Very often, when I reminisce to you about Brooklyn, I mention my old grammar school. But I didn't spend all my time at St. Bernadette's Grammar School. One hot June Sunday in the mid-seventies I got "sprung" from "that joint". And as all good Brooklyn Catholic girls do, I went on to Catholic high school the following September. Fontbonne Hall Academy sounds more like a French cooking school than the all-girls Catholic high school that it is.
Fontbonne Hall was started by the Sisters of St. Joseph sixty years ago. It was named after Sister John Fontbonne, the founder of the order. In its early days, it was THE school to send your daughter to and thus it earned the moniker "snob hill." Over the years, Fontbonne has had its share of wiseguy offspring gracing its halls, so perhaps "mob hill" might have been a more appropriate nickname at one time or another. By the time I got there in the late seventies, it was just one of many all-girl Catholic high schools in the neighborhood. It seemed to me that the only entrance requirements were a surname ending in a vowel and the manual dexterity to roll up your uniform skirt while lighting a cigarette.
A typical day for me at Fontbonne started with meeting my friends for breakfast at the Tiffany diner. Six giggling schoolgirls would cram into a booth meant for 4, sometimes ordering nothing more than a cup of coffee. Lou (short for Lucille) was "our" waitress and very understanding; we rarely got kicked out.
I had the good fortune to have religion class first period; a class low on the list of entrance requirements for college and therefore very tempting to cut. When I did show my face in class, Sister Mary (why do nuns always have masculine names?) Davis would announce my appearance and have the class applaud loudly.
Late passes were an integral part of my personal Fontbonne experience. Mrs. V., the secretary in charge of those precious slips of paper, told me long after I had graduated that she rarely turned my slips into the principal. I always wondered why Sister Michael and I never had a "sit down." Mrs. V. thought I had the most beautiful eyes and just couldn't "rat me out." Even back then I was charming and adorable!
French was one of my best subjects. My reasons for never cutting that class were twofold; I enjoyed it too much and Sister Louise who was the size of a truck driver could have easily kicked my butt. She tried SO hard to teach me to "parlez le francais" without the heavy Brooklyn accent that I still have to this day (and I'm damn proud of it!). But my French speaking days are long past and the only French that I remain proficient at is kissing!
Latin was another favorite class of mine (useful too! lots of Brooklynites walking around speaking French and Latin!). It was the only class taught by the elderly Sister George. She was so happy to still be teaching that students were guaranteed an "A" just for showing up. Once she sat down in class, her lumbago, as she liked to call her arthritis, prevented her from getting up again. Angela and I, always seated in the back row, could then cheat mercilessly on every exam. We always got A-plusses!
Being at an all-girls high school never stopped any of us from finding boyfriends. Xavierian High School, about 20 blocks down from Fontbonne, was our "brother" school. But we never looked upon its enrollment as brothers. Fontbonne tradition practically dictated that we all make out with at least one Xavierian boy before graduating. Whenever Christmas vacation was over, the buzz around Fontbonne was who got an ankle bracelet for Christmas from their boyfriend. Ankle bracelets were never worn on the ankle. They were always attached to another chain and worn as a necklace. That way, everyone could read your boyfriend's name engraved in the gold and count how many diamond chips the anklet had. A three-chip minimum or you couldn't hold your head up!
Cigarettes were a staple among the Fontbonne girls. In those days, it was cool to smoke. After lunch, the gym bathroom became the student smoking lounge. I, along with my friend Antonia, were the usual lookouts, but despite our best efforts, every so often Sister Mary Robert would make a surprise bust. For revenge a few days later, to throw the nuns off track, the statue of the blessed mother that stood in the courtyard would be sporting a cigarette (usually a Marlboro) in her outstretched hand.
I got a great education at Fontbonne Hall Academy, and not just from the classes and books. I think back to those years with fond memories only. If I could, I'd love to find all my old teachers and classmates. What would I say to them? CAIO, what else!
PS: OK, so there's nuthin' in this column about the Mafia. I just thought you wiseguys couldn't resist A Brooklyn Tale about us Catholic schoolgirls!
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