The Girls of St. Xavier

(names and identifying details, including of the convent, have been changed)

Jenna Orkin

A few years ago, as part of a deal, (not for salvation) I offered piano lessons to the girls who lived at the convent of St. Xavier.  Some of them had been sent there by the court after they'd violated the law. Others had been violated themselves. It was impossible to tell who fell into which category.

I was nervous about this history. I wasn't sure how to span the gulf between my relatively benign childhood and theirs.
The first time I showed up the nun in charge said she'd asked the girls who wanted to take music lessons.  Nobody did.

   "I'm sorry you came all this way," she said.

   "Could I just meet the girls?"
   "All right."

   It was lunch time and about six girls were home. They only went to school half days. I assumed this meant they were among the more troubled girls. One of them had made the lunch.

   "She does most of the cooking for the group," the nun said.

   "How did you learn how to cook?" I asked the girl, whose name was Gladys.

   "I learned when I was seven," she said. "I learned by watching."

   Another girl, Tania, had her head in a pillow. Nancy, the lay woman in charge of the girls, asked her what was wrong.

   Tania shouted into the pillow.

   "You're in a selfish mood?" Nancy said. "All right," and she went onto the porch to summon the other girls for lunch.

   I explained to the girls what I was doing there.

   "Do any of you want to learn music?" I asked them.

   "Yes," four of them answered:  Tania, her younger sister, Michelle and two girls who were carefully made up.
    So after lunch we went downstairs to the piano.

   The girls listened attentively except for Michelle who was two years younger than the others and restless. After half an hour I thought they should hear a substantial piece of music. They'd probably never heard concert music played live before.

   I played them Chopin's  B Flat Minor Scherzo because it's dramatic and I wanted to keep their interest.

   At the end of the first section I stopped, like a swimmer who pauses at a rock, and asked them if they wanted to hear the rest.

   "No," said Michele.

   Yes, said the other three, breathlessly.

   I played to the end.
"Was that a sad song?" asked Maria. She looked alarmed.
"I don't know," I said. The piece is tragic, lyrical, thunderous, sad and ironic. "Why?"
"That was a sad song?"

   She seemed to need a "Yes."
"Parts of it are sad; yes."
"Good..." She sat back, relieved. "Because I was crying."

I have about seven students now, though never more than three at a time and never the same combination. Sometimes girls come who just want to sing so I accompany them. Sometimes a girl leaves after ten minutes to go to the bathroom and about the time the rest of us expect her back, someone else shows up. Sometimes the girls want to learn different pieces and go at them on different parts of the piano at the same time.
   Once during a lesson, we heard shouts from upstairs.

   "They're having a fight," Tania explained.

   Once Michelle showed up in a cast. Another time Kim looked dazed. Jasmine explained, "She has staples in her head."

Now the girls like to read me stories they've written or poems, songs or cheers for their cheerleading groups. One girl wrote a story about a modern Cinderella called Cinderquita who has two ugly sisters in a foster family. The fairy godmother is a girl on roller blades who adopts Cinderquita. The prince is her brother. The story is twenty two pages long and wasn't written for a school assignment. The girl is working on a version to send to student magazines.

Another girl goes to a performing arts high school. She sings a cappella - of necessity - popular songs and songs she has written. Since I don't know popular music I can't tell the difference. Her favorite is called "If you Want to Be Somebody." All the girls know how to copyright their work: They either send self-addressed copies to themselves or get the copyright form from the Library of Congress.

One girl, Gwendloyn, was slower to catch on to the music lessons than the others. It turned out this was because she was only twelve.

One day I had Gwendolyn by herself and  she taught me Spanish:  "Cailla - te la boca, Stupida."  ("Shut your mouth, Stupid.") In the middle of the lesson Gwendolyn excused herself, saying she had to see the nurse.

  After fifteen minutes I went to look for her. The nurse had called the nun in charge. Gwendolyn was going to the emergency ward because she was hallucinating.

   While we waited for the nun in charge to make the arrangements, Gwendolyn performed a cheer she had written..
"Body-rockin, brain-shockin', earth - quaking, money-making... "
    The hyphenated words sounded like Dylan Thomas.
    Gwendolyn ended up staying in the hospital over Christmas. The other girls wanted to visit but weren't allowed to. They imagined this was because the hospital wanted Gwendolyn to erase her past.

   Now she's back and one of the counselors gives her medication every night.
It's going to be her birthday soon. She says she's going to stay in her room and cry.       

   "Why?" I ask.

   "Because I want to go home."

   "They'll do that for you," Tania says.  As an old timer, Tania is always there for the younger girls when they have problems.

   "No, no," Gwendolyn says.  "I'll just stay in my room and cry. Roberta?" she asks the counselor nearest her.  "You know what I'm going to do on my birthday?"

   "I'll ask Sister Marguerite for a day pass for your birthday," Roberta says.