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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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My journey to boarding school began because two people were wed and never should have.

parentsHigh school sweethearts, my parents married on a snowy day in mid April 1959 in a Catholic church on the West Side of Manhattan. My mother had just turned 17 that month; my father would turn 19 two weeks later at the end of April. Both of them had grown up in broken homes. My father was in the US Air Force and stationed in Tachikawa, Japan.  (Note: Turn off the sound to avoid the bad soundtrack. These photos are from my early days there.)

Initially, my mother stayed in Manhattan, while he returned to the base. Their plan was for her to join him when they had enough money for airfare. A few months later, her father-in-law gave her money for the flight to Japan. “You should be with your husband,” he said. My mother had never been abroad, and except for a few years, had always lived in New York City.

Hospital, Tachikawa Air Base

Hospital, Tachikawa Air Base

I was born at the base hospital in April 1960 and baptized at the base by proxy. My godmother lived in New Jersey, my godfather in Puerto Rico. They were my parents’ best friends from high school. My mother, who’d been raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools, intended to do the same with me.

Author at 8 1/2 months with Uncle Adam, her paternal grandfather's brother

Author at 8 1/2 months with Uncle Adam, her paternal grandfather

Nearly three years later, my father finished his term of service and they returned to the city. My father took a job with Trans Caribbean Airlines as a flight attendant because he wanted to travel. Trans Caribbean Airlines in its first incarnationMy mother settled in as a housewife and mother in our apartment near the airport in Kew Gardens, Queens. She  looked forward to married life back home and wanted to have a second child.

Their marriage, however, didn’t last. I don’t remember much about them as a couple and living in a two-parent household, but as I got older, I could see they weren’t made for each other. Their temperaments were incompatible. My father enjoyed partying and being a ladies’ man. I guess he wanted the kind of social life he had during high school within his marriage. The roles of husband and father didn’t fit into that picture.

My mother, our dachsund and I moved in with her mother in a one-bedroom apartment on Upper Riverside Drive in Manhattan. Her furniture was piled in the bedroom, along with clothes and boxes. The three of us slept in the living room on two sleeper sofas. Eventually, the dog was given away.

In some ways, my father’s absence didn’t faze me because his job meant he was away often. I missed the dog more than I did him. I saw my father at Christmas and around my birthday and occasionally in between. The divorce agreement required only that he pay child support—if you can call bouncing checks support. When he visited, my mother and he would argue. My grandmother couldn’t forgive his indiscretions. I dreaded his visits, to the point of becoming sick to my stomach and vomiting.

Fortunately, I had school—pre-kindergarten and kindergarten at a nearby public school in our Harlem neighborhood—to add some stability to my life. We went on field trips. I loved painting and doing other crafts. I made a “radio” from a block of wood with two round pieces for dials and painted it orange and blue. I wanted a transistor radio like my mother’s father carried with him at all times. On it, he listened to the Yankees games and broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera.

During 1964 and 1965, I had only some inkling of the racial tensions around me. My skin is light brown, somewhere between my father’s Filipino dark brown and my mother’s white skin. At age 4, I’d ask my mother why my skin wasn’t white like hers. I wanted to be white. She said, “Your skin is brown because you eat a lot of chocolate.” I loved chocolate, so it seemed plausible to in my little girl’s mind. In my class, only one other person who had skin lighter skin than mine was an Asian girl—something I’d not realized until I looked at my class photos years later. However, outside of class I heard some relatives, family friends and strangers whisper about my coloring. The wife of my paternal grandfather—his second wife—said to my mother, upon our arrival from Japan, “Too bad she got her father’s coloring.”

The second thing in my life that set me apart was being a child of a divorced mother. In the early sixties, the social stigma of divorce still existed. (I’ll talk about the issue of having a divorced mother while I was at a Catholic school in a later post.) My mother, who had trained to be a secretary at Cathedral High School, ran into problems finding a job to support us. She was rejected multiple times during interviews. Prospective employers told her, “You’re just here to find a husband,” “You’re a single mother,” or “You’ll miss work whenever your daughter gets sick.” My mother was caught in a bind. She was determined to support us and get her own apartment. But she needed to rely on others to watch over me. My grandmother also worked full time. On school days, our downstairs neighbor took care of me after school. Finally, she secured a job in a typing pool at Chase Manhattan Bank.

Our days fell into a quiet rhythm. In the mornings, grandma did calisthenics, put on her makeup, splashed on Jean Nate cologneJean Nate Cologne and got dressed for her job as a seamstress at the Eve Stillman lingerie factory. My mother dressed me in a jumper—usually blue, my favorite color— and gave me breakfast. I drank milk mixed with apple juice—the idea of which now turns my stomach. It was my favorite drink back then. I’d watch her tease her hair, apply makeup, slip on nylons and a girdle, wriggle her feet into pointy high heels. The apartment smelled of hair spray and cigarette smoke, with a hint of perfume. My mother or grandmother picked me up from the neighbors when they came home from work. We’d have dinner in my grandmother’s tiny kitchen and start again the next day.

My little world fell apart the summer between pre-K and kindergarten. My mother had no one to take care of me full time nor could she afford to. She packed me off to Puerto Rico to stay with my grandmother’ sister who ran a home-based day care. During her own childhood, my mother had done time with Aunt Grace, too. And yes, it was like doing time. The woman had rules and kept you in line just with the sound of her voice. She resorted to other means as well. I was so homesick and frightened.

This pattern of being sent off to relatives during school vacations or illnesses and eventually boarding school would govern my daily life for years. I never stopped being homesick.

The blog “Going Coastal” has a wonderful post about the Staten Island ferry. Going Coastal is a nonprofit dedicated to connecting people and coastal resources by raising awareness of the immense value of the coastal environment. For those who have ridden the ferry without thinking much about its beautiful journey or for those considering taking the ferry to Staten Island and back to lower Manhattan, read this piece, which covers history:

“People have been traveling to Staten Island by some sort of boat for centuries. In 1609 Henry Hudson, the explorer, named it Staaten Eyelandt, in honor of the Dutch Parliament. The American Indian population on the island resisted settlement attempts in three battles: the Pig War, over accusations that Raritan Indians had stolen settlers’ pigs; the Whiskey War, over a distillery; and the Peach War that erupted when a woman from the Aquehongan tribe allegedly stole a settler’s peach. Though the indigenous peoples didn’t believe in owning land, they would soon enough be edged out by the Dutch and then the English.

Launch of a landmark

The first regular ferry service was a sailing ship set up by 16-year-old Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1810. He eventually built a transportation empire worth $100-million. By 1816, steam ferry service was available, but because the fare was 12½ cents each way, it was mainly used by wealthy Staten Islanders. Staten Island became a borough of New York City in 1898, and then, in 1905, the city took control of the ferry.

Though the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, completed in 1964, connects Staten Island to Brooklyn, the ferry remains the only link to Manhattan. It used to carry cars, too, but that service was discontinued after 9/11.”

Literary ties:

“The poetry of memory

Edna St. Vincent Millay immortalized the Staten Island Ferry in her poem Recuerdo, which means “memory,” written in 1919. The first two lines of her poem are printed in large letters on the wall of the Whitehall Terminal, which opened in 2005:

We were very tired, we were very merry

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.”

I grew up in Manhattan, but have two distinct memories of the Staten Island ferry. One was going to and from Catholic boarding school, which was on Staten Island. More often, my mother’s husband drove us over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. I remember riding the ferry home in the middle of the week from school. The school called my mom to have her pick me up. Fortunately, she worked in lower Manhattan, so the ferry was a quick walk from her office. I’d come down with what was then called German measles, now better known as rubella. On the trip back to Manhattan, an elderly woman leaned her face into mine, which was covered with red spots. “Your kid has something wrong with her,” she said. My mother replied, “She’s contagious.” The woman pulled back quickly and said nothing more as she walked away. I missed about another week or two of school. When I returned to SJVA, several kids in my class were absent. They too had rubella. I had been the first.

I’m sad to find out that the ferry no longer allows cars and other motor vehicles. My other memory is of a happier time, two years later when I was enrolled in the Educational Alliance (Edgies) day camp. Every summer weekday, we’d board school buses, which were driven onto the ferry, on the Lower East Side. After our ferry ride, the buses drove–more like raced each other–through the island to Henry Kaufman Campground, where we spent the day. For lunch, I brought cream cheese and grape jelly sandwiches, which tasted so good after a morning of arts & crafts, games and other activities.

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