It was the voice of Pennie, a high school classmate, busy organizing our upcoming 50th class reunion and calling long distance to give me a report on the attendance list.
And she told me that, in her calls to our classmates, she had heard some impassioned negative reactions from several of my fellow day students (we were a distinct minority at our high school, which was primarily for boarding students from all over the world). She said that they were still haunted by memories of sexual harassment from Sister X, who was our senior class advisor and principal during our last two years of school. She said that these classmates had told her -- independently -- that Sister X used to come into the room where day students changed for gym and stare intently at the girls, deriving sexual pleasure that seemed obvious to some of them and, in some instances, tried to find excuses to touch them.
Pennie asked if I remembered anything like that happening in the gym changing room. For a moment, I was speechless.
I have no memory of such a scenario.
Of course, I was in the gym changing room as rarely as possible. I loathed volleyball and basketball and was always the last one chosen for an unlucky team. But I did become something of a legend -- for my gym excuses. I think I reported having my period (a valid gym excuse back then) for three years straight and then, my senior year, I got out of gym with conflicting drama practice and work on the school newspaper and yearbook. So I wasn't often in that gym changing room.
But sadly, I don't discount their memories. Sister X always seemed more than a little sexually obsessed. She used to see double meanings in the most innocent comments. And she brought a sex crimes folder, filled with lurid crime clippings, to our Adult Living portion of religion class, reading a sex crime of the day and telling us that men could be dangerous.
So while I have no memory of Sister's sexual intrusiveness, it wouldn't surprise me if it were true. She was unlike so many of the rest of the nuns, who were so kind and generous with loving support, encouragement and praise -- and were never inappropriate in their affection toward us.
What also doesn't surprise me -- as it did Pennie when she heard their stories all these years later -- is that not one of these girls told a parent. It might have meant being whisked out of school in the middle of senior year and not being able to graduate with their friends. It might have meant their accusations getting a very public hearing to her impassioned denials -- and embarrassment or banishment to the victims. It was easier to keep quiet.
That has been true of many victims of sexual transgressions by clergy and by other trusted adults.
But, oh, the cost of that silence. I'm sad that the pain still lingers for them after all these years. So many years after Sister X was suddenly transferred away from the school two years after we graduated. So many years after her death from complications of Alzheimer's. So many years since they felt so young and powerless.
I feel sad that their anger and pain makes them not want to see peers who were once childhood friends, that they want to close off all contact and reminders of an era that had its share of pain as well as pleasure for all of us. There are so many moments in our vulnerable younger years that we all remember with pain -- perhaps being excluded or ridiculed or criticized -- and with quiet thanks that our lives have moved on.
But sexual harassment and abuse is different. Feeling young and powerless and threatened is a horror that can overshadow adolescent friendships, kindness, fun and the extravagant dreams that flourish in those final months of high school.
I do understand. But those empty spaces, those missing faces, as our class reunites to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our graduation and receive golden diplomas in a special ceremony at our old high school, will make me sad. I can only imagine how that long silence, that simmering anger, those painful memories may have impinged on the rest of their lives -- and I quietly and fervently hope that moments of peace and happiness in their lives have far outweighed the haunting memories that linger still.