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Saturday, September 16, 2006


I’ve been busy working on Girl At Sea, so it’s been a few days since I’ve posted. But I’m back to tell you another story from MJ’s book of Catholic high school.

A note, first: if you are in Brooklyn this weekend, come see me, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, and David Klass at the Brooklyn Book Festival. We will be performing an exhibition of our sweet Kung Fu technique. Be there!

We will fight for the honor of the book festival.

So, when we last left off, I was telling you a little about my experiences as a non-Catholic girl at a Catholic school, and how that school relates to Devilish.

We had religion as a major subject, so we took it almost every day. Our religion classes were split by semester. Half the year would be devoted to straight-up religion, Bible study, Church history, things like that. The other half was the “social” part. This is always where it got awkward.

We leaned interesting things, like in freshman year “Relating” class, where we were taught to put a telephone book on our boyfriend’s lap before sitting down. In senior year, it was an obligatory semester long class in marriage. It was taught by a nun. So, right from the get-go, we were in for a good time. It was well-meaning, but weird. It had a strange, touchy-feely book called Loving, and lots of avoiding the entire issue of birth control.

The class was interrupted for a week around prom, at which point we got Prom Class. The prom was a bit of a Kafkaesque mess, which will certainly be discussed in a future post. But to get ready for it, we were drilled 45 minutes a day for a week on things like: how to use a salad fork, how to wait in the car and REFUSE TO EXIT until our date came to open it for us, and the mysterious “Kleenex discussion.”

“Girls,” our teacher said to us. “Sometimes, you will be holding your boyfriend’s hand, and you’ll just . . . know. You’ll know that you shouldn’t be holding his hand. You will just know. When this happens, you need to take your hand away slowly and reach into your purse for a Kleenex. Put the purse on the other side of your body so that you have to reach across.”

She said this all with a slow, grave, literal seriousness—speaking in the same way that people do in movies when they have a gun pointed at their head by someone behind the door—and they’re trying to get out a very clear message without being shot.

“Girls, you’ll just know that you shouldn’t be holding his hand. Slowly reach for the Kleenex.”

We debated the meaning of this statement the entire rest of the year. We are still trying to figure it out. We always got the sense that she meant general horniess, but she was so specific.

“What happened with his hand?” we wanted to know. “Why do have to back away so cautiously?” And why the Kleenex? What was that for? Why did we have to wear our purses on the other shoulder?

In my mind, the boyfriend was slowly transforming into a werewolf. Or he was melting . . . maybe the Kleenex was for that.

But they tried, and I was okay with that. There was only one nun I really took issue with. I will call her Sister Mary Wookie. Sister Mary Wookie was not like the other nuns, many of whom were cool and friendly. Not all, like any assortment of teachers. But a lot. They had given up everything to teach us, so they deserve credit.

Sister Mary Wookie came from a different order. Her order had run a school, but the school had lost its funding and shut down, and Sister Mary Wookie was transplanted. She didn’t wear a habit, like our nuns. She dressed like a grandma from an ad for cookies: grey, curly hair, plaid skirts, little sweaters. She was adorable.

Behind the grandmotherly façade and the smile, though, was a lady with an agenda. Sister Mary Wookie wasn’t the warmest person. She was in charge of my homeroom, and made a bit of a sport out of making student council members cry—locking them out in the mornings when they were doing their school-sanctioned jobs, calling them do-gooders, and laughing when they got upset.

This was the same woman who talked about working in a soup kitchen, and then explained that she had quit. The reason? One of the men there, so grateful for his hot meal, hugged her.

“You don’t want them touching you,” she said.

Sister Mary Wookie had no time for Protestants like yours truly. She would stand in front of the class and smile and say, “I don’t know how they do it, with no confession. Walking around with all of that sin on their shoulders all the time.”

A smile for me.

She also used to refer to Protestants as WASPs. (If you’ve never heard the term, it means White Anglo Saxon Protestants. It’s not the worst slur in the world, but it’s not exactly the nicest expression, either.) I was a WASP. She would look at me as she said it, just in case I missed it.

I figured if she was going to insist on calling me a WASP to my face in class, I got to buzz. So I would make a small buzzing noise each time.

“So the WASPS . . .”



But Sister Mary Wookie was all about equal opportunity. I was by no means her main target. I was just kind of pathetic and sad, because I was a WASP with sin on my shoulders. There was no use in even worrying about me much.

The day that will live in my mind forever is the day that Sister Mary Wookie got all kinds of cross-curricular and decided to combine religion with astronomy.

“Girls,” she said, going to the board. “Let’s look at the solar system.”

She drew the sun, then rings around it.

“Here,” she said, drawing the first ring around the sun. “Is the orbit of Mercury. This is Catholics, because we’re closest to God.”

“Okay, here . . . Venus. That's the Jews. Jesus was Jewish, so that's sort of right . . .”

Another ring.

“The third ring,” she said, “is Earth. This represents Protestants. They sort of get it, but not really.”

She smiled at me. I sighed. I didn’t even have willpower to buzz.

We all have a place in Sister Mary Wookie’s solar system

“Now the fourth ring, Mars, that’s Islam. They have a book like the Bible and one God. Saturn and Jupiter are the Hindus and Buddhists. Uranus and Neptune, those are either those Confucius people, or the Native American religions. Stuff like that. People without a book or anything. And finally . . .”

There was a Pluto, then.

“Pluto is Wiccas and crazy stuff like that.”

We actually had to write this down.

When this was all over, I comforted myself with the thought that at least I was from Earth. And then I slowly reached across my body and into my purse, and I got myself a Kleenex.

The Kleenex was the answer. But what was the question?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow. i wondering what would atheists and agnostics be? what would devil-worshippers be? and pluto isn't even a planet anymore. so what would that make the wicca?

6:23 AM  
Anonymous Chelsea said...

This had me clutching my sides because I was laughing so hard.

Your high school experience sounds like it was interesting, indeed.

6:55 AM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is really funny. I went to an all-girls Catholic school too, except we didn't have any nuns for teachers. One came in as a "special guest" during Theology once, but she just told us about her calling or whatever.

One of my teachers was actually pretty cool, questioning the whole women-can't-be-priests issue. Then again, I had a teacher who called atheists "soulless creatures", so there was kind of a range.

2:21 AM  

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