It’s easy to count blessings, especially when they involve family, friends, health or money. But what about finding gratefulness when life doesn’t appear to go our way?
Lately, thoughts about gratefulness have dangled around as a backdrop to my world. While going about routine activities, I’ve found myself being thankful for a number of life experiences which, on their surface, appeared quite the contrary. Anything but happy, they could have hardly been classified as “blessings” at the time.
Today, one of my darkest years of life shines forth as a stand-out in personal and social growth. While never wishing to repeat it, I’m exceedingly grateful for the unique opportunity it presented. The calendar year wasn’t important, but the time period in my growth proved pivotal.
After nearly eight years of public school, my well-intended parents were determined to send me to a finer place for high school. In my case, that meant traveling only a few miles from home. On the flip side, I found myself in a society completely distant from the patchwork of middle-class familiarity I’d grown to love in my north Jersey hometown.
“I don’t want to be separated from my friends!” I’d argued. But despite numerous protests, the dreaded move from public to all-girl Catholic prep school arrived that early September day in 1972.
I’d completed all six summer reading requirements, JFK’s Profiles in Courage, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Taylor Caldwell’s Captains and the Kings among them. Further, I was fitted for a black-and-white check pleated skirt and a crested black woolen blazer. Reluctantly, I’d donned the school’s orthopedic looking black oxford shoes.
When the car delivered me and a fellow classmate to school that first morning, the brightness of late summer sunshine and rustling leaves on the campus’ beautiful oaks were completely eclipsed. Instead, I looked out from the back seat of our driver’s Cadillac at clusters of gaggling girls. Many had risen up from the lower school, others were joining elder sisters and familiar faces in an environment that was clearly a familiar zone.
Despite the sameness of summer uniforms (akin to button-down candy striper outfits minus a waist), I noted a sense of distinction. Was it purses, belts, make-up, jewelry? Somehow, there was a feminine effect that eluded me in public school. The noticeable lack of boys, people I’d considered a natural part of life, produced an unwitting awareness of female priority. The vacuum invited heightened competition in ways I didn’t comprehend.
Emerging reservedly from the car – probably with body language to match – I stepped out to the pavement and joined the collecting throngs. The school bell tolled and a dark, personal journey of unexpected blessing was about to begin.
So what was this next year to bring? A modern but sterile building on the campus’ formerly country-like estate. Nuns were headed by a religious principal who, either angry or saddled with psychological issues of their own, set a stern and intimidating atmosphere for all. Mother Superior’s previous reputation included measuring skirt lengths with her ruler and physically ripping down hems that rose too far above the knee.
The earliest part of the year included something I’d never heard of: freshman hazing. Billed as a fun rite-of-passage, it required fastening uncooked macaroni to our hair and answering in obsequious fashion to upperclassmen who thoroughly enjoyed the unease. I didn’t understand why a religious school would promote unkind behavior.
Despite the fact that some found it fun, the unfamiliar process of hazing proved foreign and added weight to my already uncomfortable social unease.
With just under 50 freshmen, we were separated into two homeroom classes. Faculty consisted of Dominican nuns donned in brief veils and modern white habits, plus a few female lay teachers. A sole male figure, a priest, arrived periodically to roam the halls or deliver mass in the school’s naked and cavernous, all-purpose room.
The school claimed a basketball team and a few of the most popular girls clapped and stomped at both the sidelines and court during halftime. Imagining the most popular girls would also be among the best socialized, I was shocked to learn about cliques. Cliques ruled, as did conversation about jewelry, second homes, expensive clothes and at least one private jet.
“Didn’t you wear that outfit last time we had a non-uniform day?” asked one cheerleader as she pulled back the label from my navy turtleneck dress. I was horrified. Yes, I guess I had worn the same wool outfit but apparently I hadn’t given it a thought. Nor had I expected that my parents, who’d forked out a ton of money to send me to this uniformed place, would have purchased me an alternate school wardrobe.
The labels, too, caught me completely off guard. Why was this important, I wondered? Was there something wrong with what I wore? Was there to be something better? My social ignorance was turning to horror in what only I could see as a jail cell of altered reality.
“Please take me out of there!” I’d pleaded to my dad when appeals to my mother failed. “It’s a terrible place! Some nuns don’t talk to each other. Girls were flushing drugs down the toilet and one got away with it because her parents are financial backers to the school! How could this be better than public high school?”
My father listened, nodded, pursed his lips, but did nothing. It was my last hope for what, at the time, felt like a terminal assignment. I’d already lobbied for another private school, any school but this one, but the discussion was closed. At fourteen, I could not envision having the emotional stamina to make it one year, never mind the four year distance it would take to high school graduation. Feeling like a silent scream, I descended into a private hole.
Despite being elected as homeroom officer and member of the guitar club that accompanied religious events, I would spend the rest of the year retreating. The hurt child in me was so profoundly offended that I once pondered conforming to these “good girl” standards. Maybe I, too, should start cursing, doing drugs and behaving spitefully toward others. That would show my parents their error in judgment.
But any intentions for parental revenge would be doomed: the idea of behaving contrary to my better self would never be an option. I’d be spiting myself in the long run. I wasn’t that stupid.
So, while distinguishing myself in prep school academics, I simultaneously spiraled into another unknown space. I became anorexic. Even before the illness had been diagnosed or given a name, I’d discovered it for myself.
Feeling imprisoned within the confines of this prep school, I looked for somewhere I could still exercise my own free will. My will became the will to decline food. An initial goal of becoming “skinny” quickly morphed. Undetected while at school, I’d give my lunch to any student who wanted it. At dinnertime at home, I’d limit myself to two slices of meat – completely covered in salt.
“Maura, why aren’t you eating more?” asked my Nana one evening, clearly concerned after noticing this odd, new rationing pattern. I proffered some excuse, likely gave in to her doling out more food, but continued onward, unabated. The pounds continued to drop, my periods stopped and I’d cloak the loss by wearing bulkier clothing.
To say that my prep school year was a total bust is anything but true. I loved morning art classes accompanied by classical music. I experienced spiritual awareness opening Bible passages during religion class. And I counted the adorable red-haired, freckle-faced novice who served as the guidance teacher and guitar club leader one of the dearest nuns I would ever have the pleasure to know.
Even on the down side, I gained and I’m grateful for the unlikely new lessons. I learned what I related to and what I did not. For starters, I didn’t relate to the head of the English Department, a nun, teaching me to “become a name dropper”. Neither did I relate to relying on money’s privileges to escape one’s otherwise equal punishment. I learned I would never change my contention that boys, like girls, were designed to be friends rather than objects for social or sexual manipulation.
There were more unexpected pleasures during that emotionally dark year. I enjoyed getting to know my very first black classmate and my first Hispanic classmate, too. I really liked ethnic diversity, something our local town didn’t provide. I’d also be grateful to a classmate who invited me to her house and explained how people measured social standing by the height of the hill upon which their house was situated.
From a social standpoint, I learned how it felt to be humiliated as part of an inferior social class; ignored for not being part of a clique; misused for my academic tutoring abilities; and educated in some of the more unseemly ways of competition. I witnessed both virtuous and poor examples of religious life; the smallness of what others might consider boast-worthy; and the possibilities of what anyone could become when placed in a less-than-ideal environment.
My anticipated four year stint at the prep school was cut short by an unexpected turn of events. My otherwise youthful and healthy Nana succumbed to pancreatic cancer. She died by the end of freshman year and, with her, my afternoon drive home from school died as well.
I’d enroll the following September in public high school. Imperfect to be sure, but I was back among the mixture and the masses – the very environment in which I’m personally most apt to flourish.
In that single dark year as a high school freshman, I gleaned lessons that others might not experience in a lifetime. I would have never have asked for that year and neither would I wish to relive it. But the first-hand lessons to be gained were so imminently powerful, they etched a private, social and moral integrity that few other experiences could have delivered. They remain with me even today.
For that one year, I am exceedingly and unabashedly grateful. Truly, it was one of my biggest blessings in disguise. The experience helped challenge, refine and mature me. It would increase my awareness and compassion for others, strengthen my integrity for leadership and increase my emotional oversight as a parent with a growing daughter. Finally, it shattered my ego and opened me up to love others of differing persuasions.
Wherever you are today, wherever you have been in your past, may you find the golden nugget of transforming thought that enables you, too, to say, “That was a dark blessing in disguise!”
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