Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Oh, Girlfriend:

The Books I'm Sposed To Be Reading:

1. The Introvert Advantage: How To Survive In An Extrovert World

2. Nick Hornby Songbook

3. Witness to Integrity: The Crisis of The Immaculate Heart Community of California

4. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991

5. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk Rock

(and, because I started it for fun)

6. E=MC2: The Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation

Instead I'm mainly into the Archie's Double Digests.

The Immaculate Heart one is about the nuns who founded and run my junior high and high school in Hollywood.

I went to my high school reunion on Sunday. It was amazing. It wasn't so much amazing to see old classmates (only 8 people showed up from my grade) as it was to see the hundreds of old ladies who'd come back--one was from the class of 1933, in a wheelchair. My school was founded in 1906. It started as a convent school on a big plot of land in the foothills, a school for rich Catholic girls. It was a boarding school. Immaculate Heart also had a college, which was shut down in the early '70s, I believe. Now it's the American Film Institute. But if you go up there you can see handprints in the cement from old IH girls.

(In the late 1960s, the nuns rebelled against the Church. They believed in the liberalization of the Church; they were feminists and they believed in Vatican II. They also didn't like wearing habits. So they actually left the Church, and continued their lives as nuns without official status--or Church funding.)

The sprawl of the land, the hillside and the lawns, and the panoramic view from the cafeteria, are part of the identity of the school. The school has a kind of glamour to it. At the same time, it is really poor, and the nuns who run it can't scrape two dimes together. In the library, they still have the same old chairs and tables from the '70s. They keep tuition relatively low because part of their mission is to reflect the economic and ethnic mix of L.A.

Immaculate Heart has been such an influence on my life, I would have to put it right up there with the Beatles and KROQ in the way it shaped my consciousness.

This is my school; maybe you'll understand why I'm kind of weird:

When I attended Immaculate Heart, it was a school where the nuns wore normal clothes. We sat in a circle and called our teachers by their first names. When there was a religious service, attendance was optional. At the service, the principal, a nun, gave a sermon and the nuns gave us communion--hippie bread. We sang songs like "We Are A Gentle Angry People."

We had lots of assemblies about political issues: a debate on the nuclear arms race; an address on the U.S. funding of death squads in El Salvador; a presentation by a survivor of Bergen-Belsen camp; an assembly about Nestle's baby-formula bullshit in Africa, etc.

In 7th grade we had a Passover seder, served by Sister Jan, the math nun. At Christmas we played dreidel. Sister Jan taught us how.

My Spanish teacher screened "Harold and Maude" for her classes, which became my all-time favorite movie (and which I've seen 31 times).

Also in 7th grade I had my first Welcome Day, when every grade comes dressed with a theme, and you get to hang out with your "big sister" (an eighth grader), and there's an assembly with skits and songs, and then dancing on the lawn, with music provided by Poorman of KROQ. Hundreds of girls, dancing barefoot on a sloping lawn.

Typical class themes were "Jamaican Juniors," "Senior Citizens," "Flower Power Freshmen," etc. Our grade had a knack for screwing it all up, though: In 7th grade we were the "Punk 7th," whatever the fuck that means. I guess it's kind of punk rock that we got it wrong. Our names always sucked after that: "Funky Flourescent Freshmen," "Toga Tenth," "Jailbird Juniors," and "Seniors Suffering From Smog." (whuh??)

In ninth grade, I got a sex ed curriculum so complete I kind of blush even now thinking about it. We didn't only learn about the rhythm method. We learned about every birth control method from abstinence to abortion; oral sex, Cowper's fluid, periods, everything. Nothing was off-limits, because there was an anonymous question box.

Also in ninth grade I got kidnapped by my big sister the night before Welcome Day, which was a big tradition. I had to put on a horrible dress, go to fraternity row at UCLA and go on a hunt for a list of weird items: a beer, a sock, etc. Gross, man.

In ninth grade I read Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own," George Eliot's "The Mill On the Floss," and a bunch of Dickens. That's when I first discovered ee cummings, too. That changed my life a little bit.

Sophomore year we had a close-knit English class led by Miss McNamara, a kind nun with a calm, gentle voice and insanely sharp mind. I wrote a Sapphic love poem for my best friend, called "Inside Your Body," and she gave me an A+. She wrote, "One day when you're a famous writer, I will be able to say I have a Kate Sullivan original!"

One day in class for no reason, except maybe being in love, I passed a note around the room that said "You are a beauty." When it came back around to me, someone had written on it, "(so are you)."

Miss McNamara works in prison ministry now.

Junior year we read a bunch of Romantic and Existentialist stuff because our teacher, Mr. Vliet (Captain Beefheart's brother, remember?), was way into it. Now he teaches a whole course at Immaculate Heart devoted to Existentialism. I wish I could take it. No: He's retiring this year. Mr. Vliet was forever trying to quit smoking. He was always chewing the brown gum, gaining and losing weight. He had a leather purse. Mr. Vliet had refined tastes and you always wanted to know more about his personal life, but it was a big secret.

At the beginning of the year he told us one of his classic jokes. On the chalkboard he drew two stick figures with a circle in between them, with a dot in the middle. "What's that?" he asked, and none of us knew. "Two men walking abreast."

Every year on the last day before Easter vacation, we had an assembly. I think this is the one where the teachers would give us a skit. I remember Naomi, the ancient librarian, dressed as the Easter bunny? (Can anyone help me out here?)

At this assembly, every year, Mr. Vliet would read us Oscar Wilde's "The Selfish Giant."

Mr. Vliet had a lot of Oscar Wilde in him.

I took Shakespeare from Carmen Hill, one of the funnest classes I ever took. I loved reading all those plays out loud. That's where I discovered my favorite Shakespeare play, As You Like It. The gender fucking in those plays was out of control.

There was a club for the promotion of black consciousness or something. I was the only white member. We planned an MLK assembly. I was so PC.

We read most of the Old Testament and learned all about Judaism. We also learned about all the major religions in the world, including Taoism, which was my favorite.

I also read The Great Gatsby, A Farewell To Arms, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, The Crucible, The Color Purple, the Catcher In the Rye, Franny and Zooey and Nine Stories; The Cocktail Party; poems like the Hollow Men and the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; The Importance of Being Earnest; 1984 and Brave New World; Pride and Prejudice; A Room With A View--you can see where these teachers were coming from.

I went to Washington DC to learn about the government and learned about gun control.

Senior year I took Women's Studies, where I read the early feminist canon, including writings by Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. Our teacher, Frances Snyder, a nun, introduced us to the concept of goddess worship. She wanted us to think of God as female. I got an award for that class because it turned me on so much, and ended up majoring in Women's Studies in college.

A lot of the faculty were gay, but the only out-of-the-closet nun I remember was a math genius ex-nun with the flare-power pants. The IH faculty, being poor and usually brainiac geeks, was rife with bad polyester '70s fashion (well into the late '80s), which only made them much more lovable. Anyway, like I said, she was the only out nun I remember, but I tell ya, most of those nuns made you really wonder.

The campus was decorated like crazy with framed lithographs by Corita Kent, the great graphic artist of the '60s and '70s. You might know her from the rainbow "Love" stamp. She liked to make collages with Beatles lyrics or radical or soulful quotes. They have a gallery for her art now at IH, and I just bought a print with a Whitman quote:

"I am larger, better than I thought.

I did not know I held so much goodness."

Corita was an Immaculate Heart nun and I think she provided the aesthetic soul for the school, even though she was long gone by my time.

In senior year I was studying in the library and I heard "Anarchy In The UK" coming through the glass partition of a classroom. The hip new history teacher, I believe, was playing it for the students.

Senior year one of my teachers invited students over to her studio apartment in the Valley to study for the AP Spanish exam. Three of us showed up, including the student body president. It was a Friday night. Anyway, our teacher, an incredibly hot Dominican 26-year-old, said, Why don't we go dancing! We'll go to the salsa club and you'll practice your Spanish there!

It turned out the guy she liked, a beefy Italian, owned the biggest salsa club in L.A.--which, I found out later, was also a notorious coke-den.

We drove to the president-girl's house and she snuck in through her bedroom window to get clothes for us to wear out--skintight black miniskirts, of course. Then we drove back to our teacher's and got dressed. I looked 12, at best, and was debilitatingly shy with guys. The others were a little more developed and suave. Oh, Lord.

We went to the club and hung out in the office for a while and met all the brothers--like five Italian brothers, probably all coke dealers, all hitting on us. Well, they probably didn't hit on me because they could tell I was completely terrified.

We went and hung out around the DJ booth for a while. All I remember is flashing lights and the student body president dancing in the DJ booth with her chosen friend, the DJ brother.

Later, the two girls drove off in separate Mercedes Benzes with two different brothers. Me and our teacher lost them, and drove back to her place and stayed up waiting for them to come home.

She told us that if we ever told anyone, she would be fired. I think she must have wanted to get fired.

I got a 4 on the AP exam. She was a hell of a good teacher.

Another girl in our grade had a big affair with the music teacher.

Did I mention that Heidi Fleiss went to Immaculate Heart?

Our school also had a jazz band. They would play at assemblies, and we all thought they were great. They were more of a soft-rock band, really, and they played the theme from "The Rockford Files."

In my senior year, a bunch of us were really pissed off with how conservative the school was becoming. The nuns were becoming like military types, so tight-ass, so cold, so weirdly different from what we had expected from IH. They had gone back to the Church. They brought in a fucking priest, like we ever needed a goddamn man around. Jesus Christ, a priest at Immaculate Heart. I still can't get with that. A gay Latino priest who seemed to have nothing but contempt for girls, no less.

They also spent a million dollars building a chapel, and Archbastard Mahoney came to campus so our principal could kiss his ass and he could "bless" the chapel. What?

First of all, Immaculate Heart needed computers, books, scholarships, new classrooms, a gym. But the Church decides what we really need is a fucking church. And we're supposed to be all excited about some stupid chapel, when they know damn well that a high percentage of us are not only non-Catholic, but we're not even religious. The school always had had a kind of welcoming vibe toward atheists and agnostics. Before.

Senior year health class, a certain nun wants to teach us about AIDS prevention. But the fucking Church says they can't. So she does what any upstanding Immaculate Heart nun would do: She teaches it to us anyway. She just tells us not to tell anyone.

How sad is that?

My grade was the last grade to really experience the old, liberal Immaculate Heart, and we were the ones who really felt the anguish of the school's move back to the Archdiocese. We didn't really know what was going on, but in our guts we knew: Immaculate Heart was losing something beautiful. It was sacrificing some of its hard-won independence, and it would no longer be able to teach us through example how to be openly rebellious women.

And, of course, the only way to teach is through example.

Senior year our grade organized a walkout from one of the liturgies. The official reason was the priest and the principal had screwed with our plans for the liturgy. But the real reason was that we couldn't stand the clampdown anymore. Things had gotten so absurdly strict, we felt almost like we were being treated with real contempt, like they hated us, like we didn't belong there anymore, we didn't fit into their plans anymore. They liked men now: They liked Archbishop Mahoney; the liked the Pope, they liked the campus priest. I wasn't used to seeing my nuns submitting to men and it felt strange.

The walkout girls were called into the principal's office afterwards. I tried to explain how I felt; how I didn't understand how they could have changed so much, but I think I was too scared of her to articulate it at all.

A few days later they held an all-school assembly, where the principal told us: If you don't like certain school policies, you will use the "proper channels" to express your opinions or you will be expelled. period. Case closed.

Well, what could we say? It was a private school, after all, and they had every right to control the students that way.

It hurt, though. The women who had taught us to stand up to authority had just told us to bow to it.

Today, we all know the truth about Roger Mahoney, and about the corruption of the Archdiosece's patriarchy, and its contempt for young people; the dirty old boy's club that protects criminals and exiles rebels. Today, we have proof. Today we can point to headlines, and not just to our own hearts. But back then, we were just teenage girls who felt like something weird and not-fun was happening to a really fun school. A school where I was taught to be myself, to be outrageous and smart and definitely talk too much.

I have a feeling that the spirit of rebellion is still there at IH, in subtler ways I can't begin to know, since I don't go there anymore. Maybe it's in the curriculum and nowhere else. Maybe that's OK.

The nuns always told us that they loved the Church. They believed it was a living body, and as such, it was changeable. They wanted to try and improve it, because they loved it. And maybe that's what they've done since rejoining the fold. That's certainly what they did before. They were visionaries, futurists who believed in a world that didn't yet exist except in their immaculate hearts.

And whether they liked it or not, they definitely taught me at an early age to be an independent thinker.

Anyway. At the reunion on Sunday, one former faculty member gave a speech, saying that in light of all the scandal in the Church now, she likes to think of the Church like Noah's Ark: "Sometimes the stench is unbearable, but it keeps us afloat."

So in a way I guess I'm still an Immaculate Hearter: I love the school but, just like the nuns with the Church, I guess I'll always feel like an outsider there. Not Catholic enough, not girly and sweet enough, not obedient enough, not studious enough. Fuck it.

I'm not the only one. If anyone's looking for me, I'll be up in the bell tower with Debbie and Kristy, Vanessa and Ruth, Tracy and Janet, Pam, Elexa, Aida and everyone else, smoking cigarettes.

My class is the one class that never shows up to reunions, never donates to the school, never sends personal updates to the alumni newspaper. And it's not like we were all punk-rockers, either. A lot of us were just really smart girls, A students who didn't like being told how to dress, act, look, talk and sit every second, upon threat of detention or worse. Especially when some of us were kicking ass on behalf of the school, winning awards and scholarships left and right. (And especially because the school's grading system at the time was so jacked, we suffered enormously when it came time to apply to college: an A was 95-100, a B was 90-94. Our GPAs were artificially deflated, which meant that I had no chance of getting into a school that would give me a commensurate education to what I had received at IH. On Sunday I asked the principal about this, and she told me that they have since changed it. Thanks a lot!)

On Sunday, every grade with a five-year anniversary (10, 15, etc) had a class representative give a few words and present the school with a check. When they called out for my class, we all kind of looked at each other, like, uh.... whoops. We held up our hands and waved at the assembly and everyone laughed. It was just too typical.

At our high school graduation at the Hollywood Bowl, my dad gave the speech. He asked me what I wanted it to be about, and I told him rebellion. So that's what he talked about. I love my dad. The one thing I remember from that speech is this: If you're smart and you rebel, and you fight for change, eventually you'll win. But just be prepared: In the end, the powers that be will always take the credit and say it was their idea.

I think maybe the nuns understodd this speech a lot better than we did.

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