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.
It’s almost hurricane season, which has become a national pastime. I grew up in Ohio, which could occasionally gin up a nice tornado or two, perhaps a blizzard if you’re lucky, but--it’s Ohio. “Extreme” for us is a day without margarine.
But when I lived in Orlando, today’s Weather Channel five-day forecast routinely looked like this:
THURSDAY: Mostly sunny, chance of afternoon showers
FRIDAY: Early morning fog
SATURDAY: Huge catastrophic world-ending hurricane
SUNDAY: Partly cloudy
We were often in the final full-blown stage of a hurricane phenomenon known as “Screw You, As Opposed To Me.” This manifested when people in one part of the state rooted for a hurricane to slam into another part of the state, or better yet, another state entirely.
The Weather Channel assisted with gigantic Atari graphics explaining storm surge, which consisted of a huge wall of blue completely obliterating rows and rows of Monopoly-sized houses. I always felt a lot better after seeing that, almost as good as when the NBC affiliates sent a Roving Idiot to cover the pending carnage in Cape Canaveral, which was tastefully intercut with Hurricane Floyd footage of the Daytona Beach Pier crinkling up like Tinker Toys.
One time CBS trotted out a therapist to answer viewer questions such as: “I can’t sleep and I’m very anxious. What can I do?” And the therapist said that we should all take sleeping pills and then focus on something besides the storm, such as, and I quote, “cleaning closets.”
The ER doctor she was sitting with added, “You know, I almost hate to say this, but you may want to try a shot of alcohol too.” So if the mainstream media had its way, I’d pass each hurricane warning re-hanging all my stirrup pants while two-fisting Schnapp’s and Unisol. I’ve had worse Saturday nights.
Affiliates were on the air around the clock. Once the first-string, prime time meteorologists dropped, the second-teamers and weekend anchors were brought in, followed by the Weather Substitutes consisting of the drooling and the underage, followed by tourists bused in from the “Listen To the Land” exhibit at EPCOT.
Once the storm passed, I had definite questions about the manner in which this particular Act of God was conducted. I was under the impression that if a hurricane decides to flatten an area, it will stay flattened.
What truly was “We do not have any refrigerated items. NO ICE. No cash back. No debit available. We hope to have more deliveries. No time yet.”
This handlettered sign has stood outside my grocery since landfall. This, then, is a state of natural emergency: A total reversion to cash transactions. It’s anarchy.
My local supermarket has served as my Surreality Barometer. Go ahead: Test your sense of well-being against walking into a grocery store and not finding any groceries. People were driving as far as two hours away in a vain attempt to find ice. The aisles are almost completely trashed. Ore-Ida Steak Fries, gone! Spam, gone! The entire supply of Sociables, gone!
And yet I returned to the grocery, day after day, wandering around the beer section on the expectation that the Frozen Foods Fairy had come along and magically replenished the Lean Cuisine supply. You know how you open your refrigerator, find nothing edible, then return five minutes later expecting to find the situation somewhat changed? I was doing the refrigerator thing on a scale of 60,000 square feet.
So I’m dumping the box of Halloween costumes out on the floor, and… there wasn’t much there. I don’t mean there wasn’t a great deal to choose from--we’re talking fourteen year’s worth of costumes here—but… there wasn’t much there. For a person who rather recently passed four Halloweens in northern Indiana, which is not particularly known for its balmy late Octobers, there wasn’t a lot of coverage going on in these costumes. The total square feet of material in the lot of them could have maybe sheltered a six-pack of Tic Tacs.
The dance hall girl, the adorable ladybug, Mary Beth the French maid whose ancestry is thoroughly German: They were all here. I regarded one gauzy skirt with particular interest, holding the material at arm’s length between my thumb and forefinger …which one was this a piece of? Oh, wait, there’s the matching gold bra. I believe the proper term is “exotic dancer.”
You can get away with this, when you’re nineteen and very, very chemically enhanced. Past 30? Please no.
I think we can officially file this feminine practice of celebrating the vigil of a major Catholic feast day by tarting it up with the Bureau of Double Standards, Irony Department. You don’t see guys trolling the bars any less covered than normal; if anything, they’re blessedly more enclothed, what with the pirate hats and the pimp boas and the occasional cape. But women? Women put on a bodysuit and a headband featuring tiny cat ears and wonder why we aren’t President yet.
Speaking as a person whose primary day-to-day wardrobe consists of soccer shorts and unkempt hair, it is understandable, from the grown-up distance of owning a double broiler and a coffee table and a whole bunch of debt and everything, that we might want to tear up the inhibitions and pull down the neckline.
Last night, while shoving the Box O’ Sex Kitten back into storage (economic times are tough; it may yet come to strip-o-grams, so perhaps it’s best to save the finger cymbals for a rainy day), I came across a pair of stilettos I bought for the express purpose of accessorizing the French maid get-up. I wore the outfit to a dance during my senior year in college, and after four hours of shuffling about to innumerable rounds of “Thriller” I physically couldn’t walk to the bus stop without stopping to rest and cry every four feet. Haven’t worn the damn things since.
Apparently Francis I, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, ducked out of the pontiff's usual hoopty, a security-enclosed mini-Popemobile. Instead he hopped the bus shuttling the cardinals from St. Peter's Square back to their spare lodgings in Rome, all, "Wait, I left my phone charger in my room."
I really cannot imagine this bus ride. I am shattered there are no pictures, unless one of the Cardinals starts posting some selfies on his Twitter account (#PrincesOfTheChurchPartyBus.) Who sat next to the Pope? Was there assigned seating? Did they sing "Three Cheers for the Bus Driver", did he sit next to his best friend, and did that Cardinal have to sit next to the window with his hand on the seat next to him as the rest of the college filed past, all "Saved... saved... this is saved... no, this is saved... saving this for Francis."
My faith is a rich faith, complex and mysterious.
MEET THE NEW GUY UPDATE: Watching EWTN coverage from the Sistine Chapel of Papa Frank conducting his first Mass. He was in the papal robes and everything. It looks weird. Not as weird as seeing B16 in the first days of his pontificate, which is to be expected when it seemed that only one guy had ever been pope forever and ever, but still weird. Kind of like when Paul O'Neill was traded to the Yankees.
#PRINCESOFTHECHURCHPARTYBUS UPDATE: I've long said that I wouldn't trade one The Reader for all eleventy billion Twilight buyers, and Angie The Reader cements that sense of worthiness by uncovering this very cell phone capture. As you can see, the seat-saving situation unfolded precisely as I predicted, with the Pope on the aisle and his homey at the Window of the Beta:
The only question now, of course, is who is Francis' seatmate, and is the Cardinal across the aisle a second-best friend, or just acting all hot because he gets to sit in the same row as the Pope? These deep theological questions can cut both ways.
Blonde Champagne is now working with our sources deep within the Vatican for further illumination concerning the deeply troubling "Three Cheers for the Bus Driver" issue.