Instruments of Grace
Theresa and I were the only full time, continuous foreign students at Immaculate Heart College. Yes, others came in for a semester or two to study music or work on some project, rich girls whose families had sent them to America to study English or art, but they never made friends as we did, or worked hard at fitting in.
We ate lunch together, audited each other's classes, talked on the phone after hours. She came from Lebanon in her early teens and lived with an aunt and uncle, just as I did.
Our lives had other parallels: we both came from strict catholic families, had left our nucleus families behind, and had hoped everyone would eventually settle down in America.
Our school, Immaculate Heart College,at the foothills of the Los Angeles Observatory, at the tip of Western Avenue, sat on a hill covered by rugged terrain. All around, instead of a fence, thick growth of scrub oak, coyote bush, palm trees and blackberry bushes kept us safely inside. In the sixties, the campus included a convent, a church, classrooms, laboratories, auditorium, library and concert rooms. It expanded over the hills, with a beautiful view of the city all the way to the beach. It ceased to be a school in the late seventies, and the buildings were sold to The American Film Institute. The story of this school and the nuns who used to run it became front news in the Los AngelesTimes when the local archidioce refused to support the nuns when their political views had been held too publicly.
I was struggling to breathe normally and to find ease in my new rhythm. A gnawing depression seeped into my veins like the gray, nauseous smog over Los Angeles.
I told myself it was only temporary. What I needed to do was learn to eat American food, accept life in a new household, and finish my studies. I doubled my efforts, swallowing bread that tasted like cotton, and eating meat that was still raw.
My uncle’s wife prepared the main meal at seven in the evening, cooking steaks by turning them once, enough to burn their outside only. She served the meat with a baked potato and chocolate cake for dessert. Once, I attempted to recook the steak by slicing and sauteing it with tomatoes. She yelled at me for stinking up the kitchen. Steaks came in two sizes, fillet minon and New York Strip. They tasted the same to me. Only rarely I was allowed to cook pasta, or minestrone, and only when my uncle wanted such things.
I never thought food would become such a bone a contention in my life. I never imagined that I would miss the humble pasta e fasul.
Life at school was much easier than I had anticipated. Most of the work comprised of reading from a text and writing reports. In Italy, tests consisted of oral recitations in front of the class, everyone hoping you would mess be disgraced. Now, all tests came in written form. I could read and write English better than I could understand or speak it. My studies were going well, and I continued to receive extensions on my student visa.
Theresa would practice with me some troublesome words she caught me mispronouncing while we talked about our homelands, food, smells, friends and pleasurable activities we no longer had. She spoke of her large family in Lebanon, of how lucky she was that her Aunt brought her to America. After these talks, whatever had been bothering me dissipated for a few hours.
We each represented our respective country to the girls at schools.
People wanted to know about the life I left behind, though they already had fixed pictures of Italy from the movies they watched. Many had traveled far and wide and knew more places in Italy than I did. Their experiences were not mine. I only stayed one night in Rome, the night before boarding the plane to Los Angeles. When they spoke of the Vatican, of the Villa Borghese, of the Amalfi Coast, I smiled and nodded.
I had seen these places only in books and postcards.
I could not explain that pizza was not an entire meal, but a quick bread, eaten before the real loaves of bread came out of the communal oven, a bread with a bit of cheese and tomato, not drowned by a mountain of toppings.
Theresa seemed to know just what to say to ease my adjustment.
“English is not that hard. You just have to learn to use the verb ‘to get’. The idioms will come to you with time.”
And the lessons went on like that. “Get” had a different meaning based on the preposition following it, get in, get around, get over, get up, get out.
“Stop, I’m confused”, I shouted back.
I was waiting for the right moment to shed my skin and emerge fully formed, speaking flawless English. While the troubles adjusting at my uncle's house were weighing heavily in my heart, feeling all the time that his wife really didn't want me there, I didn’t want to go back home before I finished my studies.
I couldn’t go back a failure. Nobody would have believed me if I told them that life was too difficult; that Uncle was too busy to see that I was unhappy; that I felt like a servant in his house.
If only I could cook the food I knew.
I started out majoring in science, until formaldehyde made me sick. Most subjects were easy for me, mathematics, French, Art History. My papers, even with errors received high marks and encouraging comments.
My accent was thought "charming."
It was Dr. Cordero, one of my English teachers, who encouraged me to take more English classes until I had enough courses to declare a major. When I told him I lacked vocabulary and the proper formal education, he reminded me that I had Latin as my trump card and had read more literature than any eighteen year old he knew. In a poetry class, discussing Ezra Pound, my knowledge of allusions in Pound’s Cantos seemed to please him. He remarked to the class that if they wanted to be literate they needed to read Dante, Virgil, Boccaccio. I began to feel the admiration and respect of the class, no longer thinking of me as a poor immigrant girl.
The place hummed with a golden innocence. Though we didn’t wear uniforms, we looked alike, pleated skirts and white shirts ,meticulously starched, sporting a pin or two, hair in pony tails or worn loose with hair bands. We all covered our books with verses from favorite poems, done in beautiful calligraphy.
Under the tutelage of art teacher Sister Corita, we learned to observe and express our point of view.
“We choose our roles in life the way we choose our paints," she imparted wisdom with each lesson, " the way we impart an overall mood and emotional effect on our canvasses." “We select what we pay attention to and what we ignore, consciously and unconsciously. Choose your strokes, your focus, and the attention will go there. Art is the human effort to create a new world on each canvas."
In a cavernous room full of paints, brushes, canvasses in various stages of progress, collages, serigraphs, banners, and assorted materials, a small framed woman in her mid twenties, Sister Corita, infused energy in every corner, asked us to think about our world, about concepts such as justice, peace, the power of the image.
"We are all instruments of grace, able to dream solutions, able to shake the world off its axis. Observe, relate. Express your thoughts with words and symbols. "
At Mass, singing in English, rhythms joyous and humble, we expressed love and joy for the world around us. The discussions in class related to what was important, and the roles waiting for us.
The stirrings reported in the local newspapers were discussed at the same time as the poetry of John Donne, or the tragedies of Shakespeare. People lived in fear, we heard. People were prevented from entering certain buildings, from frequenting certain neighborhoods, taking up certain careers.
Protest songs made their way into our liturgy, or in our daily procession up the hill to the Grotto with the statue of the Virgin, a rugged path that kept us focused on the terrain and the rhythm of the song. "How many times must...." a Bob Dylan song became our walking prayer.
When we heard of the thousands of people who marched on Washington, D.C. to hear southern Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak of the need for justice and equality for black people, we improvised a protest march across campus. In an informal way, classes were dismissed and the procession grew. Everyone out of class grabbed make-shift banners and chanted their way to the Grotto, gaining members as they went through the entire campus.
We lived in a rarefied atmosphere, in the security of a private institution that was well endowed, with money and power. Yet. we were encouraged to express our beliefs through actions.
I took the bus to school. Theresa walked from nearby Hollywood Boulevard where her relatives had a business. Most of the other girls were dropped off in chauffeured Cadillacs or limousines.
Uncle had enrolled me at Immaculate Heart because he believed girls my age needed to remain innocent. Theresa's relatives enrolled her because she could walk to classes, and in the afternoon, she could work at the costume shop. Most people’s main interest in keeping girls in Catholic schools was to keep those girls in a protected environment, away from improper influences.
Uncle had no idea of the kind of education I was receiving.