Lonely Crowds 

    It was a middling, old school for the religious education of girls. The tuition was relatively low and the nuns had an unwavering sternness that attracted a certain kind of parent, with which my mother could suddenly identify. She sent me there eight days after my father fled to New Hampshire and did not waste her breath to ask me if I approved or if I was at all hurt by my father’s departure. It didn’t really uproot me in any way because I had hardly any friends at my previous school and I was to have very few at the new one. I was an easy child to raise, I asked no questions and I never protested anything. I learned that my mother was taking me out of my old school in the backseat of that green Ford she used to drive, as we got onto the highway and drove into a plaza in a neighborhood I’d never been to before.

    The school’s uniform could only be purchased at that one shop on the main street of a neighboring town and for simple pleated skirts and white polo tops, it was costly. The curriculum was dated and the textbooks and other materials were nothing to write home about, but compared to the other children who I played with, that lived in our apartment building, I seemed to benefit from the cruelty the instructors exercised happily while giving lessons. We were beaten, up until sometime in the fourth grade, when the social mores, even in our small city, shifted and made the very ordinary gesture of beating children publicly a thing of the past. Skirts were to be worn no shorter than the place a girl’s hands fell at her side when she was standing. This was our favorite rule to break and we would hike up and roll the waists of our skirts to reveal all that we could. It was much to our surprise the day we found that doing so resulted in a detention rather than being struck with a ruler. For a while, the rules became immaterial. Without violence to corroborate their existence, they fell away. But this was short lived, for soon enough detention coupled itself with the dread that was formerly reserved for beatings alone. We were mischievous girls, but our mischief now seems like the quaint, artificial ruination of an after-school special.

    In elementary school, the priest would offer us homilies on the preciousness of chastity, while we walked the halls whispering our knowledge of the chamber music and French teachers, male and female respectively, husband and wife, who groped, fondled and photographed girls no older than twelve. Mr. and Mrs. Fournier had such a perpetual smile on their faces that it was clear, even then, that their happiness could only come from the devil himself, for there was no such happiness in the world, let alone in French and chamber music. And it is unknown to me whether the other adults at the school condoned the Fourneirs transgressions or were simply narcotized by the potency of their evilness, that is, if it made them unable to see it altogether. If the adults did not see it, then perhaps it was just our imaginations creating a ruse. Suppose they were only stories that did not happen to us, but were extracted from one another’s imaginations? I was never touched. If we had tacked on salacious rumors of misdeeds and dirty pictures onto the boring fragments of our dusty childhood, who could blame us? Whereas sex seems now to come punctuated by the suspenseful music of television mysteries, it seemed then like a sterile procedure in a closed room, it was more unknown to me and more repellent than the dentist or shots from my pediatrician. Wasn’t there an Abigail and a Patricia and a Clair who went missing from mass each week and spent the rest of the school day half in tears or spent recess in confessional hysterics telling us, with raised eyebrows, of Madame and Monsieur Fournier? They were not the only teachers at the school of whom we were told to be careful, but those warnings only elicited pointed fingers and laughter among us girls.

    There is such an appetite now for sexual cabals and rings of perverts counting cash in backrooms, but if we were preyed upon then, I’m not entirely convinced it was as systematic as that. Though I am certain that if we could get any of those, now geriatric and frail, if not dead, teachers to talk, they would all deny it unequivocally and I suppose we would believe them. No one, to this day, has ever dredged up the story, there have been no journalists, no podcast exposes, no reckonings of any kind and the school is still right there on the same avenue just as it was thirty years ago, painted white. I am still convinced that there are some places for which rescue is impossible. It was said of many places and even more people, in the world of my upbringing, that there was nothing that could be done. We seemed to address one another with an everlasting shrug and if there was any permanent way that our childhoods were violated by our teachers, it was through their cynicism, which touched us all.

    Still, in many ways those years were pleasant. I read everything, I never did make many friends, but sometimes, usually after a particularly affecting mass, the more generous girls would invite me to sit with them, and that would leave me with a real enough feeling of inclusion. It is difficult to feel a part of my generation, when so much of my education was organized by such atavistic tendencies and values. I live so much in a past that is decades and decades older than I am. I suppose this is one of the real ambitions of Christian schools, to slow time for their pupils, to move more slowly than the world. But a person’s will is easily overcome by these lagging histories. And I don’t know if I will ever be myself. So many of my peers are full people, badly behaved and unashamed. They talk so loudly, even that, I cannot do. There seems to be a one to one correlation between me and my earliest influences and the tether that links me to them feels very much like a chain.

Stephanie is a fiction MFA candidate at Columbia. This passage is excerpted from her first novel. 

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