I heard recently from someone who’d gone to my boarding school in 1963. Her parents withdrew her after six months because the place was so bad. She didn’t say much more, but I assume that her experience was like mine and others. This woman was one of the lucky ones. She left before she endured much more emotional trauma. I hope she has not been scarred by her brief stay there.

Today, I came across a blog post that mentions a book I finished reading earlier this month and discusses the blogger’s convent school experiences. Of course, I was curious as always to hear what someone’s experience–one in a supportive atmosphere–was like.

Fellow blogger Daphne writes that she likes reading novels set in convent/boarding schools because she herself was enrolled in two. In her latest post, “The End of an Odd Year,” she writes about “Summer’s Ending,” which she read over the Christmas holidays. The book, she says, is a much happier portrayal of convent schools than Frost in May by Antonia White–a book that I finished reading two weeks ago. Daphne, who had a better experience, writes:

“Although Frost in May, by Antonia White, is one of my favourite books set in a convent school, I dislike how grim the school (the Convent of the Five Wounds) in that book is and how strict the nuns are. The students seem almost to be bullied by the sisters in that book. The nuns at my two schools were mostly lovely so it was nice to read about kind nuns in Summer’s Ending.

Canossian_school_crest The book led me to do some research on the two convent schools I attended. I don’t know why I never until now took the trouble to find out more about the orders that founded the schools. The first school, which I attended from age five til 11 was the Canossian Convent (motto: “Via, Veritas, Vita”, which means “the way, the truth, the life”, badge on the left), founded by the order of the Sisters of Conossa, an Italian order. The second school was 120px-Chij-badgea French convent, The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (motto: “Simple dans ma virtue, forte dans moi devoir”, which means “simple in virtue, steadfast in duty”, badge right, read more about the history of the convent here). I was there from age 11 and a half til 17.”

For me, I found the grim portrayal of a convent boarding school in Frost in May more like my own. I reacted viscerally while reading the parts about breaking a child’s will, the punishments on the children, the restrictions, the oppressive atmosphere, etc. My gut tightened in a knot. The feel of place and the girls’ experiences felt emotionally familiar to me, though my boarding schools were not as severe as that. The novel took place in the first half of the 20th century and was semi-autobiographical; I went to boarding school in the 1960s. Things had changed by then, but not enough.

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Despite the book’s grimness, I too enjoyed reading it. The author writes beautifully, capturing the experience of childhood and the loss of self well.

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Starring Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie takes place in an all-girls school in Edinburgh, Scotland. Only the superficial aspects of it remind me of my boarding school days–namely, the uniforms. But something else occurs to me about my experiences. My boarding school also had a day school. Daily, we were reminded of our status as boarders. Many of our classmates went home on yellow school buses they boarded behind our dorm. I watched my classmates climb into idling buses coughing up the diesel fumes.

At boarding schools that did not have day students, dorm life seemed to intersect more with the boarders’ education. We had no headmistresses, just a Mother Superior, nuns who oversaw the boarders and the nuns and lay faculty who taught/ran the school. We didn’t get to know our teachers except in class. They didn’t know about our lives as boarders. Because of this divide, we boarders never quite felt like we were living in a community. It was the place we stayed because we couldn’t go home. And boarding school never did feel like home.

I wonder so often what life was like for those who attended elite boarding schools. I’d see the ads for prep boarding schools in the New York Times. Did money make a difference in the way the boarders lived? Would it have been better to go to a place where everyone was a boarder? I’ve been reading studies about the effect of being a boarder during the early grades of elementary school. (I will blog about in the near future.) So far, I gather that putting a child in boarding school at a very young age is detrimental. I’m sure several factors come into play.

Meantime, for those of you who were ever boarders, perhaps this movie trailer for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie may trigger some memories. Of course, life doesn’t imitate art, nor do I expect that drama would replicate life.

My three years in a girls’ Catholic boarding school (first grade at St. Mary’s Academy; second and third at SJVA) have never left me. I cannot forget those days and the emotions involved. I need to explore how that time shaped me. What was the effect of that place on who I am today?

I know the details of why I was sent there. My mother, single and divorced, had to work. My grandmother had sent my mother to the same school when she was a single parent, working in New York’s Garment District where she sewed silk and cotton nightgowns for the Eve Stillman line. The gowns sold in Bloomingdale’s and other high-end stores. Neither my grandmother or my mother had other family who could watch over a young child after school nor did they have the means to pay someone to do so. And then there are the details of that life sent away.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Dawidoff has a thoughtful piece, “The Trouble With Memoirs,” in which he goes over the usual problems with memoir–facts vs. imagined–and those who violated the readers’ trust–Frey, “Jones” Seltzer, and so on. But he also examines what makes memoirs wonderful:

“. . .Memoirs are typically episodic, likely to describe only a fragment of a life or an aspect of it — aspects that tend to emphasize emotional subject matter. The things we stay up late thinking about are the stuff of memoir. They are our interior lives, our complicated feelings, what we write about when we write about love — and the complexities of failure and sympathy and ambivalence and money and mortality.”

I have thought so much about my life as a boarder. That world has lived on in my head: the memories of saying goodbye to my mother on Sundays, the fear and anxiety of doing something wrong and the punishments I’d endure, the sense of being watched all the time, the struggle to shine my shoes perfectly, the older girl assigned to me to “supervise” me, the nagging feelings of abandonment and loneliness, the two girls whose friendship became my refuge. Every time I make the bed as a grownup, I remember where I learned to make hospital corners, and then it all comes back. Why?

The journalist in me wants to ensure that I get the story factually correct. To that end, I have been doing a lot of research. I need to keep in mind what Dawidoff says about this genre. Yes, he writes, be rigorous in your factchecking, but also remember:

“Memoirs imply that they are giving you the whole story, but in conception they are idiosyncratic, less comprehensive and formally constrained than autobiographies, often set within a brief time frame, and that seems appropriate in a genre where often the writer is attempting to give shape to ambiguity. The memoir looks inward to offer a personal outlook, and what is seen is as varied as life itself. The memoirist can write at length about the American Dream, or wrinkles, or optimism, toughness, shoplifting, a stamp collection, shorthaired dachshunds, a bus stop, a will with surprising contents, something that mortified you in the moment but later became funny, the smell of witch hazel, a life shadowed by an obsession with the Internal Revenue Service, encountering a Whites Only sign in an antiques store, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, an effective boss, what happens to a parent who comes unwillingly to know that she has a favorite among her children, what led a person to switch political parties or to grow more religious as he or she got older.

“Lousy memoirs come bound in the dull skin of self-involvement, but the memoirs destined to endure are those that open outward and use the author’s life as a point of departure for exploring the broader emotional themes and common faiths that apply to lives everywhere. Spending so much time with your own past, examining it over and over, the story must expand and accrue, become something bigger than you.”

I also want to avoid sounding like I’m indulging in navel gazing. I believe that my story speaks to , something larger, something universal. Every day that I write about it means that I can get closer to that truth.

Dawidoff himself is a memoirist: “The Fly Swatter,” which was a 2003 Pulitzer Prize finalist, and “The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness and Baseball.”

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.

I hope to start a conversation with women who were sent away to a Catholic boarding school, especially if you attended St. John Villa Academy in Staten Island, NY. Ours was a unique experience. I can still summon myriad feelings of isolation, abandonment, loneliness, fear, etc., even though I was a boarder back in the Sixties. My time there for two years (1967-1969) and at St. Mary’s Academy (1966-67) in Lakewood, NJ, have stayed with me always. I loved attending grammar school, but hated being a boarder. I long dreamed of the day I would become a day student, someone who could go return to a real home every day after school and be greeted with love, not a stern nun, strict regulations and more regimentation.