The morning of January 5, I woke to a day that was sunny and windy with temperatures in the 20s in New York City. To say that I woke up implies I’d slept the night through. I hadn’t. My body felt like every muscle was taut, like springs stretched to the max. When I did sleep, my dreams were anxiety-ridden–the kind that you rouse yourself from. I had slept for about three hours. I had decided to make a journey to my old boarding school, St. John Villa Academy, in Staten Island.
Someone asked me if the purpose of my visit was to put old ghosts to rest. My goal was the opposite. I wanted to rouse those ghosts. That morning, I knew by the night I had spent, I was doing something I needed to do.
It was time. I’d not set foot on grounds of St. John Villa since June 1969. I was curious to reacquaint myself with the place that has loomed so large in my memory–and has left an imprint on the person I am today.
I photographed my journey and took notes during the entire trip. I wanted to record everything along the way.
I arrived just in time for the 10 a.m. ferry and had to run to catch it. As soon as I boarded, the boat crew pulled the accordion gate across. The horn blasted.
I watched from the back of the ferry as we pulled away from New York’s Financial District. The ferry shuttered and creaked from the engines down below. Without warning, my stomach started churning. I felt shaky. I thought I would vomit. I’ve suffered from seasickness before and knew that what I was experiencing wasn’t a case for Dramamine. No, the visceral feeling was oh-so familiar. It was that same reaction I had decades ago, every Sunday on my trip back to boarding school. I was a child all over again.
I don’t know how to swim (more on that later). When I was a child, I’d see those stenciled letters on the long rows of benches on the boat and wonder whether I would have time to get at one of those life preservers in case the boat started sinking. On the boat, I was reminded constantly of being adrift on green-black water, the land gone from beneath my feet.
The first site of this bridge as we made the trip across the water made me think of school. At the end of a rainbow, there’s a pot of gold. At the end of Verrazano on the Staten Island side, my boarding school that was anything but a treasure.
As the ferry approached Staten Island, I returned outside. The wind made it hard to push open the door onto the deck and then, once outdoors, steady my camera. In some ways, the bracing cold felt good–a distraction from all those old fears stirring about my body.
I noted the ferry’s name, Samuel I. Newhouse Sr., who started the “Staten Island Advance,” the borough’s newspaper, and went on to found a publishing empire. I couldn’t help but think of the irony. I write regularly for a Conde Nast magazine, which is part Advance Publications, and is now headed by his son, Si Newhouse Jr. My past and present were joined by that ferry. (For more about the history of Staten Island and the ferry, visit the Staten Island Museum.)
The old St. George Ferry Terminal has undergone an extraordinary renovation. The original 1940s building, the one I’d walked through so many times, had been musty and chilly. Now the building is airy with numerous glass windows to take in the waterfront views. Sunlight streamed through all the windows. I climbed into a cab. The driver, cheerful and polite, was a refugee from Kosovo. We got lost. I knew the general direction and the address, but not the exact streets to get to the school. We used the Verrazano Bridge as our landmark. His English wasn’t extensive, but between getting directions from his dispatcher and my consulting my Blackberry, we arrived 30 minutes later. He apologized profusely.
And then we were there. I thanked him. I stood at the gates of St. John Villa Academy and looked around. I started walking. I saw no one. The only noise I heard was the whooshing of cars from the bridge ramp. I closed my eyes and listened. That sound transported me years back.
The driveway was not as long as I’d remembered. In less than a minute, I came upon the swimming pool. The summer between second and third grade, I went to camp at SJVA. There, I learned not to swim. The instructors tossed me in the deep end time after time. I’d flail around. By the end of the summer, I finally managed to stay afloat.
I walked a little further. I stopped and sniffled. My eyes and nose were watering from the cold. I dabbed my eyes with a tissue to see more clearly. Adjacent to the pool building, there it was: an ugly squat building. My old dorm.
Had it really seemed this ugly back then? The surrounding buildings were nicer. Now I could see, through my adult eyes, that this brick and cement building looked much like a bunker, a maintenance building. Nothing about the structure said “home” or “comfort.” The doors are heavy steel, thick with brown paint. Every Sunday, we’d enter through the side door on the far end into a large room where each girl had a small closet to stow away school uniforms, underwear, blouses, shoes, etc. The grade school girls slept on the main level in one long room. The high school boarders lived on the top floor.
Here is the back view of the doom. On this lower floor we had a TV room and a study room, where we did our homework. We used that door to exit to the little asphalt-covered play area, which bordered a parking lot for the school buses.
From the dorm’s “playground,” we could see the toll booths to the bridge. On the Sundays my mother and her boyfriend drove me to school, I would race to the back fence to catch a glimpse of his white car pulling into a toll booth, on their trip back home, leaving me behind.
Until 1972, SJVA had both boarders and day students. Now the former dorm is used for art classrooms. I only know because I read the sign. I had been there for 20 minutes by this point and still hadn’t seen a soul.
I went to classes here and received my First Communion at the chapel.
I peeked into the a few doors. Classes were being held. Unfortunately, all the doors were locked.
I explored a little more, occasionally pausing to imagine the little girl I was in a brown plaid uniform, matching plaid beret, knee socks and white gloves. As I stood at the gate waiting for a cab, a bell rang. In the distance, I could hear kids running around outside, shrieking and laughing. Ten minutes later, another bell rang. Silence again, except for the constant hum of the cars going to the bridge. And then, just before the cab arrived, a compact car drove through the gates. In the driver’s seat sat a nun, cell phone to her right ear, her left hand on the steering wheel and no seat belt. I don’t think she noticed me.
When I was traveling to and from Staten Island as a kid, I’d taken a JFK ferry. I found out that the ferry I was boarding for my return trip was the same one. The JFK was put into service in 1965. The boat hasn’t changed much. The ferry no longer carries passenger cars–or buses, for that matter. (In 1970 and 1971, I had gone to a different camp–this time a day camp–on Staten Island, run by the Educational Alliance, which is based on the Lower East Side. Every day, we boarded school buses at Edgies that took us to the Staten Island camp grounds by ferry.)
In the afternoon, I returned to Manhattan. SJVA seemed a world away, yet still very much a part of me. The ghosts had been disturbed. People speak about a need for closure. I wasn’t seeking that. As a writer, I wanted to reopen that part of my life, examine it, stir things up, and then write some more.