"My father's a janitor." I said. " My tuition is covered by a welfare scholarship. My mother takes in laundry for a rich white family who bought my clothes and loaned me the Benz."
That's what I told the blonde social queens of our convent school in response to their question,
"How much money does your father make that you can afford to be here?"
It was 1970, we were sophomores at a girl's finishing school, the Benz was an old 1959 190SL, and it was a 16th birthday present from my father. I thought I'd said too much, gone too far with a narrative whose details didn't seem plausible. They'd know I was making it up, mocking them as they mocked me.
On the contrary, they loved my frank humility, and for a few weeks I became a favored pet.
We were never to ask questions about money, and everyone at school knew it. It was considered incredibly rude. The story about my father being a janitor came out as a knee-jerk reaction. I was a kid at boarding school, sometimes forgetting that my skin color made me different, because there were other girls who had accents and customs that identified them as more foreign than me in the school of 300 girls.
The social queens came upon me in a courtyard during lunch. I remember it clearly, the wall of blonde varsity volleyball team that stepped in front of me, blocking my way. It wasn't aggressive, it wasn't overtly hostile, but it was a challenge. Prove yourself to us. They were trapping a wild animal for observation, and for their own protection, as my behavior in captivity was still an unknown, they did it as a group.
They'd grown up together, gone to parochial elementary and junior high in segregated, though it was called exclusive, neighborhoods before coming to the convent for high school. They were a gang of we don't think we're mean girls, we just think we're better than you. They were determined to take down, or absorb into their pack, any lone wolves who appeared to threaten their dominion over the realm of smart, pretty, and going places.
I was a boarding student. They were day-dogs. I don't know why we called them that, but we did. They'd started at the convent as freshmen. I'd been living there since I was eight. It was more home to me by then than home. I knew secret places to escape. I knew the old nuns and the cook and the pastry chef. I knew how to live in community, how to get along with different cultures.
By high school I had already met this particular beast untethered, white privilege that assumes its superiority, in the guise of nuns bending over backward to accentuate our differences with blatant attempts to cull us from the herd. You could usually see them coming, the ones with veils flying and heels tapping, hurrying with offers of extra-help because of course you people always need it. Some openly treated my sister and me as if we were charity cases, though our parents paid the same tuition as everyone else. Early accusations of plagiarism, or the times I had to take repeat tests alone to be certain I could replicate my answers, negated the fact that my sister and I had taken an arduous day long test to skip grade three when we first came to the convent. But these were things of the past. Surely my credibility and bona fides at this institution had already been firmly established after a seven years tenure? But now, here it was again, prove yourself worthy.
My father wasn't a janitor, he was an aerospace engineer and he had helped to put man on the moon. The only janitor I knew personally worked at the special education school where my mother was a speech pathologist. Mr. Quimby was his name, and he was right off the boat from Ireland, where he said his people were considered niggers too. He sold Mama Irish Sweepstakes tickets once a year. He told wonderful stories and bawdy jokes. I could almost smell the peat smoke and hear the flutes and concertinas in his brogue. He had apple cheeks and a big belly laugh and a closet full of cleaning supplies. He was lovely, and I learned from him that lovely people do many things for a living, but it's not what measures their worth.
For weeks the social queens gathered at lunchtime to hear stories of my Janitor's daughter's life, so foreign from our own. It was a colorful saga - of many people living together crammed into a one room shack, with no running water, and an outhouse. I shared the secrets of washing clothes in river water slapped against big rocks, and introduced the notion of foraging for food. I embellished Mr. Quimby's colorful history of poverty and pretended it was my own.
Sister Kathryn was my favorite nun. She was our movie star beautiful, virtuoso violin playing, dean of students. She stopped by my room one night, several weeks after the janitor's daughter was born, and invited me to meet in her office the next morning. There she confronted me with my stories, and was incredibly knowledgeable about the details of same.
"A janitor's daughter? How would your parents feel about the way you've described them? They've worked very hard to achieve what they have." She admonished.
"I think they'd laugh. They'd know why I did it." I said.
"Why did you do it?" She asked sincerely.
"I just told them what they wanted to hear. They don't want the truth, that I'm just like them, or that heaven forfend, I might even be smarter, prettier, and happier then they're supposed to be. They want stories that make the world make sense to them. So that's what I gave them. It's what they want to believe, that they're better than me. What do I care if they believe that my father's a janitor? What difference does it make, especially if I'm the architect of that belief?"
We were silent for a while. I could see she'd understood. I was hopeful.
"You'll have to apologize." Sister Kathryn said at last.
"WHAT?! But they're just stories!" I cried, desperate not to be humiliated in front of that pack of she-wolves.
"You lied." she said.
I wrinkled a brow and pouted,
"White lies." I offered. "Who was hurt by them?"
Here her face clouded and she looked down at her hands and at the wood floor.
"Your stories first came to our attention when we noticed a large uptick in scholarship donations. Many were given in your name." She confessed.
We stared at each other, and then we burst out laughing, then I started to cry.
"That's why I have to apologize?"
She nodded sympathetically.
"Will you get to keep the money if I do, for someone else?" I asked.
"I suppose so, no one will take back a donation."
The time and place were fixed for my apology. An informal tea in the French parlor at the convent, with Sister Kathryn, the four social queens and their mothers on a Sunday afternoon. I was to host them all.
I spent the entire weekend writing and trashing hundreds of apologies. But I couldn't figure out how to serve the brief and still win. I was spitting angry and tearfully frustrated at my hopeless situation when Sister Kathryn paid me a visit in my room, now a landscape of wadded paper balls. She looked at the tears rolling down my cheeks.
"Having a hard time with it?" She asked of the obvious.
I nodded and snorted.
"I might be able to help you." She said.
I looked at her, surprised and hopeful that there might be rescue.
"I think you've lost sight of where this all started. It's always best to go back to the beginning." She smiled reassuringly. She handed me a handkerchief plucked from her sweater sleeve and left my room.
Back to the beginning? How was that helpful? Where it all started? Back to the beginning? Then it hit me. Absolutely true and simple and to the point.
I took a clean sheet of paper and wrote one sentence on it. Then I cleaned up my room.
The French parlor was so called for the Louis quinze style gilt and brocade furnishings, the ornate portraiture on papered walls edged in mahogany wood, and Aubusson rugs. The room had an over done opulence that said money, once upon a time.
The social niceties were observed that day, it was a finishing school after all, where we were taught how to ice our enemies in the nicest ways. Chit-chat, observations on the weather, it was southern California, so almost always nice, and the traffic, almost always bad. The mothers wore mink coats against the chill of their air conditioned Cadillacs. The furs were now laid on a settee with shapely legs in the corner, the fur turned in to monogrammed silk linings. Large carat weight diamonds winked on well manicured hands, like headlights, blinding when caught in the sunlight through tall windows.
Suddenly I was on. The clink of sterling against china hushed, and I could feel hungry expectant eyes urging me on to the main attraction, my own humiliation. Maybe I imagined it, or in the reinvention of memory it's become more dramatic than it was, but it seemed like the moment in an epic battle where the hero must prove her metal to move on, or fall away to nothing. The many headed mother-daughter monster salivated in unseemly triumph before me. They saw me already smacked me down, the lying outlier who dared to take them on as equal, while they fed at my neck. Or maybe they just wanted to watch someone grovel, to make themselves feel superior. I'll never know.
I smiled. I remember doing it because it made me feel less afraid once I had. I took the room in, this tribe of blonde women who hated me on general principal, and Sister Kathryn who I knew had my back, but wasn't allowed to show it lest it appear as favoritism, or, god forbid, pity.
"I'm sorry for misleading my peers," I began, reading my prepared sentence. "But I didn't know how to respond when they asked me how much money my father made."
It took a moment for it to sink in, for the diamonds to dim, for the mother's smiles of triumph to become forced and social, for the girls to begin imagining their own punishments for this compounded social comeuppance. It took everything I had not to be smug. They'd been hoist on their own petard. They'd assumed I didn't know how to play the game. But Sister Kathryn saved me. She showed me all the game pieces I had to play, and I didn't want to blow her rescue. I didn't want to be lessened in her esteem.
It's funny to me now and rather charming that my revenge was so inventive. I see now that even in losing there was victory. Story is a powerful tool. But the ability to shape narrative should never be taken lightly, nor fiction and feeling be allowed to supplant the truth. I know now that I was always worthy and need not have passed anyone's test, but then if none of that had happened, I wouldn't have had this story.