From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV


It was a scene straight from the annals of teen nightmare scenarios: Over Saturday morning pancakes, my parents announced they had enrolled me in a private school. Not just any private school—an all-girls Catholic school with uniforms. If I had been cutting class, smoking cigarettes in my middle school’s mint-tiled bathrooms, or loitering about with small, sinister boys who glared at my parents, I might have understood. But I hadn’t even done anything interesting enough to deserve this cruel decision. I petitioned my parents all summer with plea bargains and threats, but when fall crept around, there I was sighing resentfully as I slipped on my polyester skirt, buttoned up my thin white blouse, tied a ridiculous tie around my neck and stomped dramatically to my dad’s sedan in stiff, shiny penny loafers. He smirked at my expense and handed me two new dimes. “Put them in your shoes. That’ll show those nuns.”

Nuns? Dear God. I hadn’t even considered nuns.

I had, however, considered my new classmates. My public school friends and I had fretted all summer about these unseen, private school–bred creatures—wealthy snots, we imagined, with expensive purses and a million tortures planned for inferior classes like myself. When they turned sixteen, their daddies would buy them BMWs, which they would make a point of parking on the opposite end of the school lot from my hand-me-down clunker as though poverty were contagious. Unanimously, my friends agreed that they were lucky they weren’t me. Now I had to suffer nuns, too?

The halls of Incarnate Word whirled with plaid. Matching girls skipped in all directions, hugging and squealing, “Omigod!” and, “How was your summer?!” Nuns and civilian teachers cruised amid the flurry. I went to my first class, sat down and didn’t open my mouth for an entire semester.

By the beginning of spring, I’d mumbled enough words to make a few good friends—Sara, Cathy, Jamie and Anne—and learned that the country club crew, whom we called “The Buffies,” kept their whispers about debutante balls and banquets to themselves. They couldn’t be bothered to engage in the snobby insults and hair-pulling stunts I’d come to fear from a lifetime of bad teen movies. More importantly, such a small school couldn’t even uphold a social hierarchy. All cliques were weighted equally—except for the Star Trek nerds, but no society is perfect. In this society, however, you were forced to get a personality. This wasn’t like public school friendships when preppies drifted towards preppy-looking people. We were forced to look the same; what distinguished us was the person beneath the plaid, and it was time to figure out just who she was.

My parents had promised I could leave after one year if I truly, deeply hated private school, but after just an hour’s deliberation, I decided to stay on, making up my absence to my public-school friends with true tales of nunsense. There was Sister Agnes who called everyone “my good American,” Sister Clarita with one big leg and one normal one (she never spoke, only hissed), and her sister, Sister Ailbee, whose shifting hairline just had to be a wig. Sister Ailbee was also legendary for her perfect attendance at every basketball game, her passionate defense of the Trail of Tears and the time she broke off midsentence during her own lecture on the Great Depression to stare over our heads at the wall and chant, “I’m Abraham Lincoln.”

Eventually, my routine polyester plaid getup made the same transition from creepy to, well, lovably creepy. Kneesocks were cute, almost disarmingly precious, and since I didn’t need much practical everyday wear, I was free to spend my allowance on highly impractical party clothes for the liberating weekend. My old wardrobe of jeans and T-shirts couldn’t compete with silver-sequined miniskirts and dresses lined in hot pink fur. Smart girls even got their driver’s license pictures taken in uniform, their ties knotted high enough inside the frame to catch a sympathetic cop’s eye. Most of them finagled their way out of speeding tickets with a warning. When I got cited for breaking my city’s teen curfew, I wore my uniform to court and was sentenced to ten hours of community service pouring lemonade at the public library’s weekly poetry readings. The guy ahead of me had to scrub barnacles off the police officers’ boats. We knew what the uniform did to civilians; it was a superhero’s disguise bestowing the powers of innocence and charm.

Private school had never been punishment, and it never became prison. Like high schools of all shapes and flavors, Incarnate Word was a rite of passage with bragging rights of its own. While I never wore pants to class, never cheered on my school at a football game or stared dreamily at the cute boy a few desks over, I did graduate with a well-carved sense of self and a solid group of girlfriends I’ll know until we’re all in grandmother shoes. And for the rest of my life I’ll be able to juice up conversations with the simple boast: I survived an all-girls Catholic high school.

Amy Nicholson

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