Posts Tagged ‘abortion’

School for Wayward Girls

Monday, July 13th, 2015

I’m old. I’m from a different lifetime than the rest of you. Well, back then, back when I was itching to turn sixteen, you couldn’t buy liquor on Sundays, stores and most restaurants were closed on Sundays. Just about anything you wanted to do, if you were itching to turn sixteen, wasn’t allowed on Sunday. It was, after all, the Lord’s day. That left television, which was three channels…four if you counted PBS, five if you counted the independent channel that ran cartoons and reruns from six in the morning until eight at night…and something good Catholic boys itching to be anything but good Catholic boys called, interpersonal recreation.

Boys were encouraged by friends and often family members to become a man sometimes with much back patting and crude humor and sometimes with wry, sometimes wistful, sometimes sad smiles from the females in the family while they said “boys will be boys.” But the risk for girls was extreme. Unwed motherhood had a stigma attached to it akin to being a gong farmer in olden times. Gong farmers would dredge out privies and outhouses. They were paid, not well, but they were paid to do so but the real payment was the occasional wallet, gem, or coin they would find. “Mmmm, tastes like shit but I think it’s gold.” Because of the stench that came with their job, people would cross the street rather than pass near them.

Unwed motherhood had pretty much the same stench. It was, after all, the girls fault because, after all, boys will be boys. Girls and their bastards cast out on the street, or hurried, shotgun weddings, or factitious elopements to men who tragically were shipped out to war before friends and family could meet them were not uncommon practices and excuses rather than the family face the scorn of society. The girls’ education, most friendships, and often any sort of loving relationship with the family stopped when they started to show no matter how young they were.

Birth control pills were in their infancy. Few doctors would prescribe them and certainly no one under the age of 21 could get them. Morning after pills and plan b hadn’t been invented yet. And Roe versus Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion in the United States, wasn’t even a sparkle in the eye of feminists.

The options for a girl who found herself, as my mother put it,  in the family way, were few. Daughters of the well-to-do were flown off for “a year abroad.” That could mean anything: boarding school—literally an academic year in a European school—or, what it usually meant, that she was pregnant and the family wanted her out of sight until she wasn’t pregnant. The girl would come back, high society smile pasted on her face and a prescription for a new drug called Valium to befuddle the memories of either an abortion or a baby snatched from her arms before the oxytocin could settle in to cement the bond between mother and child. The fact that some society girls spent several “years abroad” never seemed to bother anyone. The fact that she had another child with her ski instructor in Gstad seemed to never make it into the family history.

Poor girls had fewer choices…two, come to think of it: 1 – have the baby and become homeless or the sin-eater for the family, or  2 – find a back-street abortionist and this is where, in a modern pharmaceutical commercial, the announcer reels off all the side effects ending with … septicemia, chronic nausea, gastro-intestinal infection, hyper-sexuality, hypo-sexuality, sterility and—wait for it—death.

Middle class girls had another option: Schools for Wayward Girls.

I went to a Jesuit high school. The Jesuits were famous for being teachers of the highest quality and for their tough, no-nonsense approach to boys. I found both to be true. Their approach to the sexual nature of the teenage beasts they took under their tutelage was at once worldly and crude. They didn’t preach at us. They assumed that we would do all the things we weren’t supposed to do. But they had a couple of tricks up their sleeves.

One was showing us startlingly frank, lurid films about sexual diseases. The photos of destroyed genitalia, skin and body deformation, insanity, and—wait for it—death, are, to this day, burned in my mind’s eye.

I can remember one Jesuit. Not a good looking man. He was a golden gloves heavy weight champ and looking at him you assumed he blocked all of his opponents’ punches with his face.  He spoke… perhaps emoted is a better word… to us after an amazingly disturbing film on pregnancy. His main thrust, if that’s the right word, was that all of the disease and problems with child bearing and birth came from seven seconds of pleasure.

Seven seconds! I tried to time it. Really, I did. I set up my clock.  Oh, god, oh, yes…and the next time I looked at the clock, it was an hour and a half later.

One of their other ploys was sending us to the Good Shepherd Home for Wayward Girls for a dance twice a year. These were during our pre-driving freshman and sophomore years—unless you were Danny Falk who had flunked so many times, he was a shaving, drinking, sexually active, driving twenty-year-old sophomore who was not allowed anywhere near this dance. But he was a hell of a bass player.

I remember my first dance. It was snowy and cold. We were transported from our school to Good Shepherd on a bus. The Jesuit chaperone was a shockingly good looking man. Think George Clooney at his best. He was funny, erudite, and incredibly worldly. He had women in every port. One of the jokes in school was that he was late to class because he couldn’t decide which of his girlfriends should get him off. There were three cardinal rules of the priesthood: Obedience, Poverty, and Chastity.  He came kind of close on Poverty. At least he was interested in adult women. Had he been a pedophile… I might have said yes.

The bus ride was typical adolescent maleness minus the rowdiness. Rowdiness was not something any Jesuit tolerated for long. Many variations on, “they can’t get any more pregnant,” were tossed about the bus.

We were lined up at the front door and stood in the cold. The doors opened to the sight of twenty ripe to over ripe girls lined up on their staircase. It was a throwback to catholic grade school dance. You were paired off by the teacher and that’s who you spent the dance with.

A friend of mine counted the girls on the staircase and the boys in front of him. He double-checked his count. “Peter, switch with me.”

“Your sister in the line or something? What difference does it make?” I was not yet old enough to appreciate the beauty and nuances of pregnancy.

“Just switch with me.”

I looked up. A few girls were sizing us up as well. Most seemed decidedly uncomfortable with the whole idea.  I switched with him. The one my friend, Joel, had settled on was one of the girls counting heads. I understood why he was interested in her. She was pretty and her pregnancy was barely showing. She, after Joel and I changed places, switched with the one behind her. I took that as a compliment. Joel took it as a challenge and we played that game until we were at the conjoining point. After a last minute dive in front of me, Joel got the one he wanted. The only way I can describe the girl I was paired with is, she looked like she had swallowed a fair-sized city and was anticipating with some relish a long post-prandial nap.

I had never seen a woman that pregnant. With adult perspective looking back, she was probably just a pregnant woman in her last month of gestation, but at the age of fourteen, she was… whoa. She, let’s call her Mary, looked at me like I might be the creature from her worst nightmare.  We walked awkwardly into the gym which had been decorated for a fall dance. The lighting was low, the music was a taped selection of what nuns thought children our age liked. It missed by about ten years.

We found a table, I seated her and asked if she would like something to drink, suspecting that city eating is thirsty work.

She nodded and asked for a couple of cupcakes. Other boys took my lead and we met at the food table. More crude jokes were whispered including several aimed specifically at my “date” who was the pregnantest of the group.

I returned with the goodies. Like a cat, she toyed with the cupcakes before devouring them with such delight, I could picture her eating a suburban neighborhood and topping it off with a succulent 9-hole golf course.

She asked for more cupcakes. I got them and placed them before her. A nun, who had been hanging out with our George Clooney in black, crossed the room with the uncanny speed that only a nun bent on punishment can exhibit—think of those horror films where people glide across the room with uncanny speed and you’ll get the image—grabbed the cupcakes from Mary and said, “You’ve had enough.” She took the cupcakes back to George and smiled as they receded into a dark corner to discuss the finer points of immaculate conception.

I had promised myself I wouldn’t bring up her pregnancy, the father of the baby, or anything that remotely touched on the whole, you’ll excuse the expression, elephant-in-the-room. I asked her if she wanted to dance. She laughed bitterly and looked at me like I was clearly a special-ed case.  I talked about all sorts of things. Football, Jesuits, my parents, nuns, the band I was in with the dumb but incredibly talented Danny Falk and, since nothing had roused more than mono-syllabic responses, I asked her how she got pregnant.

Let me be clear, I had watched the films and listened to my adolescent friends who had “experience” so I knew how she got pregnant but it just jumped out of my mouth. I mean I was planning on bringing up the weather and pregnant came out instead of snow.

The look on her face. I thought maybe her babies had decided to kick at once. I immediately back-tracked, apologized and prayed for an early death. Mary simply smiled and looked at the dance floor where Joel and the barely showing girl were getting close enough that another nun swooshed out of the darkness, two spear-like hands before her and separated them.

The dance lasted ten, twelve hours although my watch reported only two of them. We marched out as we had marched in, her hand resting on my crooked arm. As we reached the staircase, she grabbed my forearm with such force I thought she was giving birth that instant. A plaintive cry of, “I don’t know nothing about birthin’ babies,” built up inside of me.

In a barely audible voice, Mary said, “You’ve been nice.” She let go and went up the staircase.

In all the years that have followed, I never forgot her. I never knew her real name or what happened to her or the baby… babies. But I pray that her life has been a good one.