Last Day at St. Stephen's
by Phyllis Reilly
April 8, 1958
From nine to three I belonged to them. I did my best to fight the boredom and follow the rules. No talking in the halls, no gum chewing, no see-through blouses and no thinking. Nice Catholic girls controlled by The Sisters of St. Joseph.
St. Stephens was a high school in downtown Brooklyn for lower-class Catholic Girls… mostly Irish. For the privilege of attending, parents with little money to spare paid fourteen dollars a month so their daughters would be protected from public school immorality.
I deliberately failed every Catholic High School entrance exam I took. Six entrance exams got six rejections. My parents were shocked. I graduated elementary school with a 98 average. It was assumed I would get accepted at any number of good Catholic schools. But eight years with the nuns was enough for me. I wanted an academic education and decided the only school I wanted to attend was Erasmus Hall High School, co-ed, close to home, where they taught Science, Literature, History, Biology, and no religion and no uniforms. A Public High School.
I was registered to go to Erasmus and would have gone there if it hadn’t been for my big-mouth cousin, Alice Marie (never trust anyone with two first names). She was a senior at St. Stephens who did all the right things; she was a model student who the nuns loved. She went to the Mother Superior and told her about me. My mother had given her my report card to show Sister and a letter from my Aunt Helen who had graduated from St. Stephens with honors and had been with the Brooklyn Union Gas Company forever. Two days later I was going to be a freshman at St. Stephens and was downtown getting fitted for my uniform.
I guess I wasn’t as smart as I thought.
The “Welcome Back Speech” was the same every September. Do as you’re told and make sure your tuition is in on time.
St. Stephens was a commercial high school that produced girls proficient in typing, stenography, and other business-related skills with enough academic subjects to cover state standards.
There was a long list of companies that were eager to hire St. Stephen’s graduates. The New York Telephone Company was at the top of the list followed by a host of insurance companies. Typing, Stenography, Business Arithmetic, and Religion were the most important subjects. English, History, and Biology were taught with a heavy dose of religion added, whether it made sense or not. God had a heavy hand in all the academics.
Sr. Theotine, whom I called Sr. Serpentine, managed to insinuate God and the wonder of His miracles into every aspect of Biology. She points to the lima beans in a tray sprouting a few leaves and says, “Here is a perfect example of God’s little miracle.
“Does anyone have any questions?”
Thirty-nine girls sit quietly. I raise my hand, I’m the only one with a question.
“Sr. Theotine, I was wondering about something…”
“You’re always wondering about something.”
She takes off her wire-framed glasses, and from an invisible pocket on the side of her long black habit, pulls a tissue out to clean them. Her snake-like eyes narrow, as she looks at me.
“Well, what is it this time, ‘Miss Smarty Pants?’”
The class laughs. I’m like the Joe Palooka punching toy. You hit it as hard as you can, and it bounces right back. The other girls in the class are smarter than I am. They just take it all in and never say anything.
Sister Serpentine is getting impatient. I can hear her tapping her foot.
“Hurry up; I don’t have all day.”
I clear my throat and work up my courage. “Sister, I want to know if we will be covering Photosynthesis and Germination.
“I got a book at the Public Library book sale about how God’s Little Miracle happens, and it didn’t say anything about God. It describes the five stages of germination and has photographs of the process. I have it with me. Would you like to see it?”
Sr. Theotine’s face is red with rage.
“Yes, I would. Give it to me.”
I hand her the book and return to my seat.
“I didn’t say you could sit down… Remain standing until I give you permission to sit.”
She looks through the book and makes no comments, but I can see she is angry.
She walks down the aisle to where I’m standing. With each step, her rosary beads rattle and sound like shackles.
Sr. Serpentine is a big woman. She could kill me with her bare hands—I regret opening my smart-ass mouth. She is so close to me that I can smell her lavender toilet water. She slams the book on my desk. Her words, like a Cobra ‘s venom, hiss in a low voice close to my face. “I think that St. Stephens is not a good fit for you. What you need is a school more in keeping with your heretical ideas.”
My voice is shaky and I’m on the verge of tears. “Sr. Theotine, I think you’re right.”
I pick up my book and take the tray of lima beans with me. I’m halfway down the hall when I hear her shout, “Where are you taking those lima beans? They are school property.”
I shout back at her, only louder, like I want the whole world to hear me. “I’m taking them into the daylight. Nothing can grow here.”
As a Catholic, I’m a complete failure. I want to believe. It would simplify my life. But I lacked the faith necessary to accept the mysteries of the church. I envied the girls in my school who were true believers. I have too many questions, and the answers make no sense to me, like:
Transubstantiation which is changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. When I was six years old, I thought the priest was a magician, and Transubstantiation was the name of his trick—just a hocus-pocus sleight of hand, like the man in black tie and tails performing at the Flatbush Theatre. He changed glasses filled with red wine into white doves that flew around the stage and returned to the black box where the wine had been.
The Easter Story—Jesus dies on Friday; by Sunday, two days later, He rises from the dead. It is a long story that involves betrayal, punishment, and suffering. And ultimately death, not to mention love on a grand scale. Christ dying for the sins of all mankind is powerful, but for me—too far from reality to accept.
The Holy Trinity—the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. St. Patrick used a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity—one stem, three leaves. But the Holy Trinity wasn’t a plant. It was all powerful and dominated Catholicism. It was a fantastic doctrine that sounded like science fiction. One God with three different identities, a triple threat that was interchangeable depending on the situation. It reminds me of a superhero that Marvel Comics created… too much fantasy for me. The Holy Ghost is the scariest of the three. He performs unseen miracles.
The Immaculate Conception—that was what did it for me. The Angel announces to Mary that she will have a child and she will call him Jesus. The reason the Church calls it the Immaculate Conception is because Mary conceived Jesus by the spirit of the Holy Ghost.
I remember poor Mary O’ Mara telling the same story to her father after she and Joey Paradise “did it” in the backseat of his Chevy and she became pregnant. Her parents were devout Catholics. She tells them, “I don’t know how I got pregnant; maybe it was the Holy Ghost.”
Mr. O’Mara beat the truth out of her and is looking for Joey Paradise, looking to hurt him. Mary never returned to school. No one mentioned her ever again.
I return to my home room and wait for dismissal. I was done with St. Stephens and, after today, I’m sure St. Stephens is done with me.
The bell rings announcing the end of the school day. We march double file out of the building like a great Christian army—our green uniforms neatly arranged, berets tilted.
Outside, the grim afternoon feeds into my already gloomy state. There is a slow drizzle, and it feels more like fall than spring. Along Fulton Street the department store windows are announcing that “Easter is just around the corner” in bold foil letters. Cardboard bunnies rest on green cellophane grass. Pastel lilies and multicolored eggs are everywhere. The mannequins, in their powder blue coats and white straw hats, reach forward to greet me. Their frozen smiles mock me as I pass. I turn down DeKalb Avenue to avoid their sneers. When I turn the corner, the sun peeks out from the clouds and, for the first time in three years, I feel hopeful.
No matter what my parents say I will never go back to St. Stephens… never!
When I get home, my father is sitting up in bed, reading Raintree County. I kiss him hello and say, “You’ve been reading that book for five years.”
“I know… when I finish it, I’ll die.”
I think he believes that.
He asks me, “How was school today, and what is that box filled with dirt that you’re carrying?”
“School wasn’t good, and this is a lima bean project from the biology lab. I took it. The beans were dying in that classroom.”
I carry the lima beans into my room and put them near the window.
My father is recovering from a heart attack and is too sick to work. He is receiving workman’s compensation, but that isn’t enough money to pay the bills and pay for school. My parents don’t talk about it, but I know we are struggling.
I don’t ask his permission to quit school. I tell him how miserable I am.
“No matter what you or mom say, I’m not going back to St. Stephens.”
He looks sad and says, “You can transfer to Erasmus; you wanted to go there anyway.”
“I’ll get my GED at night. I’m going to get a job. I can type and I’m smart; someone is bound to hire me. You’re sick and it is going to take a long time until you’ll be strong enough to return to work. I can help out with the bills. I want to do this!”
He is too sick to argue, and I think part of him knows I’m right.
“I love you Erin. If that’s what you want to do, I’ll agree—but promise me you’ll continue with your education. Don’t waste that brain of yours.”
I hug him.
“I promise. I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
“You could never disappoint me. I’ll talk to your mother when she gets home. She’s been so worried about money. I think she’ll be relieved.
Then he tells me, “You’re a good daughter.”
I don’t say anything.
I would have been thrilled to transfer to Erasmus but not now. My parents need my help… school will have to wait. I do feel like I failed my parents by leaving St. Stephens… It was their dream, not mine.
I go back to my room. I don’t want my father to see me crying.
I change out of my uniform, roll it in a ball and throw it in the back of my closet. Tomorrow I’ll take it into the courtyard behind our apartment building, and…
Set it on fire!
The Holy Ghost will be watching.
About the Author
Phyllis Reilly returned to writing after a ten year absence. She started the Croton Writing Group and is a late bloomer.
At seventy seven years old she has published her work in a variety of literary magazines:
Brevity Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Pif Magazine, Ponder Review, Passager Journal, Cottagebytheroad, and Prometheus Dreaming