04 May 2008

Teach them what they need to know for life.

Last night I went to see a production of The History Boys at Portland's A.R.T. My mind wandered during much of the second act. I am reluctant to admit this, but most second acts require a pretty adamant work on my part as a spectator.

During lackluster productions, I might be thinking about something menial, like my grocery list. When I'm interested in or challenged by the content, I'm inspired to go on a sort of intellectual tangent wherein I apply the ideas in the play as a filter to my own experience. If I had a little more restraint, I might try to save this mental gymnastics for the moments after the show. Maybe part of me knows better; if I'm not flying solo, I'm bound to be talking about the production with other theatre cronies and I have a hard time formulating my adjunct perspectives during these chats.

Yesterday's performance got me thinking about my experience at an all-girl's high school. Like the boy's school in Bennet's play, my college preparatory experience was similarly steeped in an environment that thrived on academic achievement, gendered perspectives and long-standing traditions.

While I was a student, the school's motto, "Ora et Labora" was rapidly being substituted with a more modern and secular slogan. Like the original, the phrase had supposedly been divined from the school's founder, St. Julie Billiart herself. Subsequently it had been passed down by the Sister's of Notre Dame de Namur for centuries until it found its new home on every letterhead and publication regurgitated to girls, parents, prospective students and alumnae.

The phrase, "Teach them what they need to know for life," has been applied liberally throughout the school's 160 year history. Based on photographs of early graduates, the school functioned as a finishing school for San Jose's Catholic society set. Each graduate specialized in either harp or piano. By the time I graduated, much the curriculum had expanded. We didn't have any sort of a music program, but we were required to have a certain level of competency on a computer.

I don't have fond memories of high school. While certain events and individuals stand out as being positive experiences, my memory is largely colored by the fact that I was bored, frustrated, and a tad righteous. I'd read a majority of the English curriculum before I'd even matriculated, and I'd regularly pick fights with my teachers about why we were studying Steinbeck without any mention to the fact that we were living in Steinbeck country. In short, I was a real pain in the ass.

I sat through the show last night thinking about instances in which Notre Dame actually taught me what I needed to know for life. I came up with a short list. Not surprisingly, I haven't cooked up a flattering collection of life lessons. Perhaps to the credit of my educators, not one of these lessons is explicitly related to the classroom curricula.

We All Wear Blinders

I ran into a classmate on a visit to my hometown. We went out for coffee where she was eager to talk about the gossip and scandals of our school days. She brought up another girl with whom I was not terribly well acquainted who had supposedly gone down to Los Angeles to have a rather controversial type of abortion during our senior year. I had to admit that I had not noticed that this girl was even pregnant.

"How could you not know? She was at least five months along," my cohort protested.

I replied that I was severely depressed and that I had put all my energy to attain some semblance of normalcy. My coffee companion said she had no idea, despite the fact that we ran in the same circles. How could she not know?

I have two theories. One, we sometimes choose what we perceive in order to survive. Or, two, I am a better actor than I believe myself to be.

Woman-on-Woman Hate is Rampant

If I had to give a short answer on the perpetuation of the glass ceiling, I would cite woman-on-woman hate as a culprit. I'm not saying every woman should run out and vote for Hillary. But from what I've witnessed, women are seldom champions of one another.

Between snide, underhanded remarks and the outright cutthroat bitchery, the only thing keeping a girls high school away from prime time soap territory is the lack of sexual tension on campus. I've seen nice girls lie and cheat their way to the top. With a smile on their face. Judgment, resentment, jealousy, opportunism. It's all here. Ambition and cruelty are tenuous bedfellows, and a girl's school is like a petri dish full of their collective venereal diseases.

How did Elizabeth I become one of history's greatest Machiavellians? She had a sister. And they didn't like each other very much.

Box Pleats Are Not Flattering on Anyone

I have visual evidence, but I refuse to put it to use.

No comments: