“Hey, Betty, don’t forget your Bible,” said Mindy. Or, did I say it to her?
“Hahahaha!” We both laughed, for sure.
See, here’s the thing. I remember these events like they were yesterday. I just can’t remember if she said it, or I did; if she did it, or I did. I remember it all clearly, but I can remember it both ways just as clearly. Anyway, let’s just say it happened like this.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ve got flashlights.”
“If we use flashlights they’ll see us,” Mindy cautioned.
“Well, we can’t claim we’re reading our Bibles if we have no light,” I reasoned. “We’ll just carry them; we won’t turn them on.”
It was the fall of ‘69. I was 17 and she was 16. We were both unwilling inmates at a fundamentalist Christian boarding school in the Pennsylvania countryside. Both sent there from out of state – she from the west coast and I from the Washington, D.C. area – by our parents, to straighten us out. Both determined to resist.
Mindy’s resistance was mostly in the form of brass. She laughed loudly, inhabited her voluptuous body boldly, and never backed down. She’s the one who turned me on to Santana. Otis Redding’s live album. Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.” And Catcher in the Rye.
My resistance (and depression?) involved a lot of sleep. Basically, I declined to get up in the morning. Just let somebody come and try to make me do something, I thought. And then, let them kick me out. Honestly, I always wondered why neither of those things happened no matter how hard I tried to be noncompliant with every single rule.
Once I did go to class, I must admit that I enjoyed myself. The classes were interesting. Except for “Bible” class which was mainly a good excuse for asking impertinent questions and seeing the puzzlement on the faces of folks who didn’t believe in questioning anything about the world according to their God’s written handbook.
So most of the classes were okay, but there were obstacles.
“Kneel!” The principal’s secretary would order us when she got the notion, as we carried our stacks of books in the hallway by her office. We girls were then supposed to kneel before her. And if our skirts were not at least as long as to reach the floor, we were in trouble.
“Kneel!” she demanded of me, more than once.
“No,” I replied every time. I always did my best to look at her as though she were crazy.
Now, I ask you: Why didn’t they kick me out? I wanted them to kick me out! But what happened? The principal’s secretary’s face would flush red, her eyes would narrow, she would send furiously hateful vibes my way, and then she would storm back into her office and shut the door. And here’s my other question: Why did anybody ever do what she said?
Evenings in the dorm usually involved going to Holly and Donna’s room to hang out with them, Mindy, Freeny if we were lucky, and others, watching the tidier girls roll their hair, watching the riskier girls experiment with make-up, eating Fiddle-Faddle, and … well, that’s another story that I may tell someday (if those blackmail checks ever stop rolling in, haha!! just kidding).
But that particular night, Mindy and I had a mission. We were meeting some boys in the cornfield. To smoke pot.
We dressed in black so as to blend into the shadows, tiptoed to the exit after lights-out, and made a break for it through the spot-lighted night.
We made it! We reached the cornstalks, where the spotlights didn’t penetrate. We stage-whispered, “Where are you?” as we crawled our way deeper into the field. Finally, we heard them.
“Over here!” somebody whispered.
The only light was the match that lit the joint, then it was quickly blown out. We passed it around, initially giggling and exulting with the boys that we’d gotten one over on “them.” Had everybody heard “Abbey Road?” How about Janis Joplin’s “Kozmic Blues?” Then … we all fell into silence. We looked at the sky, visible beyond the tops of the dry cornstalks, and saw the numberless stars. We wondered where we were, really, in relation to all of that. We wondered if the moment we were experiencing was the most serious thing we had ever confronted in our short lives. Or if it was comical, and we were in on the joke with the universe. I felt – we all felt, I believe – the sacredness of the night. The vastness of the world. The wonder.
Eventually, Mindy and I made our dash back to the dorm, to enter where we’d left the stone in the doorway to hold the locked door open. And … we were expected.
There she was, our Dean of Girls. Shaking her head at us.
Most everyone else called her Mrs. Warner, as was proper. I, however, called her “Bernie” because she was my mother’s friend and I had known her and called her that since I was a kid. Mindy called her “Bernie” too, because I did, I suppose.
We sat across the desk from Bernie, in her office.
“Now, girls,” she admonished us, “tell me what you were doing out there.” She was trying not to smile, I could tell.
“We were reading our Bibles,” Mindy said.
Bernie looked at me, for a reality check.
I kept a straight face. No help for Bernie. Okay then. She took another run at doing her duty.
“Mindy, there’s a poster in your room that says …” Bernie put on her glasses and read from her notebook: “’See me, Feel me, Touch me, Heal me.’ Now, Mindy, is that an appropriate sentiment for a Christian girl?”
“Bernie!” Mindy feigned surprise. “That’s from the Bible! Song of Solomon!”
Brass, I tell you. Hard, shiny brass.
Bernie looked to me again, but I managed to keep my composure. She slumped in resignation. “All right, girls,” she sighed. “Just go to bed.”
So the principal’s secretary was a paper tiger. Bernie was an easy touch. But we had another adversary. Let’s call her “Nurse Wretched.”
Nurse Wretched was built like a football player. Now, if she had been a cheerful, outdoorsy type, that might have been an affectionate compliment. But she was a big hunk of mean, so far as I could tell. Not what you would call a healer. I’d heard stories: she’d assaulted girls, forced pills down their throats, even forcibly administered enemas. Were these stories all true? I don’t know. But she was not someone I wanted to have to deal with, really.
This being a “Christian” school, we weren’t supposed to wear jewelry, or listen to popular music, or be in any way in tune with the times in the secular world. But Mindy and I shared a love for earrings. The bigger, the better. So one night I went to her room and showed her the big hoops that I’d bought when I’d been home on break. She put one on, and I put on the other. We were going to go down to Holly and Donna’s room, but when we stepped into the hallway …
There was Nurse Wretched. And she spotted our earrings.
She practically ran at us. Like a football player, I’m telling you. We retreated back into Mindy’s room. Nurse Wretched followed us in.
And that’s when I felt it. I’m sure Mindy felt it too. We grew larger. We got stronger. We braced ourselves. We were ready to rumble.
“Take. Off. Those. Earrings.” Nurse Wretched demanded through clenched teeth.
We responded by clenching our fists and leaning in.
“I SAID TAKE THEM OFF!” Nurse Wretched was furious now. She raised her hands as though to rip the hoops from our ears, and moved towards us with outstretched arms like Frankenstein’s monster.
[Okay, hold it, stop action. What on earth did she think would happen? Did she not read our body language? Did she not see that we were just as determined as she was? I’ve wondered about this many times, over the years. Okay, resume action.]
Mindy and I moved as one, and – BAM!
We shoved Nurse Wretched so hard that she flew into the wall behind her.
Her feet may have actually left the floor.
The breath was knocked out of her.
She was stunned.
Then she was PISSED. OFF.
Mindy and I assumed what we imagined looked like karate stances. You’ve got to wonder if we even appeared to know what we were doing.
But Nurse Wretched did not attack. She turned, very slowly, and walked out the door.
We slammed the door behind her.
Then we waited.
We went about our business as though things were usual, but we waited. For hours. For days. For the call into somebody’s office, to notify us that we were expelled. But that call never came.
Dang it, can’t a girl get arrested around here? I had to quit that damned school myself. I had to go home for Christmas break and refuse to go back.
Anyway, this is what I learned. Nurse Wretched could be defeated. Like the principal’s secretary. Like the whole thing. They knew all the rules of the universe: the beginning, the middle, and the end. I knew there was something else. Mystery. The unfolding creation of the world. The wonderful world.
And I knew who had my back.
(c) Bette Ojala, Feb. 7, 2015