I went to an all-girls’ Catholic school in Westchester County for four years, sixth through ninth grades. You may not know this, but there’s a whole network of boys’ and girls’ Catholic schools in Westchester, and they are Guido Ground Zero. If you’ve ever seen an episode of Jersey Shore, you’re pretty close to the kinds of kids we were dealing with. Everyone in my school was either super-Irish or super-Italian (you displayed your allegiance by pasting or drawing a flag on your backpack), and the latter far outweighed the former. Everyone wore those huge platform Sketchers, carried the bleeping Nextels and got a white BMW from their parents senior year. The dads all worked in waste management or were mysteriously missing in action (aka, in jail).
I loved it.
Here are the bad and the good things about going to a Catholic, single sex school in those delicate years before and during puberty:
There were totally mysterious, unspoken rules about how best to wear your regulation plaid skirt, opaque tights, polo shirt and sweater that were set by the popular girls that everyone else tried their best to follow. I had no idea how they knew, but some girls showed up on the first day of sixth grade looking perfect in a way that took me years to identify: skirts just covering the ass, black tights, platform shoes, crisp white collared shirt, crew-necked cotton sweater (not too baggy!!), fake nails, long straight hair. “Everyone” wore boys’ boxer shorts under their uniform skirts, and the really cool girls wore their skirts so short the boxers peeked out underneath. Why? I couldn’t tell you. No one ever went commando under their skirts, and what’s really so offensive about seeing another girls’ panties by accident? Anyway, in sixth grade, I didn’t know about this custom. I was over at a friend’s house one day when I climbed a tree in her backyard and, thinking I was cool, swung down, exposing my boxer-less, panty-clad butt. My friend burst out laughing and told everyone the next day, so after that I was firmly in the hopeless nerd column of our class, even though I diligently made my mom buy me a few pairs of boys’ boxers and wore them every day after that.
They were a non-factor, except for when they were. They weren’t around at all except for at the weekly dances, which from sixth grade onward were hyper-sexualized. So the only time we learned how to interact with them is when we wanted them to think we were hot enough to grind into their little boners. As you can imagine, this caused problems later on when boys were around all the time. What, we’re supposed to actually be friends with them? Why would you talk to guys except to get them to want you? What’s the point of even interacting with them at all if not to just hook up? When you only see guys in environments where the unspoken imperative is hook up, you’re going to do things faster and more often.
Mass many, many times a year, held in the gym and presided over by a condescending monsignor with a comically heavy Bronx accent. Mandatory religion classes taught by crusty old nuns. The embarrassment of being the Protestant girl in the row and murmuring the rest of the Lord’s Prayer under your breath at Mass (wtf, Catholics? Why do you cut off the last sentence?) or, worse, one of the few Jews, Muslims or Hindus and not knowing what to say at all. Dealing with the supreme irony of being educated by people with a historically low opinion of women’s intelligence and ability to run their own lives.
We had to wear the same thing every day, the only variation being which color polo shirt and sweater you paired, so getting ready in the morning took thirty seconds tops. I would keep my uniform at the foot of my bed, get entirely dressed under the covers, and go back to sleep until the last possible second. And because the Catholic schoolgirl’s uniform is one of the more universally flattering outfits (it forces you to cover up your problem areas and tights can obscure even the doughiest thigh), unspoken rules about coolness aside, it doesn’t much matter if you were “cool” and wore the crew neck cotton sweater or a “dork” who wore the V-neck wool sweater. Everyone looked more or less the same, and everyone looked more or less good, day in, day out, on your period or not.
Because we only saw them at dances, we only saw them when we felt we looked our best. So during your awkward phase, you never had to worry about that guy who looked like Nick Carter seeing you with frizzy hair or a huge zit on your nose, unless you were bad at straightening your hair and applying makeup before dances (and even if you were [I was], it was always dark in the school gym). When we were growing up and filling out, we never had to worry about anyone snapping our bra snaps. I didn’t even know that was a thing until I went off to co-ed school sophomore year, and then I was horrified. You could speak up in class and not worry about turning guys off by seeming smart—girls were always the smartest ones in the room in math class, even if it was just by default. You could do tragic things to your appearance in the name of experimentation, knowing you’d never have to worry about your crush seeing you growing out the bangs you impulsively decided to cut yourself or when your hair was two different colors from permanent hair dye. Plus: less weird competition over guys. Everyone lived in different places and people commuted to school from all over the county and even from Connecticut (one girl’s drive to school was two hours), so the chances of having guy friends in common outside of school were slim to none.
If you got hungry during one of those interminable Masses, you could always go up to get some of Christ’s Body just as a snack to tide you over, and because All Souls’ Day is a holy day of obligation, we always got the day after Halloween off school—score. And besides, what’s the fun in rebelling if there’s nothing to rebel against?