Yesterday a letter from my alma mater--an all-girls Catholic high school in Cincinnati--showed up in my Alabama mailbox: One of my favorite teachers, accused of molestation from a student in the '70's, is on administrative leave pending an investigation.
The paper is thin. The signature of the principal, a laywoman whose name I blinked at, as she is new and a non-graduate, is a blur of pixels. It's a perfectly professional letter. You couldn't ask for anything more pro. It presents the facts-- as it should. It contacts the alumnae directly from the administration-- as it should. It mentions that the school is acting in accordance with the Decree of Child Protection of the Archiocese of Cincinnati-- as it should.
Its contents were also fully quoted by the Cincinnati Enquirer two days ago in a story which names the teacher-- as it should not. I am not typing in this space the name of this good, dedicated, intelligent, almost-retired woman who taught me and my sister, who never touched me or my sister, who, as far as I know, was never so much as rumored to have touched anyone during our combined seven years there.
We have here an officially impossible position for my high school, from whence I came and from whence I planned to always come. A woman, once a child in the Archdiocese's care, wrote "sexual abuse" on a bomb and threw it into a Catholic girl's high school. The administration now has two choices: Does it bury the bomb in the backyard, hoping it never goes off, or does it defuse it on the front steps in full view of the neighbors? Choose one. Best wishes.
I don't know what happened between this teacher and this student in 197whatever. I do know that abusers, particularly in schools, particularly in Catholic schools, should not be tolerated or shuffled off to another location to avoid public scandal. I also know that one accusation from one student can destroy an entire lifetime of service and forever pollute the waters of quiet nostalgia.
I've been uncomfortable for years with the heavy paper stock on the alumnae magazine and recruiting brochures; it always seemed a waste of paper and gloss, and now here's this featherweight little letter with the jagged signature, the one-ounce difference between reality and the comforting thought that maybe they were all still using computers with disk drives in main office.
The logo at the top of the letterhead is a wispy, designed affair instead of the modified convent shield we wore on our uniforms, uniforms that are long gone now too. I moved out of Ohio just after finishing grad school, but you don't have to leave home without leaving home; since my last high school reunion, the space shuttle program I moved away to work for ended, my beloved brother school lost its damn mind, the forest I used to roam as a child burned down, my father sickened terribly and died, I passed through fourteen different addresses across five states, my husband lost his job, and Futurama was cancelled.
I didn't type that list just now so that you'd feel sorry for me. I typed it so you can insert your own list, which is likely longer, and worse. But one of the things that helped me bear the rest of it were the flashes of memory from walking around with the little shield sewn to my navy blue jumper-- the crack and rattle of the steam heaters, the echoey shudder of sneakers on risers in the chorus room. These slide into and out of my fingers like Rosary beads, like a handful of fragrant coffee beans.
We all have these mental boltholes, and they lay respirating and green even when their origin is an emotionally dead place, a brown and curling dwelling place of bitter disappointment. Even at the guest ranch that employed me for a few weeks in college, where the horses were ill-kept and the underage staff emptied bottle after bottle in the evenings-- there were the early mornings, when the sun just began to glow over the mountains as I carried muffins to guest cabin porches in basket over my arm. I walked very slowly, those mornings.
My high school career was an even split-- two years of swinging my academic and emotional battleax through algebra and snapped-shut grade school cliques; two years of bounding through the wide hallways gathering literary magazine submissions, extra books banging together in my backpack because sociology was interesting. Four years of panic attacks and one semester which consisted largely of two periods of Yearbook and honor time: These are all from the same square footage. The bulletin board where the vice principal tacked up my first magazine publication was down the hall from the theater where I blanked on a concert solo and stood lock-kneed on the overflowing stage because this, this right here was the end of the world.
Bolthole associations pass through the limbic system in a moment. They are meant to. For the truth is that one morning in my senior year I raised my cheek from the pillow to the sound of the radio informing me that a member of the faculty had been raped outside the front door of the school. And not long after that my English teacher, my Obi-Wan, died of cancer, and so did the vice-principal. And the interior of a classroom where generations of students spent hours painting murals on the walls was renovated and repainted a couple of years ago--- the roof was leaking, what can you do. That is not the alma mater I wish to claim as my own, the one with these blank walls, this pixelly signature of a stranger.
And so God grants us the boltholes. That is why my visceral reaction to the first five chords of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is "I'm homesick" even though the boy who used to play them dumped me a decade ago, the dorm he played them in is now an office building, and the office building is on a campus currently separated from me by 900 highway miles and an emotional moat at least twice as wide. But the best part is there's not time to run through all that as the memory breaks to the surface and just as quickly sinks back into the grey matter sea. It's "I need to change lanes here... You'll saaaayyy that we've got nothing in cooooommon... I'm homesick... Did I remember to get the toothpaste?"
But what's discussed in this letter threatens a drastic change in the familiar mental geography. It flattens a lovely green hill and replaces it with a stinking swamp. If she did do it: "That's horrible, we had no idea." If she didn't: "That's horrible, what this poor woman suffered at the end of a long and caring career." And that is why I laid the thin piece of paper flat on my desk, read it, wished I hadn't, moved it outside the house, sat down to write about it, didn't, returned inside, threw it away, fished it back out, washed my hands, read it again. How to drain the swamp?
The image of the front of my alma mater in the Enquirer included the large Mary statue at the front of the grounds. And I sat and looked at this and I thought, "Woman, do you not protect your own? This is your house. Your house. Why is your enemy so busy in these schools placed under your protection, that bear your very name?"
And she said, (well, not said, more like in an idea-text message, but "she said" is shorter than "idea text-message," but anyway, she said) "Have you asked lately?"
I had not. I was desperately protecting this narrow little mental bolthole, but what was truly sullied was wide reality-- and that I could do something about. I'd been in my own head when I should have been on my knees: "Lady, this is your house and it stands at the pleasure of your Son. Heal... heal. Infuse the very foundation; it crumbles if God wills it so. Sweep the truth into every molecule of this place, the thin paper and the thick concrete bricks. You're not the statue, you're the spiritual foundation. We want answers; we need grace. Sustain, strengthen, comfort, support."
The sun is glowing over the mountains. The Woman protects her own.
Ask with me.