Visiting The Factory
by Nicole Monaghan

My elementary school. Christ the King of northeast Philly, grades one through eight. It made me, didn’t it? Almost as much as the elusive microscopic braids of my DNA. Because every day I experienced at CTK during those formidable years would represent the “nurture” element in the nature vs. nurture debate that even the most rigorous of scientists would allow at least some consideration—that both biology and experience ultimately hold shaping power as to the human beings we become. If no other set of experiences in life would be indelibly impressed in our minds, those of grade school—that precipice we stand on between babyhood and adulthood where we first find ourselves as members of little societies–surely would.

What were the lasting and defining memories? It was the smell of pencil lead, Number Two, as I made my first presentation in front of a classroom. It was the single-file lines to the lavatory. It was the word “lavatory.” It was playing hopscotch on the blacktop, our parking lot which doubled as a recess yard. It was looking forward to dress-down day, paying the required quarter to the fifth-grade teacher, then having her send me to the principal’s office for my “inappropriate pants,” a pair of flesh-colored leggings that apparently revealed my premature curves too easily to the prepubescent boys. It was the eighth-grade class trip to Hershey Park where, for the first time, all groups, “nerds” and “jocks,” “super-smarts” and “average” kids, “prudes” and “sluts,” seemed to overlap as they lined up for the roller coaster. It was the soft pretzels and juice cartons at recess and the sixth grade science teacher who called me to her desk in the middle of (science) class to tell me I was a very talented writer, that I should pursue writing, write for the high school newspaper when I got there (which I would), and keep writing no matter what (I wouldn’t, but then would). She didn’t know about the hundreds of scribbled stories, poems, and journal entries I’d already composed, or the fact that at that point, age eleven, I’d already intuitively understood writing was home for me, a place to feel good and right and free and smart and normal for a girl who’d gotten her first period at age nine (yes, nine), the first girl in her class to have grown boobs but who wouldn’t dare let a boy touch her (for a very, very, very long time) because she internalized the shame of having changed too young, a girl who boys were intimidated by, a girl who wanted desperately for them to talk to her, a girl who felt entirely freaky, who couldn’t–despite having wonderfully loving and insightful parents–reconcile her mature emotions with her number of years. I walked back to my desk proud and hopeful. And this teacher’s words would replay in my mind: Keep writing no matter what, keep writing no matter what. 

In summer, 2009, with twenty-one years of life having elapsed between my eighth-grade graduation from CTK and this visit to the school, I led my three children, ages nine, eight, and four through the double doors already propped open to the August heat and found myself quieting their boisterous voices. The speckled floors hadn’t changed. In my mind, I saw a blur of saddle shoes and attempted to grasp how many had tapped these tiles. Walking down the hallways was like spying on my own vague dreams. These were the corridors of my memories, the places I’d made friends when we weren’t supposed to talk, the place I saw the boy I longed to be with as we waited in line to use the porcelain water fountain, its lukewarm delivery never satisfying my thirst. (And the boy, my desire for him was never satisfied either.)

My kids and I found the now-principal’s office. I’d only recently discovered she was a relative of a friend. That “small world” connection had been the impetus for this visit. But now it seemed fated all along—just as I was preparing to prioritize writing again for the first time since graduate school and after nine years of viewing my writing as something I’d pursue “some day,” I’d stumbled upon circumstances that would lead me to circle back to an old self, a familiar and long-forgotten place that continued to breathe inside me, waiting for a voice.

The truth was that the eight years at CTK wasn’t all hushed voices and “Thou Shalt Nots.” There was learning, friendship, compassion, respect, and yes, spirituality. I was comforted by the cartoon drawings of Jesus in the religion workbooks whose pages I liked the scent of—that particular mix of ink and promise. I knew what I learned in religion class was true, never felt brainwashed, and held dear my gift of easy faith. I did want to do what “Jesus Would Do,” and I never had a nun slap me with a ruler like I’d heard whispered about by people who seemed to think Catholic School was a cult. To the contrary, I was lovingly encouraged to be my best self. One of my favorite teachers was Sister Marlene, who gave me the job of counting pretzel and juice money and folding it neatly into a manila envelope precisely because she knew I needed a nudge in the direction of learning responsibility. I’d always shied away from anything quantifiable, opting for the path of least numbers. But I overheard her explaining to my parents at teacher conferences that she trusted I would learn numbers mattered, and that she believed I was in fact learning. Her trust in me made me trust myself. And I became a little more responsible, and a little more open to math.

The principal greeted me and the kids warmly, talking with pride about her fifty-some years in Catholic Education and about CTK’s computer lab complete with flat-screen monitors and projectors with large screens in all but four classrooms. When the phone rang, she called on two students who were organizing uniforms to conduct our tour. She introduced them as an eighth-grader and a fifth-grader, and I could see by a tiny flicker behind her eyeglasses that these kids made her more proud than any piece of equipment the building housed.

The girls were confident, informative, and gracious, leading us down the hall to see the library, the art room, and the gymnasium, complete with a renovated stage. The eighth-grader had to fiddle with the mass of jangly keys each time she opened a new door. I pondered that the doors seemed to have withstood so much without aging. They were precisely as I had remembered them–orange-brown wood, big silver knobs, and double rectangular panels of brushed glass which was almost too opaque to see in or out of. 

Peeking in at one of the sixth-grade rooms with the caddy-cornered podium, the painted cinderblock walls, the desks with the one groove along the top to cradle one’s pencil, was like looking at a photograph from the day I’d been told to write, write, write. I saw her there, my teacher with the serious look in her eyes, not in real time but in my mind’s eye, I saw her calling me to her desk to talk privately. I felt it again, the warmth, the encouragement toward a calling, the faith in who I was always meant to be that sustained throughout the trials of high school, college, falling in love, the births of three children, and the challenges of marriage and family life. My eight years at CTK had determined who I’d become as much as my mother’s intelligence or my father’s olive skin, as much as a biological program etched in my genes. When I mentioned the teacher’s name to the students, and they told me she still taught there but was retiring after the coming year, I heard it, clear as the memory of the morning bell, I heard the call to go home and write, and to keep writing. No matter what.

This piece won First Prize Honors at the 62nd Annual Philadelphia Writers’ Conference for Memoir. Nicole Monaghan’s work appears or is forthcoming in PANK, Used Furniture Review, Foundling Review, Negative Suck, and many other places she loves. Visit  http://writenic.wordpress.com for all things literary and Nicole, where she blogs regularly about flash and gets excited about visitors.

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