I went back to school last week. Not for classes and not for any kind of reunion (the reunion part may come later). I returned to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy for the first time since I left, more years ago than I care to remember, because I received a mysterious phone message from a Sister Giulii (pronounced “Julie”). I called the number; the voice on the other end of the line was husky and casual and, I thought, entirely unclerical. My memories of the Flintridge sisters’ voices were full of crisp pronunciations and formal deliveries. Sister Giulii sounded like a girlfriend I hadn’t seen in a while. Which is pretty much what she turned out to be: a Flintridge classmate appearing out of the fog of our combined academic past. She’d tracked me down after reading one of my Arroyo columns about Flintridge, and she’d called to invite me to drive up to our old school together. She’d pick me up in her car, she said.
Say what? A Dominican nun with a car? I wondered how she’d manage to handle the wheel with all the long skirts, coifs, veils and capacious sleeves of her habit. And what kind of car would she drive?
The car turned out to be a Toyota Corolla. White. Clean, with a small clutch of papers on the passenger-side floor. These were brushed casually to the side so I’d have more leg room. This was the Giulii I’d known all those years ago, all right. The same spark of humor was there in her dark eyes. Her mouth still looked as if she might laugh at any moment. She was still pretty. Her thick dark curls were cropped short and, while the hair had remained thick, it had gone white. But she was not wearing a habit. Sister Giulii had on jeans and a gray T-shirt embossed across the front with the crest of Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy. I could not have been more surprised if she had been wearing a sarong.
We drove to La Cañada, talking about classmates who had entered the order. One girl, nicknamed Tyke, was the wildest student in our class, the one who found a way to smoke without being caught (and expelled), the one who managed to smuggle up a bottle of mouthwash laced with vodka, left school in the 10th grade and entered a Carmelite novitiate. Giullii told me Tyke left the Carmelites (the most enclosed of orders) and reentered the world after a few years. We talked about the suspense, during summer holidays, of waiting for the handsomely engraved card that invited you back for another year. If you did not receive that card, you weren’t welcome to return; it wasn’t like being expelled, but not being invited back to Flintridge would have made it difficult to be accepted at another private school. We traveled up St. Katherine Drive (the same route my mother and I had taken after weekends and holidays at home) until we reached the top. And there was the school, a sprawl of red-tile-roofed white buildings and lush landscaping with a rustic, bougainvillea-draped bridge that crossed over the drive to a compound of four-room cottages reserved for upperclassmen. I remembered how excited I was when, as a junior, I got to live in one of the cottages; all Flintridge students are boarders, and being allowed a space in a cottage felt as grown-up as scarlet lipstick and My Sin perfume.
The school, which was once the Flintridge Hotel (donated to the Catholic Church in the ’20s by its owner), looked the same as we walked up the flight of stone stairs to the entrance. The old hotel lobby still had the check-in desk where students signed in after weekends at home and where all incoming calls were screened. The big room off the lobby — where school plays, the junior and senior proms and the ceremonial senior ring ceremony were held — hadn’t changed, with the exception of a large lectern at the center of the room, facing a number of chairs. Sister Giulli explained that this was now the chapel. I was rather disappointed: My memory of the original chapel with its beautiful altar and rows of benches seemed much more the real deal to me. But the life-size statues of the Madonna holding the infant Jesus and Saint Francis with a small dog at his side were just as I remembered. The long hallway leading to the students’ rooms was unchanged. The Green Room, where we gathered after dinner for bridge games and dancing to donated record albums, was the same. But now it’s painted white and there is a very big flat-screen TV attached to one wall. I guess there’s not much dancing there now, or games of bridge and hearts. But just outside the room’s French doors, the patio with its round stone fountain was so familiar I half expected to see Sister Benigna bringing out the basket of sweet pastries she referred to as “afternoon lunch.”
The highlight of the day was meeting Sister Carolyn McCormack, the president of Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy. Sister Carolyn greeted me with the warmest of hugs and the kind of smile one doesn’t see often: wide and true and welcoming. She was wearing a habit, and I noticed the differences from those my teachers wore when I was a student. The new habits are shorter and the coif and veil are less constricting. The black cotton stockings and low-heeled shoes are unchanged, however.
Sister Carolyn, who was named Educator of the Year by the La Cañada Flintridge Chamber of Commerce in January, is apple-cheeked, with deeply intelligent eyes that hold an extra push of blue. Those eyes see you as you are, and when she leans in to speak she has the gift of making you feel as if you’re the only person in the room. She invited me to return to Flintridge, even to speak to any students interested in journalism. We met in the dining room, called the refectory when I was a student there. The big room is not much changed — the ceiling is as high and the candled chandeliers are still in place, but the white-clothed tables for eight have been replaced by round vinyl-topped tables bearing the Flintridge crest. And now, instead of meals served by the sisters, there are long tables with a choice of meals for self-service. I didn’t meet any students that day, but I saw a couple of girls studying at the other end of the dining room. The dark blue uniforms we wore when I was a Flintridge student have been replaced with red blazers and pleated skirts. Way more attractive.
It was a great day for me, and if it’s true you can’t go home again, you can most assuredly go back to school.