Well, I did it. Made it to the 50th reunion of my class at the all-girls' school I attended in Seattle. Decided to drive rather than fly -- my cranky left knee is in utter misery after 15 minutes in cramped tourist-class airplane seats -- so I had lots of time to think on the way north, and speculate about who would be at the reunion and what we'd have to say to each other.
I started at Holy Names Academy in first grade. It was the first school I ever attended, so, for years, everything I knew about school was seen through this filter. The school, which was founded in 1880 and is the oldest continually-operating school in Washington State, occupies a building that takes up an entire block on Seattle's Capitol Hill. The present building, which was constructed in 1908, is crowned with a huge dome that is a Seattle landmark, visible across the city in many directions. The school is shaded with massive elm trees that have, so far, managed to evade the Dutch elm disease. It's set in a neighborhood of stately homes, many of which were once filled with Capitol Hill's 12-child Catholic families. Here's a photo of the school I shot the day of the reunion
When I climbed the steep hill to school for the first time, I proudly wore our uniform of a navy blue jumper over a white blouse. The blouses were short-sleeved in grade school and long-sleeved once we got to high school, and we even had uniform shoes (brown oxfords) and socks (white ankle socks) in grade school, which gave way to white bucks and navy blue socks for high school.
Our teachers were members of the community of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, a teaching order founded in Longueil, Quebe, in 1844, 100 years before I was born, by Eulalie Durocher. The particular charism -- or mission -- of the community was the education of women. The community always placed a strong emphasis on the arts, in addition to the usual reading, writing, and math skills.
I know many women (and some men) who went to Catholic schools and had nuns for teachers like to talk about being rapped on the knuckles with a ruler and about how neurotic and uptight their teachers were. It was never that way for me, or, I think, for most of my class. School was an oasis of peace and calm, the only place in my difficult childhood I found acceptance and encouragement. I remember that the teachers always called us their ``pupils'' rather than ``students'' and, to me, that meant a close connection and a vested interest they had in the outcome of our lives.
The decorum would seem very old-fashioned by contemporary standards, I suppose. Our desks were in straight lines, and when called upon to ``recite'' -- i.e. answer the teacher's questions -- we stood by our desks. Whenever another teacher came into the classroom or whenever we met one in the hallway, we always greeted them with a slight curtsey and ``Good afternoon Sister Whatever her name was.'' We were supposed to walk the hallways between class in silence. I was a musician so didn't have to take physical education, but my classmates who did had to wear horrible bloomer-like gym shorts, and could play only half-court basketball.
We learned to write with metal pens in a wooden holder that we dipped into inkwells at the top corner of our desks. When ballpoint pens came along, they were barred because teachers believed we would lose the fine penmanship they strove hard to teach us.
My great aunt had graduated from my school, as had two of my aunts. My mother graduated from a university taught by the same order of nuns, and another aunt briefly attended a second university they operated. My girl cousins came to the same school as I, and a few years ago, the daughter of one of my male cousins graduated there, making us a four-generation family. In other words, it would have been unimaginable for me to have attended any other school.
What did this group of women in my class have in common? We were born in the middle of World War II in either 1943 or 1944. Most of us had a father who served in the military in that war, and at least one member of my class never knew her father because she was born while he was overseas and he never returned.
We were Catholics and grew up in the American Catholic church of the 1950s. Our parents watched Fulton J. Sheen on television, many voted Republican and applauded the addition of ``under God'' to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 at the behest of the Knights of Columbus, and were stunned by the death of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1957. The mass was in Latin, celebrated by a priest who stood with his back to the congregation, and assisted by boys in black cassocks and white surplices. Our teachers wore the traditional habits of their order, a stiff white organdy bonnet that had the effect of horse blinders, covered with a black veil and worn with a long black dress with long sleeves.
Most of us didn't know very much about the world beyond that we experienced in our families, our parishes and school. For those of us who grew on on Seattle's Capitol Hill, in the neighborhoods around our school, we assumed the rest of the world was like ours: heavily populated with Catholic families with a large number of children. Those who were lucky enough to be born into a 12-child family had the opportunity to see the archbishop come to the parish to baptize that 12th child.
Few of us had mothers who worked outside the home. Our moms were of the June Cleaver, Harriet Nelson era, and when we were in grade school, very few of them were ever seen in anything but a dress. (That did change when we went to high school, and those awful polyester pants suits began to catch our moms' attention). We rode in cars without seat belts, X-rayed our feet at the Red Goose shoe stores without a thought of health consequences, and were continually exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke at home, in restaurants, and in our parents' cars.
The ogres of our youth were what were called ``Atheistic Communism'' and ``the Bomb.'' The University of Washington had had a big anti-Communist witch hunt when we were in grade school, and there was an official policy -- largely ignored -- that required us to get permission from the Archbishop if we wanted to go to school there or at any other state university.
On occasion we were all herded into the basement of the school where the lights were turned off and we were told to kneel down and say the rosary. This is what passed for a bomb drill at our school. Our fear of the atomic bomb was great: many of us had fathers who worked for Boeing and the gospel we learned is that inevitably Seattle would be a first-strike target of Russian bombers ( and later, ICBMs) because Boeing made the b-52 bombers my dad helped develop. Every Wednesday at noon we heard the wailing of the air-raid siren test, and when we were in grade school, we all wore metal ID bracelets with our names, addresses and phone numbers that were supposed to be useful should we be separated from our family in the days after a nuclear blast.
``Convenience foods'' as we presently know them had not yet been invented. The very first frozen vegetables were showing up in grocery stores, generally in white packages with pictures of igloos or Eskimos on the label. Most of us had the first television set arrive in our homes when we were in grade school, and very few of us had seen anything but black and white broadcasts by the time we graduated from high school. The telephones in our homes were black, with rotary dials, and most homes had only one. Perma-press fabrics were just starting to come in, so most of us spent a few hours every weekend at the ironing board, helping our mothers with the mountains of ironing that needed to be processed every week.
We said ``Negro'' or ``colored'' instead of ``black'' or ``African American,'' ``oriental'' instead of ``Asian,' and certainly ``Indian'' instead of ``Native American,'' and ``Mexicans'' instead of ``Hispanics.'' Our school was multicultural, so from first grade onward I had classmates of all races and colors. I had grown up playing ``war'' with my brother and his friends, a game in which some of us got to be ``the good guys'' (namely U.S. Marines), and the others were stuck with being Nazis or``the Japs.'' (Years later when I had many Japanese friends, I cringed to remember our childhood games).
Every year on the feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) at Mass we took the Legion of Decency pledge, promising not to go to movies that were rated ``B'' or ``C.'' The C movies were condemned and we were told it was a mortal sin to see any of them. (Among the condemned movies were ``Psycho,'' ``Spartacus,'' and, later, ``Rosemary's Baby.'') Mortal sin was also the consequence for reading anything on the Index of Forbidden Books, which included such titles as Victor Hugo's``Les Miserables,'' Montaigne's ``Essays,'' Flaubert's ``Madame Bovary,'' and anything ever written by Jean-Paul Sartre, Emile Zola, Maurice Maeterlink, and Andre Gide.
When we were out of uniform, we were expected to dress according to SDS standards. And no, that acronym did not stand for a radical student group. I think it stood for ``Supply the Demand for the Supply'' and was a modesty crusade. Skirts were supposed to be 12" from the floor, straps on our formal dresses had to be at least 2" wide, two-piece bathing suits were verboten, and no cleavage could ever show. Amazingly, one of the downtown department stores went along with this and ever year had a special SDS fashion show and tea attended by girls from all the Catholic high schools.
We went through puberty in an era before the birth control pill, or legal abortion, and I think both ideas would have seemed impossible to most of us. Instead, we read``Modern Youth & Chastity,'' a pamphlet with a red cover, which said we would have committed a mortal sin if we were kissing someone and ``venereal commotion'' occurred. As you might imagine, that phrase is forever stuck in my memory. The big question always put anonymously into the question box during our class retreats was whether French kissing was always a mortal sin. (Every priest who gave a retreat said it was).
But growing up and going to our particular school at this time in history was about so much more than sexual repression. Our teachers were radical rabid feminists by the standards of 1950s America. They insisted we do our best, encouraged us to stretch ourselves, and never to let someone tell us we couldn't do or be something just because we were female. Over and over again they demanded we take hard classes, with plenty of math, science and foreign languages so that we didn't ``prematurely close any doors,'' in the words of one of my junior-year teachers.
Meanwhile in the world outside, we were getting very different messages. If our moms had worked during the War, they were encouraged to stay home when the men came home, freeing up jobs for returned veterans. I loved Seventeen magazine, and, in fact, papered the inside of my closet with its covers.Years later I had to pony up mega-bucks to buy several copies of the magazine from my era on Ebay, and saw again the world it told us we would inhabit. Even though Seventeen had a target market of 14 to 17-year-old girls, Its pages were filled with ads for engagement rings, hope chests, china and silverware patterns, and its editorial advice was always on the lines of ``don't ever let a boy think you're smarter than he is.'' Judging by the ads for schools in the back of the magazine, we could aspire to be secretaries, airline stewardesses or models.
Because we were born during the war, we didn't qualify as baby boomers, even though our teachers often had to cope with the 50-student classes that were necessary when the boomers arrived. We came along at the tail end of what is known as the ``Silent Generation'' or ``the traditionalists.'' We came of age just a little too early for drugs, sex and rock and roll, and by the time the sexual revolution hit, many of us were married, pregnant, mothers, or had entered the convent.
I skipped from fifth grade to seventh, so didn't finish school with the class with which I started. When I came into the new class, I was physically and emotionally behind, and, in retrospect, I would have to say that while grade skipping is probably OK, making that leap at that particular point was very difficult for me. My new classmates were all were growing breasts, starting their periods and mooning over the 7th grade boys at the parish school several blocks away, while I was still more interested in riding my bike and catching polliwogs.
Academic content has changed a great deal since we were at HNA. The periodic chart in our chemistry book listed fewer elements than you'd find in a contemporary chemistry text; while evolution was touched on in biology, DNA and gene sequencing didn't come up; and in physics we learned that maybe someday man might go to the moon. When we wrote our papers for English and history class, if we were lucky we could type them at home on a typewriter. If not, they were hand written in Palmer Method script on lined notebook paper. I don't think I ever heard the word ``computer'' at school, although, with a Boeing engineer father, such subjects came up at home.
Despite the fact that the boys from Seattle Prep and O'Dea (the two all-boys' Catholic high schools) called us ``the homely dames from Holy Names,'' they were largely the guys we invited to the girl-ask-boy formal dances that are known in the Pacific Northwest as ``tolos,'' and some of us even went on the marry some of them.
I was always the tallest girl in my class, and skipping a grade didn't change that for one minute. I hit six feet close to my 13th birthday, and I remember my mom's despair because she'd bought me an expensive wool coat I was supposed to wear for all four years of high school. It very soon had elbow-length sleeves as a result of that growth spurt. I thought I was the biggest disaster in the whole school, but the other day, when I looked at a couple of our high school yearbooks, I really couldn't figure out why some people were considered cute and others were considered impossible. We all looked pretty much the same: awkward, tentative, and unformed. Here's a part of a page from our sophomore yearbook I scanned into my computer. You will see what I mean. In case you're looking for me, I'm the dorky one in those so-stylish black harlequin glasses.
The night before I went to the reunion, I had dinner with the members of my old Girl Scout troop, and there was a considerable overlap between the Girl Scouts and those who were in the orchestra with me at school. Nerds were us, but I probably took the prize back in school, loving to pass notes to my friends in class written in Morse code and having way too much fun using my dad's slide rule in trigonometry class.
But funny thing, when we showed up for the reunion, we all looked pretty cool as old ladies. And the next, day, so did the rest of my class. I saw very little Botox or, as they say in Hollywood, ``work'' that had been done, and most women were still filled with enthusiasm for life, their work, their families and their communities. Here's a photo of the Girl Scout dinner.
People from my class have accomplished amazing things. One member of my Girl Scout troop had actually worked for the CIA. Several others had been in some of the very first groups of Peace Corps volunteers, and had served in such countries as Afghanistan and Ecuador. Another classmate is the author of a definitive text on fish histology, and, according to a website I found, was a candidate for ordination as an Episcopalian bishop. Another worked for the United Nations Habitat program, coordinating a program for women and habitat, and now lives in a house she and her neighbors built from mud and bamboo in the mountains of Columbia. Another was a firefighter and emergency medical technician for more than 30 years. Another found a fulfilling career as a musician and music teacher.
Several women have been enormously successful in business, one establishing a restaurant empire and another developing a very large chunk of commercial real estate in Seattle's Fremont district. Many were teachers, and few were nurses, including one who has just retired as a post lung-transplant coordinator. Two were librarians, one a pharmacist, and another an engineer. One classmate, who worked as a university librarian for years, is now an independent scholar, authoring papers on such diverse subjects as the influence of Claude Monet on children's culture and the cultural significance of rubber ducks. A classmate who runs a ranch and bread-and-breakfast inn in Saskatchewan wrote that while she can ``install a toilet, gut a steer or roof a barn,'' she finds working with her computer ``as weird as purple dirt.'' I think I am the only journalist, although many of my classmates write exceptionally well.
A number of those in my class who entered the covent after graduation are still in religious life. One served as a hospital chaplain in a number of western states. Another works with immigrant women, largely from Mexico, and at Marie-Rose House in Wapato, Washington, provides friendship and a wide range of services for the women and their children. One of my classmates who is not a nun, married, had kids, got an advanced degree in ministry and founded the Ignatian Spirituality Center in Seattle, an amazing achievement for a laywoman. Another is a minister and founder of a Pentecostal church. At the reunion mass, the two of them gave the homily, something that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. And they did extremely well. I think I am the only out-of-the-broom-closet Pagan in my class, but given the high percentage of Catholic women I find in all Pagan groups, I suspect I may well have a few sisters in the class.
Many women in the class are grandmothers and have found much satisfaction raising their children. Some have had children with challenges, such as Down syndrome or multiple sclerosis. We were in school before the Salk polio vaccine came along and two members of our class are still dealing with the damage that disease did to their bodies.
We've already lost 19 members of the class, several to cancer, and two to multiple sclerosis. And I suppose our numbers will continue to diminish, despite everyone's best efforts. I'll probably see very few of these women often and some I may well never see again.
One of my closest friends from Holy Names is Sister Mary Ellen Robinson SNJM. She's the one who runs Marie-Rose house in Wapato. We had been talking, after mass, about how all the little birds we once were had grown up and flown out of the cage. Then I reminded her of how our teachers all told us we were the leven and it was our responsiblity to go out and change the world for better. We talked about that secret phrase that went from mouth to ear during the French Revolution as a call to arms, ``the bread is rising.''
Mary Ellen was asked to say grace before our luncheon. And oh, she gave my Pagan heart such a thrill. She stood up in front of us all, flung her arms wide and said ``God our Mother, the bakery is open, the bread is rising and we have made changes and are here to make more.''
50 years ago, Mary Ellen, another classmate and I took a backpacking trip to Mt. Rainier's Summerland meadow several weeks before Mary Ellen entered the convent. I have a faded photo of Mary Ellen and Sandra sitting there in a a flower-filled meadow on a sunny summer afternoon.
We were all so young, so idealistic, and so naive about the world. But I think that the teachers who nurtured us at Holy Names Academy would be proud of what all three of us, and, indeed of the women each of the members of our class have become. The bread has truly risen! And here we are at our reunion.