Miss Smith's shrill whistle. "I have enough cheerleaders, I want players." By the time she'd finished with us she'd have that and more. There were 250 freshmen in the gym that day. Collectively, we were the class of '58, and long before the women's movement woke the psyche of the nation, there were islands, ironically manmade, where women made decisions and ran the show. Mercy High School, under the auspices of the Sisters of Mercy, was one of them.

The school was opened in 1924 to educate girls from various parish communities on the south side of Chicago. The building sat on one square city block, and it was an imposing rather than welcoming structure. Financially, its size allowed closure of smaller parish high schools, and practically, it enabled centralization of staff and administration. Girls who made it into the school could choose between two tracts, one academic, the other vocational. Back in the day, we all wore uniforms. The nuns were still in full habit and we wore navy gabardine suits, that acquired a shine and probably could have walked of their own accord by the time the school year ended.

I haven't thought about high school in years, but I received a call last week from some gals attempting to arrange a class reunion. We, apparently, are more transient than most alumni groups and they've had a hard time contacting members of my class. I couldn't help much, because, despite protestations on graduation day, those of us who pledged "friends forever", simply have not kept in touch. The call did however trigger a reverie.

The nuns loved and encouraged efforts that would lead to excellence. Obedience was expected and because we were a malleable lot there was time to counsel, tutor and enrich. It also enabled them to identify the comers in the class, and while they tried to hide it, it was pretty obvious who they were watching. Good wasn't good enough if they knew you could do better. Those called and chosen were often sent surreptitiously to the office of Sister Mary of the Angels, the school principal. She did her own assessments and kept track of how "her " girls were doing. Some of them were pretty special.

There was Lorraine, a soprano, who set a new standard for high school variety shows with her renderings of "Italian Street Song" and "O Mio Babbino Caro". Her voice was amazing and she went to Milan to study following graduation. I know she sang state-side for a period of time, but I do not know where she is now. Then there was Bernadette, one of the few female finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search our senior year. She ultimately became a math and astronomy professor, but at the time we basked in the reflected glory of her accomplishment, and wished we, too, had eyes that could see beyond the stars. On a lighter note there was Rita, who we thought made it to the office because she was going into the convent. She insisted, to us, of course not to the nuns, that she was going to start her own religion, the Rita Reformed. Then there was sweet Ellen, who married shortly after graduation and went on to raise 7 children, who she wanted to love so much they couldn't help but love God. I made it to the office because of an essay I wrote for the Voice of America Contest. When she found out that the essays were to be read over the radio, I became Sister Mary of the Angels special project and learned how to present my essay dramatically, practicing with a chalkboard eraser as a microphone. I made it to the regionals before I was cut, but she made me feel like I'd made it to the moon.

In 1958 there were not a lot of options for women. You could be a secretary, nurse or teacher, and the expectation was that you would retire as soon as you had children. A few in my class made it into medical school, despite admissions officers who reminded them they were taking places that should be held by men. Among the teachers, several became principals and two became professors. A handful moved from schools to corporate training and eventually became communications and IT specialists with impressive titles.

It was such a different time. I know many of you have experienced or heard horrendous stories about physically abusive nuns. I can't defend what I have not experienced, but I can tell you the women who taught me and my classmates are part of the reason we were successful. Their care extended beyond graduation. They tracked our GPA's when we were in college. They sent congratulations when we married and the babies came, but most touching of all, attended funerals when our parents died, and, beads in hand, beseeched the saints and angels to meet them as they entered into glory.  So, when I think of those times, I remember all the girls I loved, the nuns as well as Lorraine, Bernadette, Rita, Ellen, and Alice.  I came of age in good company. Those were the days my friend.

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Patricia said...

You write very well. No wonder you were sent to the office. Your musings are interesting and the instructions for your recipes are clear and easy to follow.
Bless Sister Mary of the Angels.
Best wishes from me in Perth, Australia.

From the Kitchen said...

I have a feeling that your reunion would bring back together some remarkable women. I just recently spent time looking through my senior yearbook--it was unearthed in the move. I know there are remarkable people scattered about from my school and hope there might be a reunion in the future.


bellini said...

Your school days sound like ones we dream of where we are encouraged and allowed to shine.

Claudia said...

Love the "Rita Reformed" religion! I have to say 11 years later after graduating high school, it still was teacher or nurse - with the glorified added addition of secretary. Four years later when I graduated college, I went to an employment office to get survival job while I pursued my "art." The guys (with same majors as me), went into one office and were groomed for business (and monied professions) while the women (me) were given a typing test. Change comes very slowly. My daughter was never given a typing test!

Susan Sevig said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, Mary. I do hope you can reunite with more of these girls.

Meg Lynch said...

I loved reading about your high school. I'm a bit younger than you, Mary (class of '64, St. Mary's Academy, Portland, OR), but had similar experiences with the Holy Names nuns. I have a great deal of respect for the excellent education that they so selflessly provided to us. I was well prepared for a future that changed immeasurably over the years -- from a time when societal expectations were that we become wives and mothers, to the feminist and career years, and the twists and turns along the way.

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