I stood at the back of Brick Church with a mouth full of vomit and a head abuzz with shrieking wasps. Weaving and swaying, I battled the swelling waves that had once been a reasonable, tame, self-respecting floor. I steadied myself by grabbing the backrest of the nearest pew. The night of debauchery right before the big event was a stupid idea that had turned into a ghastly reality. Swallowing the acid burn of high alcohol content bile, I managed a quivering smile to give the finishing touch to my ensemble.
My carefully chosen white dress, white gloves, pearl and platinum jewelry, bouquet of flowers, white stockings, and white shoes were, obviously, regulation gear for this kind of occasion and I had made damn sure I didn’t make a single error in my selections. An innocent bystander may have thought I was perfect, that I had this sort of occasion in my DNA and could pull it off without a hitch. Not quite. I had studied hard for the last several years and could mimic being “that kind of girl” without batting an eyelash. But I wasn’t.
A flourish of organ music swept through the chapel and, predictably, all the attendees rose to their feet in a single movement. Every pair of eyes was fixed on the open double doors at the back of the room. The church coordinator nodded at me and I grinned amiably as I began the interminable walk down the aisle, positive that my tooth enamel was already a thing of the past, thanks to last night’s torrential rain of gin, beer, tequila and rum. The only thing that made me feel a little bit better as I made my way past so many familiar faces was that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. There were forty-one other girls trudging behind me in roughly the same condition. Note to self: if I ever have a daughter, lock her in her room the night before graduating from high school. She could thank me later.
Graduating from one of the preppiest institutions of learning in New York City, actually on the entire eastern seaboard is no small feat. The coursework is brutal, the rules are either obeyed or broken, (they do not bend), social life is limited (all-girls school will do that), and if you fuck up significantly at any time you are either “asked to leave” (everyone is so polite) or doomed to that terrible day senior year when you have to admit you’re not destined for an Ivy. It’s kind of like Survivor with kilts and SAT tutors. I have no idea how I did it, but I successfully stumbled my way through four years without ever excelling, being asked to leave, flaming out or being a star at anything other than class comedian.
That was my trump card. In the preppie crowd, a seventeen-year-old girl who can churn out witty epigrams is not a freak; she is, as unlikely as it sounds, popular. Why is this? Because she has proven at an early age that she is useful. Because. Because she is, and this is really key, already an excellent party (cocktail, dinner, debutante) guest who can hold her own and make the dreary look good. In other words, grades mattered, but so did charm; among other things, it could serve as an alternate route to a good college. That’s how I got into my alma mater. I did I with high SATs, mediocre grades, and the funniest, oiliest, most obsequious, shameless letter begging the Dean of Admissions at my safety school to let me in. My safety school was yet another bastion of Prep. I got in.
I feel I need to clarify something. When I said that my head was abuzz with shrieking wasps, I wasn’t speaking exclusively metaphorically. While I did have a headache that would make a sane person seriously consider trepanning, I could actually hear shrieking wasps all around me. Excuse me, I mean WASPS. On that very special day of barf and migraine, Brick Church was filled to the rafters with people named, without irony, Bitsy, Bootsy, Skip, Trey, Muffy, Biff, Kitten and Looly. Which would have been really comfortable for me if my people didn’t have names like Bascha, Sammy, Myra, Kasha, and Schmuly.
I had drifted down the church’s aisle in a merciful fugue state and made it to my seat without any noticeable difficulty. Preppie graduations are to be summed up thusly: a dour celebration of the prep lifestyle, boring as shit because the speaker is rarely interesting, and the headmistress’ speech is nothing more than an appeal for donations from our parents once we had left our school’s hallowed halls. [If you were a Muffy, you’d cough up. If you were a Bascha or a Myra, donating was done with a little more reflection.] And then the valedictorian does a little tap dance in which she thanks everyone who set her L.L. Bean-clad feet on the path to Harvard. The class speaker follows, talks a little bit about school life with a bit of levity, and slinks back to her seat thinking about her first day at Syracuse. Then there are tea sandwiches, gin and tonics, and a cascade of Pepto-Bismol swigged by all the girls in an attempt to make it to sundown without puking on her white silk shoes.
But I graduated in the 1980’s. Times were changing. Opinions were diverging and being aired, both left and right. I was a teenager, relatively privileged, and completely obtuse, the perfect recipe for navel gazing. I miscounted how many people partied together the night before. It wasn’t forty-two girls who had gotten maudlin and smashed together, it was more like thirty-six. And this year, one of the excluded six was class speaker. At the expected moment, she rose and took her place at the podium. Maria Theresa Ortiz-Gammon was one of the scholarship girls who lived north of 96th street (to all of you New Yorkers out there, that’s Harlem, both east and west) and who the school liked to display as much as possible to show both diversity and the doing of good works. Maria Theresa had always been genial, smart, low-key and a serious student. We, her classmates, were passively (and without much right) proud of her cadging the role of senior speaker and we eagerly awaited her words of wisdom. She did not disappoint.
“Thank you to the faculty, parents and my fellow graduates.”
Okay, that was a good start. When was the funny going to happen? I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes left to go.
“While I am aware that I have been chosen to speak about school life, I believe that all of you are not aware that I am not the right representative for my class nor any of you out there.” She vaguely waved a hand in the direction of her audience.
“I am a proud Latina, smart enough to be accepted into your midst but not white or rich enough to be truly part of your ranks. I am a proud Latina, willing to put up with your condescension for four years so I can now attend Smith College on a full scholarship.”
Everyone sat up in their seats. The faces of most of the faculty were turning purple. A quick swivel in my seat revealed that most parents were either doing the same or suffering from suddenly dislocated jaws that had dropped into their laps. Most of my classmates were doing the same. A few sported glowing, beatific smiles, knowing that they were witnessing the Prep unthinkable. A girl from above 96th street was gonna school the WASPs, and good. Maria Theresa continued.
“But now you should be aware of how things are changing and you are going to be left behind. When I got to this school, there wasn’t any acknowledgment of diversity so my friends and I started an afterschool group for girls like us. Now it has been appropriated by the school and used as a marketing tool. When I got to this school, I was afraid that I wouldn’t fit in. Four years later, I’m glad I don’t fit in. This is not a club that would ever really have me as a member, but don’t worry, it isn’t a club I plan to join.”
This was AWESOME.
She went on for the rest of her allotted time, her voice getting louder as she continued her raging speech of righteous indignation. Maria Theresa called people out by name. She invoked slurs that she had particularly enjoyed over the years. She even managed to lose her cool, point at the assembly, and utter the last words anyone would have expected would come from a girl who should be so grateful.
There is no way a group of teenagers can witness this and not go nuts. Which we did. Even though she had condemned the rest of us (But why me? Didn’t she remember I’m Jewish, which was basically the same thing as being a disenfranchised Latina from Spanish Harlem?), we went berserk. The standing ovation and cheering didn’t die down. It was, however, joined by a small chorus of voices from parents who sang out the usual “Well I never!” and “Should be ashamed!” My seventeen-year-old self was as shocked as anyone else in that church, but I’m quite sure that the words echoing in my head were echoing in the heads of my classmates. We may have been unclear who we directed our versions of those words to or why. We may have known exactly why, but still couldn’t fathom that it was happening. Maria Theresa had, perhaps unwittingly, given her classmates a priceless gift. What better way is there to leave high school, throw off the mantle of propriety that had been thrust upon us, and finally separate from the oppressive presence and demands of our parents and teachers than with a resounding “Fuck you!”
There isn’t. There was no better way to graduate from prep school and embark on the rest of our lives; at least my life. Those words became, to the great dismay of many people who only wanted the best for me, my motto. They were my guiding light. They still are.
I graduated from high school thirty years ago and will soon attend reunions and parties celebrating who we were then and who we are now. I have no clue if Maria Theresa will show up. I hope she does. I would greet her with the warmest welcome I could think of, the only way I could conjure to honor her indignant girlhood. I would do what I should have done thirty years ago. I would love nothing more than to embrace her (if she lets me) and quietly say, “Yeah, fuck them.”