The Hollywood Bowl, 44 years ago tonight. Fireflies (Southern California still had them, then) flickering against the foothills. The summer smell of sage and eucalyptus. From the pit, an organist sounds the first strains of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.” Two lines of young women, dressed in identical white formal gowns and white elbow-length gloves, carrying bouquets of red roses, make their way down the hillside to the stage. Graduation night for the Pandas of Immaculate Heart High School, class of 1968.
I was one of those Pandas. (Our mascot, so legend goes, based on the dark-and-light pattern of the Sisters’ habits—though by that night in 1968, the habits had given way to polyester pantsuits.) And though I’ve written before, and will again, about what a profound effect the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart had on my life and my faith, I haven’t mentioned the other gift I received that night—the friendship of my Immaculate Heart sisters, my Panda angels.
It’s a gift that, for me, remained unopened for a very long time. Over the years, and especially after leaving Southern California, I lost touch with my high school friends, some of whom had been elementary-school and even kindergarten friends. I would follow their lives—marriages, children, careers, accolades, grandchildren—in the alumnae newsletter, but I never went back for reunions. My life went in other directions.
But then came Facebook. A few years ago, when I was first contacted with friend requests from a couple of IH classmates, I was initially hesitant. Would it be as I imagined reunions to be—people with nothing in common, trying either to resurrect or bury their high-school selves with small talk—only online? I finally gave in, out of curiosity, and gradually began responding to requests from a wider circle of women from the class of ’68, most of whom I had not been close to in high school. Some of whom, quite frankly, I was still either in awe of or afraid of because the remembered differences between us were so great.
At some point, about a month in, a loose group of us began communicating in a Facebook message thread, sharing photos or memories we didn’t want to publish on the news feed. And a remarkable thing happened. We went almost overnight from a casual collection of alums playing “Remember when?” to a band of sisters. The thread became a support group, a forum for political debate and theological rumination, a stand-up comedy club, an advice column, a prayer chain, and one giant virtual hug.
We are walking together through cancer and the thousand natural shocks that aging flesh is heir to; through motherhood and grandmotherhood, in all its varieties of step- and special needs and pride; through career changes and the loss of parents; through the everydayness of life. And it’s a lot more fun than that sounds; these are bright, curious, hysterically funny gals who are great company in any season.
We check in, most of us, every day, sometimes more than once a day if there’s a conversation going on. More than one spouse has initially wondered whether there’s some kind of Internet cheating going on, or what his wife is reading that makes her laugh so hard wine comes out her nose. We’ve learned to recognize one another’s online “accents”: the woman who lost the letter J from her keyboard and so called me Zoanne for so long I almost wanted to make that my name; the one whose compromised vision and iPhone autocorrect result in posts full of what looks like code, often inadvertently hilarious; the one whose brain moves faster than her fingers, so her posts are open-ended dashes and spurts; the ones who remember everyone, and always think to ask about a daughter’s health, how the new car is working out, whether the sun is shining in Seattle or Ventura or Ohio or Virginia.
Quite frankly, I don’t know how I would have gotten through the last few years without them—and yet these are women my high-school self would never have dreamed of befriending or dared hope to be befriended by. There is a big lesson in this, and it’s that People Will Always Surprise You. Who you are in high school is not predictive, thank God, though the strengths learned as a cheerleader or math geek, folk Mass guitar player or prom queen will come in handy in ways you would never guess.
If I could send a message to kids today, or back in time to myself, it’s that it’s not just bullied kids who need to hear “It gets better”—it’s all of us. And it’s not just a slogan, it’s the truth. If I could send a message to myself a few years ago, as I hesitated over the Facebook invite, or to anyone today debating responding to a similar call from the past, I’d say, “Click Accept.” You never know when you will be entertaining angels unaware.
To my Panda angels, thank God for you. Happy Anniversary. Let’s raise a glass as we raise our voices:
Raise on high your standards!
Sing to Alma Mater!
Immaculate Heart, we greet you,
Every loyal daughter.
We’ll lead you on to victory,
Never will we fail—
For the glory of the Blue and White,
Hail, our Alma Mater! Hail!