There are incalculable ways to learn and all kinds of good spots to sit and receive knowledge. I’m so glad my parents chose an all girls’ school called Convent of the Sacred Heart. That’s a mouthful. We were not the coolest or most competitive school in Manhattan unless you were Catholic. Then we were the best. There were many children from proud Catholic families at Sacred Heart, but that’s not the point.
Sacred Heart was a refuge from all the hype and competition in Manhattan. The nuns kept things decidedly low key, but I hated wearing my school uniform on the Madison Avenue bus. Those kilts marked social territory, and I preferred to be anonymous. Senior year I kept my kilt in my locker as often as possible. It was actually Megan Savage’s old uniform that I retrieved from the floor of my locker and put on in the bathroom before class. It had a four-inch rip that I fixed with safety pins, fastened in a line of resistance on the outside.
Mr. Ward, the principal who wore a shock of slicked-back white hair, greeted me at the enormous hand-carved doors every day with, “Good morning Math. Detention” He had a very deep, dramatic, scary voice. That was our routine Monday through Friday. I arrived at detention every afternoon and got homework done. Fortunately someone else was in charge of after-school activities, typically a nun who spent the hour reading the New York Times. That was a good example. No one mentioned the ongoing uniform battle.
Mr. Ward was consistent but also flexible. There were no parent phone calls or meetings about my little rebellion. Then again, he probably knew better than to call my parents. It was bad enough that he had to deal with my mother at school plays or my dad at carpool. My mom was unusually flamboyant and my dad was a bit of a chatterbox. Plus he double parked.
The nuns at Sacred Heart were gems. Like Mr. Ward they had a tendency to handle our transgressions with a light touch or no touch at all. They focussed on the big picture, hoping to shape our characters in ways that had nothing to do with rules or uniforms. Our nuns were on a progressive mission to develop liberal thinkers who cared about the whole world. This message took a long time to sink in, but eventually it did.
Going to an all girls’ school was beside the point and the point. Most of the private schools in Manhattan are single gender institutions. Drivers education was the only time I set foot in a coed school, and they didn’t wear uniforms either–weird. I sent my daughter Emma to the only girls’ school in Atlanta. Her years at the Atlanta Girls’ School brought back so many memories of Sacred Heart and finally an appreciation for the experience.
Unity, community and freedom are girls’ school words. Especially freedom to ask any question, develop your point of view and share it far and wide. These are not small things but rather the foundation for a healthy intellectual life and leadership.
I asked so many questions in math class, but my teachers never got mad. Annoying questions like, “Why?”, “Who is x?” and my all-time favorite, “I don’t get it!” My hand was raised so often I should have carried a sling for muscle strain. In chemistry I tortured my teacher during her explanation of the periodic table of elements because it was entirely outside my intellectual scope. She persisted. We were all plain rude in biology during dissections. With boys in the room, we would have been far less expressive and adventurous.
All my teachers’ hard work paid off my first day of classes at Georgetown University, another Catholic school. My hand went up with no hesitation, and I didn’t think twice about calling the president of the university for my first interview when I joined the school newspaper freshman year. I will always credit my girls’ school education for my initiative. I graduated with the empowering conviction that my voice counted.