In September of 1962, I entered Mt. Carmel High School as a freshman. I was not quite fourteen years old and looked like I was only about ten. At under five feet tall and only about seventy pounds I was a tiny girl who didn’t appear to belong. I was both excited and terrified as I walked down the wide gleaming halls in the two story building that still looked as new as it had when it was built only a few years before. I had been warned that members of the upper classes might try to sell me an elevator pass and that I was to politely refuse to purchase one because there was no elevator in the building. It was easy to tell the fish from those who had already spent a year or more studying in those classrooms. We wandered with dazed looks on our faces as we attempted to take in the magnitude of our new phase of life. The girls looked a bit uncomfortable in uniforms which seemed to have been designed to make us look as unattractive as possible. We would eventually grow to hate the brown pencil skirts, white button shirts, and white sweaters that were our daily wear but in those early days it was all brand new and we did not yet understand how weary we would become of donning the same outfit every single day.
Our teachers were no nonsense as they outlined the requirements for each class. They insinuated that we would have to demonstrate our mettle or be left behind. It felt as though we were in military boot camp as we wondered how it was even possible to read and report on a book each week while also writing two hundred word themes that would be due every Monday morning. It was difficult to work the combination locks on our lockers and still have time to rush to class from one floor to the next. There was so much to remember, so much to do and learn. I don’t recall much from the beginning because I felt as though I was in a daze but soon enough we all had adjusted to our routines.
The best part of being in high school was a new found freedom that we had never before experienced. Nobody was treating us like babies any longer. We became responsible for ourselves and it was exhilarating. There were also so many new faces with people coming from all over southeast Houston to join us in our adventure. At first I felt shy and self conscious but before long I was enjoying brand new friendships that would only grow as I worked my way through the next four years.
This was a year of profound change all around the world. Pope John XXIII died during that school term and would many years later become a saint. A little musical group from Liverpool, England would score a music hit with a catchy tune called I Want To Hold Your Hand. Rachel Carson would alert mankind to the dangers of polluting our environment in Silent Spring. Charles Schulz would introduce Happiness Is a Warm Puppy and Crick, Wilson, and Watson would earn the Nobel Price for Medicine and Physiology for determining the molecular structure of DNA. In my hometown of Houston Dr. Michael DeBakey used the first artificial heart during surgery.
I loved my teachers and my classmates almost instantly. Father Shane, my English teacher, would become a beloved icon and inspiration both for my writing and my career in education. Sister Wanda somehow made Latin fun and Father Bernard opened up the heavens for me in our Physical Science class. Father Franklin did his best to teach us Algebra I but I still suspect that I mostly self taught myself when I went home each evening to unravel the confusion that I felt after each of his lectures. Sister Francina was as sweet as can be but I often experienced stark terror whenever she began shuffling the index cards that contained each of our names so that she might randomly quiz us on the reading that we were supposed to have done the previous night.
Mostly though I loved all of the extracurricular activities associated with high school. I joined the newspaper and became a cub reporter, although my contributions were minimal. I traveled with the Medical Careers Club on field trips to the Houston Medical Center thinking that I might one day pursue a degree in medicine. I loved our class journeys to the Alley Theater and to the Music Hall to hear the Houston Symphony. I became a member of the Student Council and momentarily marched with the Cadets drill team. Best of all were the Friday night football games where we all met to blow off the stress from studying and to just laugh and yell and be ourselves.
Mt. Carmel sponsored a dance every Saturday night in the school cafeteria. It was open to anyone willing to pay the small entry fee. Disc jockeys from radio station KNUZ played the latest music and sometimes even secured live bands. They advertised on the radio so we usually drew a nice crowd. I went almost every Saturday night and loved listening to the music and visiting with my classmates. I learned the true meaning of being a wallflower as I often found myself relegated to sitting in the metal chairs that lined the perimeter of the dance floor. Somehow I still managed to enjoy the evening even when I never got the opportunity to hit the dance floor.
I was in awe of the older students in the school. I thought that Gerri Gallerano was the most beautiful girl that I had ever seen and since she always smiled at me when she passed in the hallway I knew that she was also quite sweet. I formed a new friendship with a girl named Claudia who had gone to my previous school but whom I had never really known that well. Her sister Camille was a senior who kept us well informed regarding the dos and don’ts of high school society. She was so down to earth and would serve as a major inspiration for me for years. I never really got to know many of the juniors but since my cousin, Ingrid, was in the sophomore class as was my next door neighbor I felt more comfortable with them. I had major crushes on several of the sophomore boys but their names will go with me to the grave.
The freshman year of the Class of 1966 would prove to be quite wonderful. Somehow we managed to meet all of the impossible deadlines that our teachers set for us while we were being transformed from babies into bonafide teenagers. We had little warning that our innocence and that of the world would soon be put to the test. For the time being we lived in a comfortable world where the halls were filled with our laughter and we believed the hopes and dreams that we whispered to one another as we walked from class to class would most assuredly come true.
I look at the cute little faces of my classmates in the yearbook for 1962-1963 and I wonder how I possibly felt intimidated and shy around anyone. All of the kids wear expressions that are so sweet and eager to please. Their smiles are genuine and inviting. It is easy to see that we were all good people beginning a four year journey in which each of us would be forever changed.