We killed Sister Cordelia sometime our first year at the Convent. She was old, old enough to die, too old to teach fourth grade mathematics. Past her prime to handle ten, often unruly, little girls, let alone two sets of twins.
Ria and I weren’t really twins, at least not by appearance, a fact that would plague us both well into adulthood. We weren’t even twins biologically: three crucial months separated us in age, and two separate wombs had conceived us, but we had been adopted simultaneously as infants. We shared the same familial neuroses, at least in the formative years, so it’s not surprising that if a nun were to be killed, we would do it together.
1964 was our first year at the Convent. It wasn’t actually a convent, but rather a boarding school where Catholic girls were finished, turned out into the world as “Gentlemen’s ladies”—a phrase, which under contemporary scrutiny, conjures a host of meanings.
The school seemed out of place, out of time, set on thirty gate-enclosed acres, replete with riding trails and armed guards, smack in the middle of southern California blue-collar suburban sprawl. Tiny pastel houses had sprouted around its once agricultural perimeter, into a relatively unremarkable city. The world had continued outside the iron gates, while all the trappings of the late 19th century were doggedly preserved on the inside.
Sister Cordelia Marie, Lear’s virtuous daughter, though now pickled and past her glory, drilled us mercilessly with rote math equations, daring us to be wrong. Ria and I usually were. We’d skipped grade three, the year multiplication tables were memorized. We had bypassed that grade in order to enter the Convent, which was, for economic reasons, dropping a class a year, the one we would have been old enough to enter. We were offered this advancement in an effort to save us from the racism of the small California neighborhood our family had integrated only the year before.
Claremont is a college town, boasting six well-regarded institutions of higher learning—Pitzer, Scripps, Pomona College, Claremont McKenna College, and Harvey Mudd, as well as the Claremont Graduate School. Baseline road divided the mountains from the valley, divided blue collar from white, white from non-white. We moved just above Baseline, into a pretty white house with black shutters, a half circle drive, and columns of scrolled iron work, despite the petition drawn up to keep us out. We moved there sometime in the summer of 1963, under cover of darkness, with whispered voices, and flashlights casting eerie beams along the newly painted walls.
We first enrolled in a local parochial school and fared well there, academically at least, despite the school bus that refused to stop for us until Mama stood in the middle of the road daring the driver to hit her, the dog feces hurled at our cars, the dead animal in the mailbox, the garbage can heaved at our front windows, the cold shoulders, and muffled expletives from our white neighbors. We took all this as elements of being different. We accepted it as part and parcel of changing entrenched attitudes and racial stereotypes, because Mama said that’s what we were doing, and she had a knack for making terror fun.
We were surprisingly unafraid, unscarred by the hate of those around us. At least I was until a Valentine’s card was presented to me, amid a chorus of snickers, by a ruddy-faced thug, who regularly taunted my sister and me on the school bus.
The card: “Happy Valentines Day Nigger” was scrawled in No. 2 pencil across pink card stock, liberally ornamented with red hearts and silver glitter.
Nigger. I had heard the word, in jest or in hypothetical debates about racial constructs between my parents and their peers. But I had never seen it written down. At first I wasn’t sure what it said on that Valentine card, but whatever it was, it had a sort of permanence in that form, like history. I endeavored to sound it out, trying to remember what the rule was for vowels followed by a double consonant, finally taking it to Mama for a translation.
Mama cuddled me onto her lap, that Saint Valentine’s Day when I was seven, the day I became a nigger. Perhaps that’s why I recall the event at all. It was a rare luxury, a cuddle from a woman who rarely took time away from earning money, determined that we would never want. Mama normally exited the house shouting out a general, “c.y.k.” (consider yourself kissed). So the Valentine’s Day cuddle meant something, something important, and that something became the Convent.
Sister Cordelia, pruned and pinched, wimpled in stiffly starched grosgrain, would hover just in front of each girl, firing questions on fetid breath. She was stone deaf, forcing her to focus on your mouth, her features scrunched in an angry frown, as if her whole face were required to read the answer from your lips. A correct response to any equation always seemed to disappoint her, not allowing for the pain she was entitled to inflict, when learning was not in evidence.
The thump, was a flick of the middle finger off the thumb making contact with the head at very close range, administered with a sneer of disdain. This was Sister Cordelia’s weapon of choice. Every nun had her own personal arsenal—rulers, chalkboard erasers, ping-pong paddles.
Ria and I always got thumped. It seemed as if somehow our dark skin made it harder to teach us the harshly elegant lessons of civilized life. We were the only Negroes, after all, in the whole school of three hundred girls. Two more would arrive the following year, and another the year after that, but in the beginning it was just the Jacksons: Maria and Nico.
There were other “exotics” housed behind the iron gates. The armed guards were there to protect the daughters of parents whose grandeur was commensurate with their bank accounts. South American ranch owners; Panamanians, still flush with funds from the canal; Mexican cattle barons; Chinese, rife with assets from Hong Kong’s healthy economy; and Korean politicians’ daughters, who arrived with at least one suitcase filled with spending cash specifically.
They rubbed elbows with debutantes from Pasadena and San Marino, learned English and western manners so they could return home to the arranged marriages as improved assets and more than just virgin blood on the sheets.
Ria and I were the unwitting heralds of a new day. American Negroes, the descendants of slaves, who could afford the education and lifestyle heretofore proffered only to the elite and white, or brown-but-foreign.
We didn’t know that’s who we were. We were eight years old, little girls embarking on a new adventure: boarding school, just like the books we’d been read of English bairns shipped off to learn the ways of the world. Those ways included racism, classism, and sexism, but not yet, not among little girls. In the beginning we were all tarnished, all of us were too “something” to be perfect ladies. Too fat, too thin, too tall, too shy, too much for our families to bear.
Sister Cordelia didn’t die right away, but lingered in some malignant stupor, some threat of return, until the bells finally tolled her demise. No one blamed us. But when I look back, there seems to be no other explanation for what happened that day.
The Gilrain twins were identical in looks, though not in personality, and maybe that’s what drew us together—each of us knowing what it was like to be compared to someone else, mistaken for someone else, just when you’re trying to figure out who you are.
When we killed Sister Cordelia the Gilrain and Jackson twins were holding a full-scale war behind the deaf woman’s back. We never expected her to turn around, never when she was writing mathematical terms on the black board in that painstakingly parochial script. We could always count on at least a few minutes of unsupervised frenzy, while she wrote the next set of torturous equations. But she turned that day, her veil whipping out behind her, a black sail, the malevolent crusader’s banner.
It must have seemed a dumb show: four girls in brown and white units, button down shirts disheveled, desks as barricades, wads of lined paper lobbed across giggling heads into enemy territory. Chaos reigned, and we were its servants.
Sister Cordelia’s face shriveled in horror. She sputtered. She waved a bony digit at us. She gasped and her eyes widened. She fixed on me. I remember the pale blue of her eyes, Delft china stippled with small red veins. She clutched at her habit, as if it were a skin that had suddenly grown too tight. The color drained from her face, leaving it pale and wrinkled, blank parchment on which naught was writ. She wheezed out her final denouncement,
“You’re … killing me!” Then she crumpled, a heap of black cloth, onto the wide oak desk before us.
The clock ticked. Ten pairs of owl eyes, wide and staring, mouths agape—tick, tick—a loud pulsating rhythm, rivaled only by the rabbit thumping of our hearts. We sat down. This admonishment had been unusual and extremely effective. We waited to see what the reprise to such a display could possibly be. But she didn’t move. Neither did we.
Some of the girls finally fled, screaming. But the four of us were loath to leave Sister Cordelia Marie alone in that room. She’d never been warm, her temperature just high enough to keep her other foot out of the grave, until that moment when we watched it drop. But in that moment we cared. There had been something naked about her actions, something vulnerable and true. We knew she shouldn’t be left alone, laid open like that.
We never talked about it after that day. We never had to explain what happened in that classroom prior to her attack. No one asked, and we never volunteered. No one counseled us, as might have happened today in the light of any traumatic incident that is also school related. Life just went on—same school, new math teacher, less thumping. We’d killed a nun, and we’d remained innocent.