Newly arrived in the US, I spent my high school freshman year drowning in a soup of cultural and linguistic confusion. I was the only foreign student in the school, and was left pretty much to fend for myself. Able to speak only a little English, understanding even less, I lived in a perpetual panic that I would miss some crucial piece of information, commit a major gaffe, or otherwise disgrace myself.
I was especially scared in Home Ec class. Sister Dorothy, who suffered no fools, was teaching us to use the sewing machine. Not knowing what the words “spool,” “bobbin,” or “zipper foot” meant, I was making slow progress. When Sister would come over to explain for the umpteenth time how to pull up the bobbin thread, I would break into a sweat, and my ears would start ringing.
Not only did I not understand English, but I looked hopelessly different from my fellow students. I showed up for the first day of school in a knee-length dress with a gathered skirt and a top that, having no darts and no give, crushed my womanly attributes against my rib cage. And the dress, to my eternal embarrassment, featured a bow tied at the back.. This was a time when girls wore wine-dark lipstick, little scarves tied around their necks, cashmere sweaters over pointy bras, and long narrow skirts. To me they looked like movie stars.
One afternoon at dismissal time I was told to report to Sister Dorothy. My head swam. Had I broken the sewing machine? Had she sat on a pin I had dropped? In the Home Ec room SisterDorothy, robed in the full Benedictine habit, was waiting for me. “I want you to try these clothes on,” she said, handing me some things. “You can dress in my office.”
I was, as usual, disconcerted. Since when did nuns make people try on clothes after school? I\’d been going to nuns\’ schools all my life in a couple of different countries, and not once had I been asked to try on clothes. But I untied my bow and took off my dress and put on a long straight wool skirt with a slit in the back and a green cashmere V-necked sweater with elbow-length sleeves. I walked back into the classroom and Sister Dorothy nodded. “They fit you fine,” she said. “You can take them if you want.”
“I can take them?” Since when did nuns in medieval habits give people tight skirts and clinging sweaters?
“Yes, yes, take them!” said Sister Dorothy impatiently. “And now go home and do your homework.”
I sneaked into my room and changed into the new clothes, and went to show my mother. “Most Holy Queen of Heaven!” she said, “what\’s happened to you?”
“One of the nuns gave me these.”
“But you can\’t wear these clothes! They make you look twenty-five, at least! They\’re inappropriate for a girl your age.”
There it was again, my mother\’s idea of what was appropriate for a girl my age: no lipstick, no fingernail polish, no stockings, no form-fitting anythings, and dresses with bows in the back. It was my own personal calvary, from which I prayed for deliverance every night.
But now Sister Dorothy, of all people, had handed me a weapon against my mother. “You can\’t say they\’re inappropriate, if a nun gave them to me,” I said.
“I don\’t know. I guess it would be impolite not to wear them…. But I never knew you had such slender hips.”
And the next day I showed up at school looking, except for the absence of lipstick (that particular battle with my mother would rage for another two years), like a regular American teenager.
Sister Dorothy\’s act of mercy wasn\’t as drastic as clothing the naked. But is was equivalent in terms of the difference it made in my life. Whereas my parents thought I should be proud of being different, Sister Dorothy understood the longing to fit in that consumed my fourteen-year-old soul, and decided to help me out.