When we moved back to New Jersey in early 1960, my mother and father enrolled me in St. John’s Parochial School in Orange, New Jersey, where I stayed from grades three to five before my father insisted I go to public school. Located across the street from St. John’s Church, the school sported a huge statue of Jesus on the top of the roof, arms outstretched, beckoning you in invitation, while Christopher Columbus stood in front of the building like a centaur.
Each morning started with meeting the class at the church for eight o’clock mass. (We celebrated going to mass so much that I wanted to become a nun!) We wore black-and-white plaid uniforms, white shirts with plaid bowties, short white socks, and black-and-white saddle shoes. I always felt uncomfortable looking like everyone else. I certainly didn’t feel like everyone else, so why did I have to dress to look like them, too? Rules were rules, and Catholic schools had strict ones that were obeyed or you received a slap with a ruler, among other abusive punishment for what they saw as a violation.
The inside of the school’s architecture was archaic. It spoke of another time when scrolling woodwork and heavy gold-guilt frames surrounded paintings indicative of the Renaissance and the old masters. Once you entered the vast entry room, you came upon a long, winding staircase that seemed to go on forever. It was wide enough so that students could go up on one side and down on the other, but there was no dividing line, just kids having to file down in a scramble while holding the railing.
I was terrified of that staircase because three-quarters of the way up hung a beautiful painting of Archangel Michael fighting demons. I had done my best to avoid the side of the wall where the painting hung so I could be as far away as possible. But it taunted me, hanging there precariously in a heavy gold frame, and I could hear it creak as we students all rushed up the stairs en masse for class. It was huge and menacing, and one day it stopped me dead in my tracks.
I stood in the middle of the staircase as the splashes of dark blacks and grays mixed with blood-red skin, and gleaming swords swirled around like a movie. The red overpowered the other colors, and I could have sworn the red was growing larger and thicker, oozing like a film of blood, draping and dripping across it. People were rushing all around me and passed me to get to their destinations before the last bell rang for class and the nuns locked the doors. Once that happened, you were not allowed back in, and they called your parents.
I couldn’t move. My feet were cemented to the step, and I was facing the painting, staring, unable to look away. It started to slowly sway, and the creaking sound grew louder. I took a step back as the first bracket on the left of the frame gave way. The second one soon followed, and I remained transfixed as the brackets popped away and the frame began to derail from the wall. The last bracket popped, and the huge frame fell, finally snapping me out of my fright. I dodged it and slammed myself against the other side of the wide staircase to the other railing, crashing into it and several people. Breathing heavily, I dusted myself off, pulled at my skirt, and mumbled an apology to the people I collided with. As I struggled to get up, all I could think of was if anyone had gotten hurt. Finally standing, I steadied myself and looked around me. Some students stood staring, eyes wide, and I figured they were in shock. But something wasn’t right, and I could hear their whispers and see them shaking heads. Soon a group had gathered, all staring blankly at me. I heard, “Keep away from her,” and “Did you know she was left-handed!” (Back in the day, to be left-handed was considered to be evil.)
I drew myself up and turned to go back down the stairs and met eyes with Mother Superior, who was looking up at me angrily. I didn’t know how she could blame me when I did nothing. I turned to look at the damage. The painting was intact and hanging as though nothing had happened, and apparently nothing had. Up to this point, my family had assured me that I could help people. How could I do that if people were afraid of me? Were these visions really just in my mind? I saw all the warnings and felt for sure that the painting was going to fall. Why did I see it and no one else?
Mother Superior took me to her office, scolded me for “daydreaming” and causing a traffic jam on the stairs, and then telephoned my parents to come fetch me. Before they could arrive, a very loving sister joined us. She was a favorite of mine and understood me because she secretly told me that she, too, could see things before they happened and could feel how other people were feeling just by being around them. We were spiritual confidantes who felt empathic to the world but were unable to express it openly in public to share with others. She encouraged me to keep a diary of my dreams and visions and was a ray of light in a very dark environment. And she always made me laugh. The best way to describe her would be as a blonde Kathy Najimy from Sister Act.
“May I have a few moments with Linda before her parents arrive, Mother?” she implored sweetly. “I feel certain that I can be of some help to the child.”