Francais is on my mind (pardonne-moi my free use of that language today, but you will see why I'm in a French mood in a moment.)
Yesterday I had the delightful and fascinating pleasure of accompanying a dear friend to a job interview. Here's the twist: the interview took place at Holy Name of Jesus Academy in Massena. They are looking for a piano teacher. Simple, we assumed. And it was. But captivating as well, at least for an active imagination like mine.
This particular Catholic School, run by Dominican sisters, is conservative and highly traditional. Now I don't know much about Catholicism, but I stepped into a world filled with the romanticism of the Madeline book series.
First mission: find the main office. A young girl wearing a white blouse and plaid skirt, sporting dark curls and large warm eyes greeted us. I quickly asked, "Could you show us the main office?" With a wide, friendly smile sparked with a touch of curiousity she relayed the fact that no one was in the office now. "But a mother is just down that hallway. She could help you," came the pleasant advice.
Hmmm. This mother must be picking up a daughter (we had seen one van out front being loaded with a similar girl in white and plaid.) But I was wrong. The mother was Sister So-and-so (I missed the name) dressed in full robes and head piece. She was overseeing a gymnasium full of busy young girls. Faded blue cotton smocks with lace trim on each collar and pocket adorned every one of them. It was easily seen that they had been hastily pulled over the white and plaid, sometimes not even tied in the back (after all, these are merely young girls.)
Sister-So-and-so smiled and questioned our purpose here. "Oh, yes! I heard you were coming. What time were you to be here? Well, this is perfect then. Let's see, Mother Superior would be in Vespers but should soon be finished there." At which point she entertained us for a few minutes with a question and answer time. The students there number 100, grades K-8. "We hope to add a grade each year so that in four years we will include K-12," she announced proudly. "This is our second year here. We had 50 students last year, 100 this year. So we doubled in size already. Our girls come from all over -- Malaysia, Mexico, all over the eastern seaboard. Most of them are consequently boarders; few are day students only. Many of the local students go home on weekends, but most board here during the week."
"Why," I suggested, "do people send their daughters to a small school north of Massena from Syracuse and Mexico?" (The country, not the town.)
"Well, there are hardly any truly traditional schools available. We are the second one of our branch in the States. The first one is in Idaho. We were filled to capacity and decided to start a second US school here, since we knew of interest in this area." She was a woman of great energy and enthusiasm, youthful in spite of the evidence of years now creeping into place around her smiling, eyes and careful brow. She might have been like Maria, I secretly thought.
Interesting. Her plain face, simple shoes, and utilitarian eyeglasses seemed attractive in a noble way. How inexpensive their lives must be.
Soon we were introduced to Sister MaryCatherine. Younger than Sister So-and-so and quieter in nature, she often flashed a smile unaffectedly as she looked down and away from us. Her brunette coloring provided a rich contrast against the white wimple encasing her ivory face. Dark eyes and lashes, alive with innocence, betrayed her pleasure readily. She was pleased to meet us, sincerely happy to show us around. We were given a tour of the classrooms and she filled in a few more missing pieces to what seemed a bit of a puzzle to me. Why do I feel I'm in a French Catholic orphanage from the 40's? continued to play in my mind.
We passed some framed photos of beautiful buildings hanging in the corridor. As we oohed and ahhed at the various architecture displayed, she wheeled around to see what had our attention. "Oh, I should tell you what those are!" (I sensed she now reached her allowed level of exuberance.) "Those are some of our schools in France. And this one here is the mother school." She pointed to an aerial view of a complex surrounding a courtyard. "This building here is where I lived for three years as a novice. Then I moved to this one to do my service. Then they sent me here, two years ago." Now, with her smile slightly turned away and down, she confided that she was happy to go wherever she was sent.
Mother Superior was now available. A plain-faced (it appeared red and perfectly smooth, with no eyelashes, as though freshly scrubbed -- eyelashes and all) and trim woman in her 50's I would guess, she was slightly animated but had learned to be controlled and contained. She stood in the hallway, questioning my friend in a rather chatty way, more quizzical than business-like. My friend's story is an interesting one and Mother Superior found that one question led to another. When asking about me, my friend immediately said, "This is my Christian mother." Mother Superior literally startled at that statement, quickly regained composure, but raised a brow when responding with, "Oh, really. Nice to meet you."
Next stop -- the dorms. Two wings of classrooms had been converted to living quarters. She opened the door to one room and there before me was a bonafide dorm room, right out of the pages of a book. Twelve single cot-size beds were arranged in orderly fashion, with matching coverlets. (Those lucky enough to have their own down comforters had nicely puffed beds.) Rows of matching garments hung from racks at the near end of the room.
How charming! What fun this would be! Imagine the giggles, the whispered story-telling, the shared dreams, the memories...
Fun for a week or two. For more than one girl I am sure, there are lonely bedtimes with moments of longing for a parent to lie down beside them with words of love or a prayer or a bedtime story on their lips. There are times when they have been omitted from the shared secrets, being left alone to shed some tears on those pillows before succumbing to sleep.
Sister MaryCatherine then took us to her simple quarters, one fourth of a classroom that had been partitioned off into four long, narrow chambers; small but neat, clean but cozy, she had transformed her little corner into a bit of "home" rather than institution. But it was so small and relatively empty. Thirty-two years old or so, and this is it -- this is all she has that represents her. Everything else belongs to the cause, is faceless. No clothes, no jewelry, no "stuff" that speaks identity. Interesting -- not bad necessarily, but certainly interesting. My thoughts tumbled quickly as I looked around, taking in these surroundings, trying to imagine where her mind travels as she lies down each night on that bed alone in this tiny space, in this cloistered world.
We bid our adieus, exiting through the front door. As we scooted down the sidewalk full of misty rain, I asserted that both Sister MaryCatherine and Mother Superior would most assuredly be thinking about our visit to their world this day. We certainly didn't look the same as them or the mothers picking up their daughters. Our stories weren't the same, either.
Will they wonder at our presence? Will it stir a longing or will they feel sorry for us? Do they smugly judge us and belittle our choices? Are they drawn to imagine our thoughts as I am drawn to discern theirs? Do they put themselves in my place -- are they even able to? It has been decades for each of them since they have been in "the world".
We climbed into the minivan, my friend closing her door and saying, "I feel like I was just in a movie."
"Yeah, or a time-warp. At least another world. It was fascinating."
"Yeah, it was. And it's always fun to do anything with you, Darlene." Aw, thanks, mon ami.