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Good Letters

At the end of next week, barring some kind of family emergency, my husband and I will load the children into the car and head up Interstate 95 to attend my twenty-fifth reunion at a boarding school in Massachusetts.

For my husband, as is the case with most spouses, I guess, this is one of those “take one for the team” agreements, and not something to which he’s especially looking forward. One agonized night of dress-up partying in a ballroom with a DJ would be bad enough, but in this case, it’s an entire weekend, replete with panel discussions on foreign affairs with “distinguished alumni” and guided tours of the Archeology Museum.

There’s the parade of “Old Guard” alumni under the avenue of elms that crosses the “Vista,” and nanny-services-for-hire that run $60, per child, per evening. Those of a Spartan bent, or who are going through midlife crises, can camp out (pass out) in their old dormitories, with the thrilling addition of bathrooms that, this weekend only, are de facto coed. (See your old friends pee!)

It’s an entire weekend focused on the consumption of alcohol (the school tries to dispute this) that features its own Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on Saturday afternoon in the basement of the Chapel.

And for my husband in particular, there’s the likelihood of his wife falling, over and over again—at first into agonized self-comparison with her classmates who’ve become stratospherically successful, and second into reverie, as the layers of experience and memory begin to unfold from one another, like the skins of an onion.

Part of me wants to tell him to stay back at the Residence Inn/Boston North and take the kids to the pool. The four years I spent on this sprawling green campus, with its quadrangles and red brick buildings designed by Thomas Bullfinch, are a story that’s too hard to explain: I read an article on “the best” boarding schools in Town and Country magazine at my aunt’s house in Dallas, wrote off on drugstore paper for catalogues and school applications, then found myself in the fall of 1982 not at the private white Christian academy I’d been attending in Mississippi, but facing My First Snowstorm, My First Failing Grades, and My First Realization that Northeasterners Think Southerners are Backward.

My Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys albums provided absolutely no protective cover, to say nothing of my New American Standard Bible and R.C. Sproul devotionals.

I’d like to stop right there. My first year there was absolutely miserable: I had the wrong coat (a puffy fake-down thing from the sale rack at a department store that made me look like a Townie, so I quit wearing it, and walked around in 12-degree weather in shirtsleeves), the wrong religion (I chided the Protestant chaplain for making fun of John Calvin), the wrong life.

Around ten years ago, after a Russian Orthodox priest told me in the confessional to go seek psychotherapy, I lay on a couch in a Freudian analyst’s office for four sessions a week and related all these stories, over and over, feeling the sting of rejection and remembered winter cold touching me all over again.

All that pain was ultimately productive for me: It made me pray through my faith, and come out an even stronger believer on the other end, as I faced a world where “what church do you go to?” was not even a question.

It made me plumb through the real history of Southern oppression to mine the vein of cultural gold that lay under the surface: Light in August, blues music, a place where life was lived in the heart as well as in the head.

I remember a winter that I sat in the Record Library at night until it was almost Sign-In, listening on foam headphones to Bessie Smith albums over and over, finally identifying something that was Me and Mine.

But what psychoanalysis taught me too was that the school, with its acres of insane green grass, its earnest liberal faculty, and blindness to its own privilege and prejudice, had also become my parent, had also, irrevocably, become part of the narrative of who I was.

I would never be a pure, unmixed Southerner again. To this day, I cannot write about myself with the assurance of being a “Southern writer,” because there is part of me, just as deep and true, that can relate to protesting over at the Raytheon plant with Rabbi Gendler.

Certain kinds of dim light still make me think of the abandoned mills in Lawrence, their shadows falling across the Merrimack River. There was a reason that I found the face of Jesus in the golden mosaics of Greek and Arab immigrants.

It was at this “elite” school (cue up the AM talk radio), in the U.S. History class developed by the great Tom Lyons, that I learned the lessons of organized labor, ones I carry with me still as a union shop steward’s wife.

And it was from a largely secular faculty, still reeling from the 60s and Vietnam, that I learned a truth that I would come to view as Christian and essential: You do not kill them all and let God sort them out. You seek to search out and save them all, down to every last one. The willingness to criticize your country is its own form of patriotism. I treasure the memory of their plain faces, all that endless Quaker consensus.

With my husband and children along with me, I want to haunt the sidewalks and the high-ceilinged empty rooms. I want to dart, with my son, through the trees (“diamond-pointed, athirst, and Norman”) of the giant Sanctuary.

And I want them to know a little of the longing that suffused me for years— but which has brought me, in the end, to so much joy.

School, I’ve been your daughter, and after all these years and circumstances, I am still.

(For Kristen Harol, Christine Yoo, and Hella Winston)

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