Karen had heard stories of the holy terror waiting behind that heavy oak door—stories of forced confessions, crushed spirits, and ruler-rapped knuckles. But she had never been inside the principal’s office before and didn’t know why she had been called today.
Waiting in the hallway on a hard wooden bench, Karen smoothed the worn green and blue plaid skirt over her knees. It was shorter than the school’s dress code stipulated. Mum had let it down as far as it would go, hoping she could wear it for one more year. Karen prayed silently that it wasn’t the length of her skirt that earned her a trip to Sister Mary Michael’s office. One more expense and her time at St. Cecelia’s would be over.
“I don’t know how much longer I can afford to send you to that school,” her mother had said the night before. “You’ll be going to public school if things don’t get better.”
Her parents were still together when Karen first enrolled. Back then, no one ever mentioned money. Now her mother talked about nothing else. Food cost too much and work didn’t pay enough. Mr. Goldman went from being their nice old neighbor who gave Karen lemon drops to “that bastard landlord”.
When her parents started fighting, school was Karen’s refuge. Many of the girls despised the strictness, but Karen thrived. She knew what to expect and what was expected of her. Behind these brick walls, order reigned. Every morning, the smell of book dust, incense, and floor wax calmed Karen’s nerves. Today that perfume only increased her anxiety. What if today was her last day?
Karen nodded and forced a smile when a cluster of girls interrupted her vigil. As they passed her, she swallowed the envy she felt seeing their perfectly pressed uniforms falling just below their knees. When the girls grew, their uniforms would be replaced and donated to girls like Karen. Their mothers picked them up from school each day in gleaming Packards and Lincolns to take them to riding lessons or dance classes. They looked like movie stars playing mothers with their beauty salon hair-dos and Revlon lipstick.
Five minutes had gone by, but it seemed like hours. Karen’s behind was growing numb from sitting. She stared at the door wishing it would open yet willing it to stay closed. Finally, the brass hinges creaked and Sister Mary Michael stepped out.
“You may come in now Miss O’Brien.”
According to Dante, the gates of hell are inscribed “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” This week, Cam from Write on Edge challenged us to be inspired by such a warning, in 500 words or less. I decided to go into Karen’s adolescence for this one. If you want to know more about Karen, click here.