“Let us pray…”
The minister bowed his head, as did the five hundred adolescent girls and the dozen faculty members attending Sunday morning services at Sage Chapel. The Gothic arches loomed overhead, a symbol of the complex Higher Power which was to guard over us and direct our every move for the duration of our stay at Northfield School for Girls.
The minister continued. “We pray for a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Southeast Asia, asking that your Infinite Wisdom be bestowed upon the leaders of our great country. As we pray for countries, we also pray for individuals in their time of need. There is one among us here who has suffered great loss. A new sophomore joined our school family only yesterday; her father died this past Sunday. Her pain is also our pain, and we pray that Bobbie Herron can feel the Grace of your Love in this time of sorrow. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”
My ears burned as the blood rushed to my head in anger and embarrassment. “Damn him!” I thought to myself. “Already everyone in my dorm is treating me like some alien freak because of this, and now the whole damned school knows. Why doesn’t everyone just leave me alone!”
The days dragged by that autumn of 1967, and little by little I felt more ‘normal’. This was easy in some ways, because living at an all-girls’ boarding school was a big adjustment for all of us. There were very few rich girls, lots of smart, middle-class introverts, and several inner-city kids, like Rita, my “Big Sister”, who was on full scholarship thanks to the ABC (“A Better Chance”) program. Most of the girls were far more street-wise than I had ever been, and I learned survival tactics from their examples. As the days and months dragged on, the strangeness of my new situation faded, and I became one of the gang despite my shyness. Soon, I was treated just like all the rest, especially by the monster called ‘Sev’.
Each dormitory was self-sufficient in its housekeeping and meals preparation. This ‘domestic work’, otherwise known as “dummy”, was assigned to each girl so that we would learn the spiritual value of manual labor. It taught us how to steam broccoli for thirty, stir cholesterol into healthy food, bake delicious Bishop’s Bread for a Sunday army, and scrub out the cauldrons which the dinner prep crew had scorched with a vengeance. Ah, daily living skills. Apparently the School assumed we would have huge families, or if not, we were so unfit as women that we would end up living in an institution just like this one.
The guiding light of domestic work training in my dormitory was our House Instructor, Mrs. Severence. Her goal in life was to terrify young girls; she told us to call her “Sev”, a term which was said in fear more often than in affection. She was as old as a tree stump, short and stocky, with wisps of thin white hair ensnared in a scraggly hair net. Her voice, shrill and authoritarian, could break plate glass.
There was a store room in the cellar of the dorm where the industrial-sized cylinders of canned vegetables, lard, and other provisions were kept. One evening, during dinner prep, Sev sent me down to get two #10 cans of corn. I scurried down the squeaky wooden stairs, opened the big door to the storeroom, and suddenly realized I had never been down here alone at night before. It was dark inside the room, so with great anxiety I forced my hand to trace the old wall inside the wooden door frame, searching for the light switch. There was none to be felt anywhere, and panic began to set in. I knew there was only one other possible source of light, so I inched my right toe forward, cautiously dragging my left foot behind it, until I had reached the middle of the ten-foot by ten-foot pit of darkness. I began waving my arms in the air, jumping up and down, desperately hoping that a string would brush my hand—a string attached to a ceiling light. As I jumped, I also imagined the other things that might be hanging from the ceiling, like large spiders that might fall down inside my dummy smock as I knocked the creatures from their slender threads.
Finally I caught it, the little metal tulip which dangled on the end of the string. Relief! I pulled the cord, and was instantly blinded by the light I had aimed my hopeful face at. After a moment, my eyes adjusted to the brightness, and I looked around at the floor-to-ceiling shelves surrounding me. It was all government surplus food; the labels were generic black and white, so there were no bright illustrations to help me in my quest. “Corn, corn, corn…” I muttered to myself, starting to panic. I must be either crazy or stupid, I thought, because I couldn’t see the word C-O-R-N anywhere. “What do I do now?” I anguished. Calming myself a bit, I realized that there were a few options.
(To be continued…)