It was August 1973 and I was completely alone while sulking in a dormitory in St. Martin, Ohio. My friends were 500 miles away, trying to decide which new outfit to wear to their first day of high school the following week . . . a high school where I belonged but, thanks to my stupid parents, I would not be attending. Every piece of clothing in my suitcase had my name sewn to it. I had several new uniforms – ridiculously hideous white blouses, blue skirts, blue knee socks and saddle shoes. Nobody wore saddle shoes, for Pete’s sake! I was so embarrassed at the very thought of wearing them. Hopefully no one back home would ever find out. I hated my parents.
My mom had attended Brown County Ursulines, a female-only boarding school in Ohio when she was a senior in high school. I was enrolled in the school without my knowledge or consent, and my parents took me there during an unbearably hot August weekend that year. The dormitory was not air conditioned, and the heat was stifling. It wasn’t bad enough that I was in this forsaken place, but I was the very first student there. The school wasn’t even opening for several days yet . . . all the other students were still at their own houses, with their own friends. My parents couldn’t wait to get rid of me, so they dumped me off at the school early – and made a beeline back home.
Two other students joined me next. Pam and Eileen were from Kentucky, and from the sound of it, their families were extremely affluent. I felt even more out of place, until one of them asked if I had any cigarettes. So off the three of us went, and we found a safe place in the woods to have a smoke. Maybe it would be all right, after all . . . maybe I’d find something in common with some of the other rejects.
As the year got underway I began to learn more about the school, which was run completely by nuns and two priests. The school sat on 500 gorgeous acres of land: Streams, woods, fields and ponds were strewn about. There were many buildings, including a chapel from the 1800s with pews that were hand-carved by the nuns at the time. There was a recreational center with a pool, hall and gym; there were barns, houses, classrooms and dormitories. There were about fifteen girls that shared my dormitory, which was a long, hallway-type room with beds lined up against the walls. Curtains hung on rods between the beds and could be pulled for privacy. In the middle of the dorm was a record player where we’d dance to Aerosmith and Todd Rundgren, and where we would occupy several wooden chairs and an area rug while watching Happy Days on Tuesdays on TV. On one end of the dorm were showers, toilets, sinks and mirrors. All of my belongings were kept in two nightstands on either side of my bed. Whatever I owned that couldn’t be jammed into the nightstands was locked in a huge closet between our dorm and the one on the other side of the floor. Our dorm held the 8th grade and freshman girls; the dorm on the other side housed the sophomores. Juniors lived in a building separate from ours, and the seniors had the best accommodations of all: They had their own house. Some of them even had their own room. We were not allowed in the Senior Hall except for the open house that they hosted in the beginning of the school year, and the house was like a mansion: It was gigantic, with beautiful hardwood floors, a fireplace, and a giant staircase that was about six feet wide. Their rooms had a lot of furniture to hold their belongings: They were allowed to hang whatever posters they wanted. I couldn’t wait to be a senior at Brown County Ursulines, although I would never experience it firsthand.
The place was like a prison for the freshmen except for two things: The food was absolutely great – every morning there was cereal, hot chocolate, donuts, fruit, toast, eggs, hash browns, you name it. Lunch was chili or soup or grilled cheese or hamburgers, and dinner was lasagna, spaghetti, pizza, pork chops . . . every single meal was a feast. I gained about twenty pounds that year.
By far, though, the best thing about Brown County Ursulines was the fact that there were horses. Horses actually lived right on the premises! It was like heaven; there were over a dozen beautiful horses, and we rode them often. My mom had signed me up for horseback riding, which began almost immediately after my arrival. Horseback riding lessons were offered initially, and my name was first on every single sign-up sheet that was posted. I absolutely could not wait until the next riding session. When I wasn’t riding I was visiting the horses, sneaking them apples or sweet grain, or brushing them or petting them. Being near the horses was the best thing that could have ever happened to me, and I quickly fell in love with one of them.
Cheyenne was a pinto – a perfect specimen, a quarter horse with a white nose and brown around his big, soft eyes. His torso and legs were white and brown, and his long, black mane was brushed and maintained meticulously by me every chance I got. Cheyenne stood very tall and always held his head high; he was very proud and pranced royally in the fields. We understood each other: He was angry and defiant; so was I. I loved that I didn’t have to share him – the other girls were afraid of him because he had a tendency to rear up occasionally, or he would ignore riders’ commands. I loved that about him, because Cheyenne was a challenge, and riding him was such a thrill because I never knew what he was going to do next. Cheyenne and I became the best of friends, and throughout the entire year he never once threw me off. One of the riding lessons was to learn to ride bareback. When Cheyenne turned slightly on my command, I slid right off in the opposite direction. Cheyenne came right back to me and looked at me as if to say, “come on, I wasn’t even going fast!” I opted to ride with a saddle after that. Cheyenne seemed to settle down that year, which is much more than I can say for myself.
I broke all the rules at Brown County Ursulines. I smoked cigarettes (and got caught so many times the nuns didn’t know what to do with me anymore), I rolled up my skirt so that it wasn’t so drearily long, doodled in study hall, skipped church, went swimming in the pond, had water balloon fights in the dorm, short-sheeted beds and rebelled in any fashion I could think of. I met girls from all over the world – El Salvador, Columbia, Mexico, but mostly Ohio and Kentucky. Each month school closed early on Thursday for the weekend and the girls were allowed to go home for a visit. I was lucky enough to go home with many girls. I stayed with Paula, Lana, Patty and finally Heather, who was fast becoming my best friend in the latter half of the school year.
During the second semester something transformed and I found myself feeling grateful for the girls I knew there. We were family to each other. One of them pierced my ears with a needle and thread; it was thrilling to be able to wear pierced earrings. Occasionally we would hear each other sniffling at night – homesickness was a common occurrence in the dorm – and we would gather around in a group effort to cheer each other up. One snowy Saturday afternoon Gloria, who was from El Salvador and would not be returning home until summer, was particularly blue. A group of us suggested going outside for a smoke, but the real intent was to get Gloria outside. Once out, we began throwing snowballs at each other, acting like four-year-olds, running between the trees and ganging up on each other one by one. I began to realize that my friends back home, as wonderful as they were, would never know the need for a snowball fight, or the pride in having ears pierced by a friend. Brown County Ursulines was my home. Even one of the nuns was like an older sister to me.
Sister Sandra seemed to accept me despite all of my shortcomings. Her patience took me completely by surprise – she seemed to accept me no matter what type of mood I was in. Even though I never told her how much her demeanor comforted me that year, I appreciated her kindness and acceptance. The nuns gave up trying to punish me for smoking and created a smoking area for those of us with parental permission, and we were allowed to smoke at certain times of the day. Things were looking up as spring arrived and I went on more rides with Cheyenne and started going home with Heather, who lived about 30 miles from school. I was beginning to look forward to returning to the school the following year. I had no idea when I left on graduation day that I would not be coming back.
Indeed, my parents informed me that summer that the school was too expensive and I would not be able to return. My hatred for them came back in full force. If only I had known then what I know now: There were many reasons I had gone to Brown County Ursulines, namely, the reasons were some of my older sisters. My parents had been through hell with them and were trying to spare the same situation with me, so they thought the best thing they could do for me was to send me to the school that my mom had been so fond of. My mom had loved the school and some of her best friends for life had been people she met at the school. My parents weren’t trying to get rid of me; on the contrary, they were trying to do the right thing for me. They wanted me to be happy, and they thought the school would do that for me.
My mom called the other day and asked if I’d like to accompany her to the Brown County reunion this fall. I have to be prepared for the fact that the school has changed – many of the buildings are gone, and it is only a college now, no longer a high school. Sister Sandra is still there, and I hope she remembers me. If she does, I can’t wait to tell her that I turned out to be a pretty normal person – I quit smoking in 1982, I’ve never been in jail, and I don’t even have any traffic violations. I hope she is glad to know that she is actually part of the reason that I turned out to be a regular woman – she and Cheyenne, that is.