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“We Are the Girls from Seton High”

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Overcoming her ambivalence, multi-media journalist Mary C. Curtis finds comfort and acceptance at her high school reunion.

Our hostess, after raising eight children in her sprawling, welcoming home, still had that mischievous twinkle in her eye. (I’m not sure what everyone else is wearing, she had warned us, but “I’m wearing shorts”).

My partner on the school newspaper, a bundle of curious, sunny energy, still had a joke for every occasion. (Want to hear the one about the mini-van, the son who moved back home and how she got her dream Mercedes sedan?)

The class president was as pretty as ever, with striking blue eyes and soft curls. (We don’t care how you keep them as blond as your yearbook picture, dear).

It was as though a movie make-up artist—tasked with aging a roomful of Hollywood ingénues—had passed through, adding the occasional wrinkle or pound yet leaving the essence intact.

How I couldn’t wait to leave Baltimore and Seton High back in the 1970s, the all girls’ Catholic school that shaped me in ways I didn’t care to admit. It wasn’t that I didn’t have fun or friends. But I’ve always been a believer in looking forward, and harkening back to my years under the stairs as co-editor of the Setonea didn’t seem to have much of a point. It’s why I first tossed aside the notice of yet another reunion.

But I didn’t throw the letter away.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how curious I was—about the women these girls had become. Though a lot has changed since the 1970s, I had at first thought of the lifers, those who stayed in Baltimore, as belonging to some sort of club where they met every week and reminisced to keep strong the connections I never thought I had made. That’s silly, of course. Life happens. Seton High isn’t even Seton anymore, forced to merge with another school to survive—a familiar sad story.

Finally, the one high school friend I never lost touch with convinced me, offered to pick me up if I made it as far as Baltimore. (She’s been there through my family gatherings, each celebration and funeral. I could always talk to her if I didn’t recognize anyone and no one recognized me, I figured).

Then I was there… and “wow”! In that one word, “Sister” got it exactly right. She’s now a nun in the order of Daughters of Charity, our long-ago teachers and nemeses. She spoke before our new “class picture”—of the joy of being together again, of the memories of those who had died, of the love and high spirits of the 50 or so in the room. This class athlete still had the moves when recalling playing hurt and trying to hide it. She attended college after Seton, and it was great, she told me. But there was that yearning for a vocation that has blossomed. She looked beautiful, peaceful. I appreciated being in her space, in that place of spiritual fulfillment without irony or regret.

That was Seton. So, too, was the redhead I remember wanting to get to know better way back when and now. Married? “Yes,” she told me. Children? “No, I know my limitations,” she said with a sly smile.

There were plenty of children, though, in photos and stories—understandably more in this room of Catholic women than you might find in another group. Some in their families had challenges or disabilities that these moms had met with heroic advocacy. The helping professions were well represented—more nurses than I could count, teachers, substance abuse counselors, neighborhood activists, two nuns and a doctor, according to my inexact tally.

Of the handful of black students in our class, just three of us came. (One, someone I had known since kindergarten, had become both nurse and lawyer). We were praised for our relatively wrinkle-free appearance—God’s lovely little present that serves, perhaps, as an equalizer for other troubles.

Another girl I remember as thoughtful and fast on her feet asked me about that. She was nurtured in a working-class white neighborhood where even in the 1970s, being “Black While Walking” was a sketchy proposition after dark. How tough was it, she asked me, being one of the few blacks at Seton—clever and funny and a class leader, but always apart. She noticed it then, and wanted to say something now.

It was preparation for life, I told her. There were slights, to be sure, off-hand remarks from girls who had not encountered blacks in person but came to Seton with ideas of their own and their parents of what “we” were like. And there were questions from teachers who should have known better, such as the Algebra II taskmaster who kept me after class one day to ask how I could be so good at math. “Are other people in your family smart?” the nun wondered, peeking at me over wire-rimmed glasses. She was looking for some explanatory exception that might leave her stereotypes intact. I earned my A and shook it off.

But Sister Mary Augustine, who had her own wacky style, pulled me into that journalism office and I never really left. Though at the time I often felt more admired than liked by my classmates, that feeling was lost at this reunion, especially after a couple of glasses of wine. When a girl, now woman, who hardly spoke with me then said, “I always knew you were going to make something of yourself,” her words were genuine and I was genuinely moved.

They came from Michigan, Tennessee, New York and Baltimore neighborhoods I still haven’t set foot in. Some had survived cancer, others had simply survived. By the time we sang: “We are the girls from Seton High you hear so much about…” all was forgiven and everything but the good times forgotten.

It was tough leaving the people I ran from once upon a time. But, God willing, I’ll be proud to attend next time the girls from Seton High decide to throw a party.

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