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Thursday, September 21, 2006


It was a very hot autumn when I first arrived at my Catholic girls’ school, aged 13, non-Catholic, clueless, never having faced a nun before in my life. And during that very hot autumn, the order lost one sister a week for the first five weeks of school, as if on schedule. Every week, we were taken to the chapel to see them. We knelt and said prayers I did not know directly in front of the bodies of people I had never met in life.

I’d only seen a few dead bodies in my life, so five was a lot. That they were all nuns was deeply disorienting. And for a while, it looked like this was how things were always going to be at our school. Someone was going to die every single week.

But it wasn’t. It was just a bad five weeks, and it earned us the name The Freshmen of Death.

I felt that this was a bad thing, in that distant way that you do when you hear about the death of someone you do not know. You do not want anyone to die. You do not want people to be sad. But when you do not know the deceased, it can be hard to truly engage in what is going on. The five deaths that greeted our arrival almost seemed to fit the strange new surroundings I was in.

There were constant reminders that we were mortal, we were all going to die. There were prayers about it, songs about it, rituals to aid us, statues that depicted it. We said the Hail Mary every morning and before every class, imbedding the words “now and at the hour of our death” into my brain. I said it in three different languages every day. There was a giant painting by the front door of our school showing nuns of our order bravely standing up to Nazis, and being mowed by machine guns and falling into a mass grave. That was how we greeted you.

I had never seen so much death before. It was like I had arrived at Death Prep.

But there was life as well. Potential. We were constantly being told that we were blossoming young women, young and fertile. Too many comparisons were made to flowers.

Blossoming in the face of death.

Our bodies were the source of constant commentary. It started before we even got to school, at our mid-summer uniform fitting before freshman year. We were sized not according to our current shape and person, but to the blossoming young woman we would become.

By this, I mean our chest size. See, we wore these tight vests. Well, they were tight in theory. They would be tight when the blossoming had happened. But as pre-freshmen, our petals still closed, it was hard to tell just how much lily there was to gild. And your vest had to last you for four years—you didn’t get a new uniform every year.

Which is why they employed the amazing Breast-Size Guessing Nun.

The A.B.S.G.N. would take one look at us, spin us around, and then proclaim our fate in the form of our vest size. She would proclaim it VERY, VERY LOUDLY. ACROSS THE GYM.

Because, of course, the sister taking down the sizes was sitting all the way across the room. Why? Why not! It made it more fun for everyone.

“SMALL!” the A.B.S.G.N. would yell, as a tiny girl curled into a ball and prayed for someone to come and kick her away. “SHE’S FLAT! THIS ONE’S PRETTY MUCH DONE.”

No breasts for her. But not so for the early-blossoming next girl, who was probably already wearing what my grandmother used to call an “over the shoulder boulder holder” and was probably very aware of it. And now, thanks to the A.B.S.G.N., so was everyone else. Including my dad, who had taken me for my fitting—probably expecting, as most sane people would have, that it would be done it a room somewhere, privately.

The flowers may be delicate, but the gardeners rarely are.

Our uniforms were designed not to last just four years, but long enough to be passed to family members. Maybe for all of time. They were made of things not found in nature, and they could not be destroyed. I know this for a fact, because I spent four years trying.

The most remarkable thing that I discovered about them was that they were entirely water resistant. I conducted a series of experiments in the cafeteria, trying to determine the boundaries of the skirt material. My lunch partner’s most vivid memory of me is sitting in the cafeteria, pouring entire cups of water into my lap, and brushing it away, yelling, “See! It’s dry! It’s completely dry!”

They also could repel some nail polishes, could not easily be cut with scissors, and did not burn easily. In the end days, when there are only Styrofoam cups and roaches to eat, you will be wearing my school uniform.

And you will get the knee socks. Oh, yes. Yes you will.

Our socks had to be pulled to our knees, lest we accidentally cause shin-lust. The socks were a major concern. There was an entire patrol just for that. They would make us pull them up—we would push them down. This insane dance went on day in and day out. Pushing and pulling, hopping in front of classroom doors and in front of the chapel.

To this day, having socks slouching down means something to me. I don’t actually wear knee socks and reverse saddle shoes anymore, but I think in my mind I always will . . . there is some version of me that will always feel the satisfying feel of wool-polyester mix sliding around my ankles, reveling almost a whole calf, and knowing that I am dancing on the edge of oblivion.

A freshman of death forever—but living every single artificial-fiber covered minute to its flame-retardant fullest. You will never put these calves in a corner.


Anonymous SARAH said...

HAHAHHAAH this makes me laugh a lot. freshman of death. makes me go out to buy your books.

2:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See what they're wearing these days...


1:44 AM  
Blogger Chelsea said...

You're hysterical. How does this post only have three comments?

You win at alife.

7:29 AM  
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