This is where I am. In a single bed – a metal bedstead that is light enough for me to pull away from the wall when I make it in the morning with a thin mattress on springs -- in the corner of a room. There are three other beds in the room, two of them in a row beside me, and one at the foot of my bed at a right angle to our row. The older girl sleeps in that bed. She's the head of our dorm and we have to do what she says. There is a wooden chair at the foot of each bed and I see that each girl puts her clothes there at night, ready for the nest day, so I do too.
We wear the same thing every day – a brown uniform, except mine didn't come in the mail yet when school started so I had to come without it. I kept waiting at home for my uniform to come, but it didn't and I had to come without all the things this school had said you had to bring. My mother said it didn't matter, that she'd send everything as soon as it came and I should forget about it. But I look completely wrong here in my clothes that do not match.
There is one window in our room with a chest of drawers underneath it. We are up at the top of the school, up on the third floor. There are three ways to get up from the ground floor of the school to the second floor. My favorite is the wide sweeping staircase that leads, curving, up from the front hall by the front door. From the top of the big staircase you go up a short narrow staircase that is enclosed within two walls. You feel like you're going up into an attic and that brings you to our floor where the wooden floors aren't glossy like they are downstairs. The floors here are dark and they creak, and the corridors between the scattered rooms – each a different size and shape – that hold the beds of the other girls, are dark even in the daytime.
After dinner we play in the big hall downstairs – a huge hall with a polished floor where you can run and nobody asks you to be quiet. Then they bring us up here.
There is a sink in every room and in the morning you are supposed to wash at the sink from the waist up and you take a bath twice each week. You do it at a particular time on a particular day and you have to know when and which number bathroom you are scheduled for and you have to clean the tub when you're done. The bathrooms are on the same corridor that our rooms are on, rooms just big enough to hold a white tub that you climb up into and stop up with a round stopper on a long silver chain. You do it all by yourself. You are always by yourself here. I mean, not by yourself. Just by yourself on the inside.
I am so relieved when my brown clothes come and I can look the same as the other girls. The head girl of my dorm shows me how to put up the collar of my beige shirt, slip the tie around my neck, pulling one end down longer than the other and then flipping the longer, wider end over twice – one, two. Then you pull the long end up and back down through the knot which is a special kind of knot because when you hold the bottom tie down and push up on the knot it slides up to your neck and you bring your collar back down so that it covers the part that is around your neck and it looks just like what men wear.
On Sundays everybody sits at their desk after Mass and breakfast. It's letter-writing time. Sister sits up front at the teacher's narrow wooden desk, facing us, raised up on a platform. She's one of the old nuns. She reads. Everybody has a letter-writing kit. Some are made of leather with a zipper and inside are envelops and notepaper and stamps, everything in its tidy compartment. I don't have one. I never knew about them before. My mother just gave me a pad of paper, a box of envelopes and some stamps. I write first a letter to my two parents and my two sisters. I cover one side of the paper, then I turn it over and cover the other side and then I'm done. I have learned how to address an envelope, putting each line a little to the right of the line above it so it slopes, like a poem. There is still a lot of time left before lunch so I write a letter to my grandparents in Budapest, then one to my grandmother in British Columbia. If there's still time I do one for one of my aunts or uncles. I don't know these relatives very well. I have only seen them once or twice in my life, but there's nobody else to write to. And sometimes they write back which is wonderful, to get a letter. It's like winning the lottery to get a letter here.
I am writing with this new pen that my teacher said I had to get. It has ink in it. You fill it from the white china cup that sits in the upper right corner of your desk. Some girls have pens that you fill by lifting a flimsy metal lever on the side. That's the kind I have. Other girls fill their pens by squeezing them. Our ink is blue. I've seen writing in black ink and it looks very adult and special. When I am grown up I will only write in black ink.
You have to write a special way here. You have to hold your pen so the nib – that's what they call the metal tip of the pen – is at a particular angle. I copy from sheets of perfect handwriting that are enclosed in clear plastic sleeves. We have the same ones to copy from every week. I try to get one of the ones that is a poem that rhymes. "How large unto the tiny fly must little things appear, a rosebud like a featherbed, its prickle like a spear." I copy the letters, the words, trying to make them as perfect and beautiful as the samples. I do think that the handwriting in the samples is very beautiful and I would like to write that way, but mine never looks quite the same. Sister George can do it perfectly. She is a stern, masculine nun. She sits up front while we copy our handwriting and she reads a book called The Hobbit to us. It is about a small furry man who lives underground called Bilbo Baggins. I write in my grey notebook and at the end of the class you turn it in. Sister George returns your book at the next class and you open it up to see how you've done. She puts a number in red in the margin. A 10 is perfect. I usually get something like a seven or a 6-plus. Sometimes she writes "careless" in the margin which I don't think is fair because I tried really hard. She has taken a pencil and drawn a line through my letters to show how they are not all facing the same direction as they should be. In perfect writing they all slant at the same angle. Sister George's penciled lines slant at different angles, one going one way, the next going another so that the lines almost cross as if they were fighting each other instead of swimming along in exactly the same way.