I look forward to the mornings and being away from the house all day. School is a haven where I can go and take refuge, using my mind and finding ways to get me out of the position I am in, to dream and set goals about a new life for myself. I dress up in my new stylish wardrobe ma bought: cute blouses, navy blue wool sweater, grey wool sweater, below the knee red/grey plaid pencil skirt, and navy blue kilt wool skirt with matching knee socks. My hair covers my ears and is parted down the middle; it’s a new cut for me and is easy to care for. No one can guess what is going on at home by the way I look; everything is perfectly in place, a way of binding my anxiety and hiding my secret hell. At school when I am told to knell down the hem touches the floor, and then I roll it up above my knees after passing the test, all the girls do it. I do not wear makeup and dress collegian style. The boys get in trouble if they don’t have socks on, even with their sandals.
I walk a few blocks up a slight hill to Pawtucket West High School, built in 1938, a 3 story concrete building with large windows made out of small window panes. There are students hanging out; on the streets, the concrete walls lining the school block along East Avenue, under the trees and up the many stairs that lead to the front doors. Opening the front doors there are the long halls lined with tall skinny lockers on both sides, the high ceilings intensify the sound of footsteps and voices echoing loudly, the linoleum floors are highly polished and smell of wax. My locker is in the middle of a few of the boys I went to junior high with so I feel somewhat protected. My friends and I have parted ways due to different goals. Their focus is on boyfriend concerns and marriage plans, going the “secretarial or homemaker” route, taking the lower division classes, the path to their dreams… a temporary job, until a husband can provide for a family. I am in the college preparatory classes which have the A and B division and taking the pre-requisites required to get into nursing school.
In my sophomore year I find myself in the A division, I do not know anyone, with the majority of the students being Jewish, who are the most educationally motivated kids I have ever known. I feel a strong sense of competition when grades are handed out, so I turn my paper over so no one can read it, there is a discussion of who got what, and embarrassment descends down on me when the teacher announces mine is the top grade, I get anxious and feel everyone looking at me while I focus on the teacher. My shyness has returned in this new environment, I am self-conscious, not wanting to stand out and be noticed. I do well in science, biology and math and very poorly in English. I develop a relationship with Abbey who becomes my lab partner. She shares a lot: knowing all about the music scene and what is going on in the state; seeing Bob Dylan on the streets of Newport sitting and playing his guitar with a hat on the ground for money; about Marijuana being grown along the banks of the river, not wanting to appear dumb I refrain from asking her what it is; and talking about her religious beliefs and answering any questions I put to her.
I connect with the Jewish kids in my class asking questions about god and reincarnation, discussing thoughts, feelings and beliefs openly and honestly. These friendships only happen at school; the Jewish mothers allowed their children to communicate with the Catholics, but there is no invitation into their world, contact is forbidden outside in the community. This riff is a form of religious discrimination, “stay with your own kind” and “do not dating someone from another religion”. This affects the female Jewish students who use it as a way to rebel against the norm by finding themselves intrigued by the Catholic boys they are suppose to stay away from. I find my-self with others who valued education and have career plans, individuals from other cultural and religious backgrounds, people who give me a glimpse of a new world that I can create for myself, stimulating my consciousness to a new level of being, and rising above prejudices that I do not understand.
As a teenager I am disenchanted with the rhetoric of the Catholic Church and the poor morale fiber of those who are “closer to God” “do as I say not as I do” and the overwhelming guilt that comes with being a Catholic with a constant focus on sin and punishment. Since we moved to Pleasant Street I have returned to going to St. Mary’s Church on Sundays, but that is the extent of my involvement. I continue to pray, especially at night when I go to bed, begging for assistance, wondering if my prays are being heard or that I am bad and being punished. My spiritual path is broadening, I have become curious and hungry to explore what others’ think, practice and believe, I know there is more to religion than just memorized stories, I sense something bigger and better. This is spirit intervening in my life. This experience is a major struggle for me, in addition to the anxiety of a new environment, but the gifts I receive are well worth it, an expanding consciousness through reflection, contemplation and questioning rhetoric. I am using my mind and intelligence to helps develop a better self-esteem, stoking the flames of awareness, and igniting my thirst for knowledge. Using my mind is become my way of life, a coping mechanism, living in my head, not in my body.
Kennedy’s legacy of making Physical Exercise mandatory is a real challenge. My only ways of moving are dancing and walking. I struggle with the ropes, rings and the horses in the well maintained gym created out of old forest trees that are made all shiny and new. The changing area has small cubicles with a curtain for privacy I make sure no light comes in; fearful someone will see me changing. There is a rule about no jewelry, so I leave my mother’s black pearl engagement ring my dad gave her, it’s stolen, breaking my heart, these kinds of things did not happen in Catholic School. Hating how I look in the gym clothes, feeling incompetent as an athlete, being laughed at on a regular basis because I am uncoordinated with poor body strength and weighing 78 pounds, this is the worse part of my day.
At the end of the school year I go back to the school Counselor; who had told me earlier that my grades had put me in the upper division and that I couldn’t change till 11th grade. I express how anxious and isolated I am in the upper division and request being placed in lower division for the next 2 years of high school, it is done despite being encouraged to stick with it, I am doing well.
In 1965 as a Junior I am with some of my old friends while make new ones which aren’t as competitive. I am a math whiz and the boys label me as “the math girl”, and it’s believed that it is something “girls are not good at”. The teacher is constantly trying to talk me into being a math teacher; I am so introverted I can’t visualize myself talking in front of a large group, even if they are children. When I take physics there are only 3 girls in the class including me. When we have an exam the teacher walks out. The jocks are all sitting around me trying to cheat, asking me for the answers. I hunch over my paper to do my work so no one can copy me. I take every math, science, Latin, and physics class as pre-requisites for nursing school; my goal and dream since 4 years old, and I’m following a plan which is all mapped out in a scrapbook I started in the 6th grade.
In the school auditorium it is announced that a female student was murdered down along the river where everyone goes to neck, this is a shock to everyone and my fear and anxiety about dating being dangerous is confirmed, males either abandon or cause harm. The boy who lives down the street is accused of the murder, there is no evidence against him, they let him out, looking all beat up by the police, it comes out that our cops are crocked and have set him up. My sister dated his brother so we know he was being discriminated against due to the family living in poverty, and considered “from the wrong side of the tracts”. Even the police can’t be trusted so there is no reason to go to them with my problems.
I hang out mostly with Barbara and Eileen in and out of school. We walk all over Pawtucket, going by the boys where ever they hang out, especially the basketball court. We trek up to 10 miles to other high schools to watch basketball games and attend dances. With umbrellas, raincoats and goulashes we rush through a downpour to our first football game, sitting on the covered bleachers and having no idea what it’s all about. Our last football experience is in a snow storm, freezing our behinds off, it wasn’t fun even though I wear a stylish fashionable pea coat; boys are not worth that much torment. I am ambivalent about relationships with the opposite sex; I feel attraction and fearful at the same time mistrusting most people.
Every Saturday night we walk to Saint Ray’s, an all boys school, otherwise known as Saint Raphael Academy on Walcott Street. The gym has beautifully polished wooden flooring covered with sawdust so it doesn’t get marked up. One humiliating moment is when I am speed walking to the door and before I know it I’m flat on my butt, facing a bunch of kids sitting on chairs up against the wall, worried they might have seen my underwear. As a group we would walk along the edge of the dance floor to check out the guys, never standing in any position for too long. Being shy introverted, and not wanting to be noticed I blend into the background like a true wallflower, always on the edge of the excitement. I am not popular, and my anxiety interferes with communication with boys, so I am not asked to dance a lot. The girls dance together on the fast songs for the boys are just not interested, on the slow dances if the kids get to close, the priest taps the boy on the shoulder and announces to the couple “make room for the holy spirit.” We always know when the night is over because they play “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” by Paul Anka, followed by “Good Night My Love” by Jesse Belvin, such intense love songs. This is where I meet guys from other schools who ask me out on dates. My younger sisters always come up with nicknames to tease me, like “ears”, “lips” even “nose” based on whatever feature stands out. My mother has a rule that the boy has to come and knock on the door when he picks me because she will not let me go out if he beeps for me. I do not maintain a relationship with a boy because I get uptight and freeze around any type of sexual contact, even kissing.
In 1966, my senior year, I turn 18 and start dating a boy from the same school which I have not done before; he is younger and a junior. One day my friend Barbara pulls me aside informing me that “I do not like being the one to tell you this, but I think you would rather hear it from me. Joey is cheating on you with the local slut, Pat”. Somehow it was his choice of her that was more upsetting than the act itself, I know her from Junior high and we never really got along. I give him his ring back and refuse to be committed to him and continue to date him going to our proms together and taking him with me on all my graduation activities. He is an Italian Mama’s boy who taught me to play tennis, miniature golf and go cart track driving on our dates which included other couples in our group. We were together that year and I let my guard down a little, we get caught in heavy petty by his brother which resulted in him no longer inviting me to his house for Sunday meals. I am a virgin, telling myself that I am saving myself for my husband, marriage is not part of my plans at this time in my life, for my fear of intimacy is overwhelming and my body is always uptight and rigid, a protective armoring, against pain and abandonment.
1967 I graduate with the skills and education that has gotten me into Rhode Island Hospital School of Nursing, bathing in feelings of accomplishment at having successfully danced through my teenage years. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, I will be leaving home, for it is required that I live at the hospital during my training. My dreams, goals, hard work, and perseverance are finally paying off. A new life is just around the corner.
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