“Someday many years from now
We’ll sit beside the candles glow
Exchanging tales about our past
And laughing as the memories flow
And when that distant day arrives
I know it will be understood
That friendship is the key to live
And we were friends and it was good.”
– Eileen Hehl
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 man made, 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 enter an academic or vocational tract. Back in the day, we all wore uniforms. The nuns were still in full habit and we wore navy gabardine suits, that acquired a mirror-like shine and could probably 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 60th class reunion. We, apparently, are more transient than most alumni groups and they’ve had a hard time contacting members of my class. Their task was made more difficult because the building and school within it have no address and had fallen to the wrecking ball. 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 vocalization 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 on her return to the United States, 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. I know she left the order shortly before taking final vows and I’ve heard nary a word about the religion she jocularly planned to form. Knowing what her interests were back then, I’ll wager she became a nurse and my imagination takes me to an emerging nation where she, to this day, ministers to the poor.
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. Ellen was not atypical of my classmates, many of whom saw marriage and motherhood as their life’s goal. Ellen was unusual because she had all her children before her 30th birthday. One of her boys would later attended seminary, but I have no idea if he was ordained. I do know, because I know Irish mothers, that she burst her buttons the day he left for seminary.
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.