boarding school


I’ve been piecing together the history of Catholic boarding schools for girls in New York City and came across a story about one that opened in South Carolina, “Catholic boarding school came to Greenville in 1900“:

Overwhelmingly Protestant, Greenville probably was not the most welcoming location for a Catholic boarding school, even though the city’s Catholic population was growing thanks to the prospering textile industry. (Religious tolerance was not a local hallmark.)But business leaders rationalized that a Catholic school might attract new white residents or shoppers whose daughters attended the school and who lived on farms or in small towns without a Catholic church or religious instruction for young women.

In fact, women’s education, traditionally ignored in the South, was flourishing. With a population of nearly 12,000, Greenville had three women’s schools with boarding facilities: the Greenville Women’s College, Presbyterian Chicora College, and the Greenville Baptist Female College. And like Sacred Heart, these colleges also offered primary education to both boys and girls and provided both preparatory and “academic” classes.

The boarding school was founded by the Ursulines, a religious order dedicated to educating young women and the first nuns to come to the United States to teach.

If you know about other Catholic boarding schools, especially in the New York City area, please tell me about it—and your experience—here. Looking forward to hearing from you!

I found these photos of St. John Villa Academy in the New York Public Library’s Digital Collections: Staten Island in Vintage Postcards. The collection consists of 768 postcards that show places and life in Staten Island from the late 19th-century into the 20th-century. Catherine Robinson, who spent her childhood in Staten Island, collected and organized the postcards as a hobby and gave them to the NYPL in 2001. No date is given for these photos. The school opened 85 years ago. If you happen to know anything about these postcards, feel free to leave a comment.

To see what it looks like today, take a look at these photos I took in January 2010. The place hasn’t changed much. The trees are taller, of course, and a few buildings have been added. The Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which  recently celebrated its 45th anniversary–and remains a symbol of my longing to go home during my days there–hadn’t been built yet. The school grounds skirt the edge of the tollbooths of the bridge, its span looming in the background. The whooshing sounds of bridge traffic fills the campus.

St. John’s Villa Academy, Clev... Digital ID: 104981. New York Public Library

St. John Villa Academy, Cleveland Place, Staten Island: stone wall and drive up to main buildings

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The Sanctuary, St. John’s Vill... Digital ID: 104977. New York Public Library

The Sanctuary, St. John Villa Academy

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St. John’s Villa Academy  [bui... Digital ID: 104979. New York Public Library

Buildings and entrance court

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St. John’s Villa Academy  [app... Digital ID: 104980. New York Public Library

Appears to be door to chapel

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Chapel, St. John’s Villa Acade... Digital ID: 104971. New York Public Library

Chapel

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 St. John’s Villa Academy, Arr... Digital ID: 104976. New York Public Library

St. John’s Villa Academy

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St. John’s Villa Academy [view... Digital ID: 104978. New York Public Library

View of statue in entrance court and garden

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St. John’s Villa Academy [camp... Digital ID: 104982. New York Public Library

Campus in winter, snow on ground

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St. John’s Villa Academy,  Arr... Digital ID: 104974. New York Public Library

Drive to main entrance

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St. John’s Villa Academy, Arro... Digital ID: 104972. New York Public Library

Iron entrance gate, snow-covered landscape and buildings

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St. John’s Villa Academy, Stat... Digital ID: 104975. New York Public Library

Drive to main entrance with center court and statue

Manhattan entrance to Staten Island Ferry Terminal

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.

Battery Maritime Building (1909)
Disconnecting from Manhattan

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.

Departing Manhattan

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.

Ellis Island

Statue of Liberty

I stepped on to the deck outside into the chafing wind. White caps dotted the water. I distracted myself by watching the boat traffic and, of course, the iconic landmarks.

Beneath the seats

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.

Verrazano Narrows Bridge

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.

Traffic!

Aboard the Samuel I. Newhouse Ferry

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.)

Freighter

Approaching Staten Island

St. George Ferry Terminal, Staten Island

Pulling into the dock

Lowering the walkway to the ferry

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.

Entry Gate, St. John Villa Academy

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.

Pool, Summer Camp, SJVA

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.

Front of Dorm

Dorm, side entrance

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.

View from back of dorm

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.

View of classroom buildings from dorm

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.

View of dorm from walkway to cafeteria

View of dorm and Verrazano from classroom buildings

Classroom building (left) and chapel (right)

I went to classes here and received my First Communion at the chapel.

Stairwell in classroom building

I peeked into the a few doors. Classes were being held. Unfortunately, all the doors were locked.

Leaving SJVA, classroom building in rear

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.

Boarding the John F. Kennedy Ferry

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.)

On the ferry "John F. Kennedy," back to Manhattan

Life jackets, JFK Ferry

Aboard the ferry

Inside the JFK, another view

Raft

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.

Approaching Whitehall Ferry Terminal

I wrote in an earlier post about the view from my boarding school: the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Today is its 45th birthday. Three years after it opened, this bridge took on a particular meaning for me–the structure that separated me from the rest of the world.

Here’s an article about marking the bridge’s anniversary: “The bridge that forever changed Staten Island turns 45 today.” Be sure to check out the wonderful slide show.

I’ve never seen this show, but happened upon this clip in a Google search using the key phrase “boarding school.” Not only is this world so far from my own in New York City, but the description of the boarding school by these two women makes my jaw drop. The place she’s sending her daughter to sounds like a country club. You couldn’t bring a horse to either of the schools I was sent to. Why, we weren’t even allowed to have as much as a dime in our possession. (I was punished for having money–one dime in each of my penny loafers.)

Ever notice that some boarding schools are always referred to as an “elite boarding school”–as if the words were inseparable?  My boarding school certainly wasn’t elite. Mine was Dickensian. But elite or not doesn’t get to the essential question.  Caffeine Court blogs about this particular episode of The Real Housewives of New York City and observes, “I have friends who went to boarding school, and they didn’t like going. Even though the schools were the “best of the best” they felt that their parents sent them away.”  [her italics, not mine]

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Tonight, as everyone knows, is the Oscars ceremony. I have to admit that I did not see many of the movies, not because of time, but because I cannot watch films that involve some kind of trauma. It’s not an anti-violence thing with me. I used to see all kinds of movies.

But within the last 10 years, something inside me started reacting to scenes in which characters were emotionally or physically abused. I’d start shaking. I’d become extremely anxious. I’d sit in the darkness feeling as if smothered. At first, I tried to ride out the scenes, covering my eyes, putting my hands over my ears. Sometimes that strategy worked. Barely.

That defense failed me when I saw the excellent movie “Girls Don’t Cry.” The movie was well done-acting, directing, etc. I watched from beginning to end, trying to appreciate its artistry. The movie’s impact hit me suddenly–BAM!–when I got into my car and started driving. I couldn’t make it out of the parking lot. I pulled over and fell apart. My husband was with me, thank goodness, to hold me. I sobbed uncontrollably. My body trembled. It was as if I had experienced all the trauma in that movie. I knew that trauma–not the exact same kind-but just the feeling of it all. My mind and body had memories and responded automatically.

In subsequent movies that had any kind of emotional or physical trauma, I’d bolt from the theater mid scene, from darkness into the bright fluorescent light. To escape that claustrophobic atmosphere, to breathe, to make it stop. My husband would find me on a bench in the theater lobby, trying to calm down.

I’ve given up seeing such movies. I can’t even watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” any more. The last time I did, I threw up half way through. That was several years ago. In December, a New York Times writer explained the reason perfectly in the aptly titled “‘It’s a Wonderful Life’? It’s a Miserable Life!” Wendell James wrote,

“‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.” [Check out New York Times critic A. O. Scott’s take in this video.]

Now my husband and I joke about the fact that this Christmas classic made me vomit–and not because it’s sappy. But there you have it.

At least, I understand my limits now. Some movies are obvious ones to avoid. “The Wrestler?” Nope. “Slumdog Millionaire?” I wanted to see it until I found out about the flashbacks showing child beatings. “Frost/Nixon?” Yes, I love movies about politics. Then there was the movie “Doubt.”

As I wrote in a previous post, I was on the fence about seeing it for several reasons. I was intrigued because I had attended Catholic schools in New York City during the time period the movie takes place. The sexual abuse part was stopping me. After reading a friend’s review at her blog, Bagel and A Movie, I thought, “I can handle this one.” We finally saw it last Sunday.

I found the film moving and absorbing. I recognized instantly the Sr. Aloysius type and profoundly felt the innocence and tender spirit in the nun Amy Adams portrayed. What I loved most was that the movie was cerebral and explored what it means to be human, what it means to believe, what it means to doubt. You leave the movie not knowing for sure whether the priest sexually abused the child.

Some people in the audience, however, thought they knew. In fact, they arrived with that certainty. Their minds were made up: The priest is guilty. In scenes with the priest, played so well by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, audience members hissed and tsk-tsked. At times, their sounds made hearing the dialogue difficult. Granted, I was watching the movie in a theater in a suburb of Boston, practically ground zero for the clergy sex abuse scandals  (chronicled by the Boston Globe in a series of articles that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003).

Yet, they didn’t respond similarly whenever Sr. Aloysius (Meryl Streep) lashed out, punished, mistreated, and spoke with such venom toward the children–not to mention her behavior the priest, her fellow nuns and a student’s mother. She showed no empathy, no tolerance. She abused those children physically and emotionally.

I knew so well how those kids felt. I was one of those children in boarding school. Yet, for some reason, this one time I could watch the entire movie, though I did flinch a lot. Perhaps I was too distracted by the behavior of the audience.

What I did leave with was a reminder that although people understand the trauma and wrongness of sexually and physically abusing children, some fail to see that emotional abuse can be just as traumatic.

I’ve struggled for years doubting that I had suffered emotional abuse in boarding school and elsewhere because I lacked bruises, fractured bones, some STD or other physical evidence. I have no physical scars. Unlike Maria and others who were my fellow boarders, I don’t remember being hit by the nun overseeing the dorm. But the emotional abuse I endured was very real and is the reason that after all these years I relive it when I see it happening on the big screen.

I’ve thought a lot about those people in the audience and have felt tremendous compassion for those who have suffered from sexual or other physical abuse during childhood. Sometimes, though, I need to be reminded of the validity of my own emotional scars.

Today, as I considered how I’d approach writing about this very personal topic, I turned to the Childhood Welfare Information Gateway, a federal government clearinghouse for information on childhood trauma. There, on my screen, I read these words and felt oddly comforted:

“Emotional abuse (or psychological abuse) is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance. Emotional abuse is often difficult to prove and, therefore, child protective services may not be able to intervene without evidence of harm or mental injury to the child.

“Emotional abuse is almost always present when other forms are identified. Abandonment is now defined in many States as a form of neglect. In general, a child is considered to be abandoned when the parent’s identity or whereabouts are unknown, the child has been left alone in circumstances where the child suffers serious harm, or the parent has failed to maintain contact with the child or provide reasonable support for a specified period of time.”

Doll in JumperEarlier this week, I received an e-mail from a woman named Maria, who was a boarder about four years before I was. (To protect her privacy, I am not including her last name. In her note, she gave me permission to reprint it.) Since I started this blog, I have been searching online for women who had boarded at this school and contacted her through a social media site. As with any person who’s endured trauma and abandonment as a kid, I wanted to hear others’ stories, less out of a need for confirmation, more out of a need to connect with others and to give our experience a voice. I had buried those years for so long. I write for a living, and finally feel driven to tell this story.

As I read her e-mail, I had such a strong visceral reaction. I felt shaky and thought I would get sick. Her words brought back the terror and pain. For the rest of the day, I grieved for her as a little girl, the other little girls and, of course, myself. Her e-mail felt that powerful and so familiar, even the part about Ed Sullivan and the collie:

“I read your blog and I guess I was surprised but also kind of felt confirmed after all these years of bad memories. I don’t know why, but I never realized that there would be others that would have felt the same as I did. I think I always thought it must have been me. I know that there were older girls there and I remember them laughing and having a good time. For some reason I think of this in some sort of locker room – is that familiar at all?

“I hated the place and the memories that most stand out in my mind are of Sr. [X]. She was horrible – she must’ve been just absolutely hateful inside and took it out on the kids. But of course, through the eyes of a child, you always think it’s just you.

“One particular vivid memory is of her holding me just off the floor by my arm while she was beating me, all because my hair got wet on a day that we were not supposed to wash our hair. Do you remember that Thursday was hair washing day? (It may have been different when you were there.) Well, my shower cap had a tear in it and my hair got a little wet. So, I’m a little kid and she’s this huge black hulking figure (black habit) and she’s dangling me by my arm while she’s hitting me and yelling. I can still almost see the twisted expression on her face. I remember the absolute terror – I don’t know how she got away with it. I don’t remember any other nun doing anything to the kids but maybe I didn’t see it.

“Another time I was in bed (I remember the dormitory with 2 rows of beds), and the 2 girls on either side of me were talking and then got out of bed. Well, Sr. [X] came up and let us all have it even though I pleaded with her that I didn’t do anything. I also remember being punished or hit for not eating all the food on my plate – you know kids and string beans. Does yucky macaroni and cheese ring a bell? And getting hit for throwing up after eating something I didn’t like. Just normal kid stuff.

“My mom took me out after 6 months because of the bruises on my body. She says she couldn’t figure out what was happening and that I never complained. Scared I guess. So she took me to the doctor who she says looked at her as if she were a child abuser. Now this is through the memory of my 76 year old mom, so I don’t really know what to say. I spoke to her the other day about this again, because I’ve never really been sure why I was there. She tells me she had to work, but she was married and there was a Catholic elementary school right across the street. I suppose times were different and she tells me she thought she was sending me to a good school.

“I do know that I could never send my daughter away – she’s going to college in September and I’m having a hard enough time with that. But if the discussion goes too far with my mom, she’ll feel as if I’m accusing her and I don’t want to go there. But I do think about it sometimes.

“I do have a good memory of watching the Ed Sullivan show on Sunday nights. And also, there was a dog – a Collie. One of the nuns would hold up her fingers, and the dog would bark according to how many fingers she held up. You can use any of this on your blog if you like.

“I wonder if Sr. [X] is still alive. I looked on the St. John’s website – there’s an area that names nuns from the past but I didn’t see her name.  I think I would like confront her, although the years of growing up and thinking of nuns as next to God might make that difficult for me to do. I’m an RN, and many years ago I had a nun as a patient. She was having knee surgery and I had to place a tourniquet cuff high on her thigh in preparation for the surgery. The thought of touching her in such a personal manner terrified me and I apologized to her. That reverence for nuns is so ingrained in us as children growing up Catholic.

“Sorry this is so long. I have really strong memories of that place – even as a 53 year old, I still cringe when I think of it.”

~ Maria, February 9, 2009

Thank you, Maria, for taking the time to write of your experience and letting me share it with others on my blog. I’m sure that your honesty will touch many. (P.S. The nun, now elderly, is still alive. She’s long since retired–the boarding school shut down in 1972 or so.)