I grew up fast, and not just in body. My mind was opening, learning, developing. Knowledge, of all that was available to me, was unwrapping itself to me. I was curious. I was eager. I wanted to know, and I sought knowledge of all that I, at that moment, thought that I needed to know.
I was now fifteen. That is according to my given age by Sister Mary-Cynthia. I was also a senior student. That in itself was my greatest excitement. It was like I had walked long and far and had at last pushed open this very distant and elusive door.
I was a senior. And I felt like a senior.
I certainly dressed like one. My school uniform, which had been a pink pinafore over a short-sleeved poplin white shirt was now the senior students’ pink check skirt and the poplin white shirt was now tucked neatly into it. And best of all, I was now allowed to braid or thread my hair.
Sister Mary-Joan was against that.
None of the girls at the convent made their hair. Faustina was already a senior, one year ahead of me and she still wore low cut. And the Sisters of course left their hair natural. But why shouldn’t they? They always had their hair covered under a veil and so it was pointless, in my opinion, to worry what it looked like.
But I was not wearing a veil. I never will—of that I was certain.
Sister Mary-Joan didn’t of course care for such a petulant opinion. That was what she called it when any of us had a contrary opinion—petulant.
Let me take a moment to clarify this. All the Reverend Sisters took up the name “Mary” as a prefix to any other name they are interested in bearing upon their First profession—at least in the convent where I lived.
The First Profession is the vows taken by a would-be Reverend Sister after a two or three year novitiate program. That was the understanding I got living with the Sisters. Well, Sister Mary-Joan herself taught it to me. I had a feeling at the time of this teaching that she was slowly preparing me to take same vows.
Which of course would never be.
And so Sister Mary-Joan objected and strongly too.
“Making of hair is not permitted here, Margaret.” She was looking severely at me as we sat in the parlour of the convent.
She was a smallish woman. Our French teacher while I’d still been a junior had said that the appropriate borrowed term was—petite. So she was petite, not pretty but not ugly either. I thought of her as plain—and very severe.
“But Sister Joan—
When we addressed them, we removed the “Mary” prefixes to make things easier.
“This is not a debate and your opinion, however petulant, is not required.” Sister Mary-Joan had the habit, a very bad one I usually thought, of interrupting us. “You’re a convent daughter and must conduct yourself thus. All of these things are just plain vanity. And vanity upon vanity is—” she swept her eyes around.
And Assumpta, ever-holy, piped out. “—vanity.”
“Exactly.” Sister Mary-Joan gave her an approval smile. Which wasn’t much of a smile, in my opinion, since it didn’t stop her small round mouth from remaining tight and severe. “Braiding of hair is a distraction. As a senior student, your sole goal should be to study even harder and to begin preparation for your SSCE from this moment. Spending hours in a hair salon won’t give you the time to do that.”
“Making cornrows and threading does not take hours, Sister Joan.” I argued.
The gall to argue and defend my opinion had always been there. I guess fending for myself for a long time gave me that spirit. But somehow in the last year, it had become a stronger trait. I started becoming more wilful and was given more and more to obstinacy. It annoyed Sister Mary-Joan more than it did the others—but I didn’t care.
“I am sure either won’t take more than an hour. And I would do it at my leisure time.” My chin went up as I made my case. “Moreover, living at the convent doesn’t make me, or the rest of us, Reverend Sisters. I have not taken any vows and so I am not required, by God or anyone else, to abide by the rules guiding the convent.”
“Be quiet, you foolish child!” It was Sister Mary-Cynthia who rebuked me. She had come into the parlour without my noticing it. “Have I not always counselled you, and everyone in this home, to mind your manners when speaking to your elders?”
I looked at her and quickly dropped my gaze. I always felt guilty, and sometimes remorseful, when reprimanded by Sister Mary-Cynthia. Not only because she brought me into this home and made sure I was taught and that I learned, but above all because she was very kind natured and never condemned anyone unless they deserved.
And even then, it wasn’t condemnation she did. It was always a gentle reproof and a kindly uttered correction.
Her kind eyes were a little disappointed now though as they regarded me. “Why would you speak to Sister Joan in this manner, Margaret? Do you not consider her old enough to have authority over you?”
“I do, Sister Cynthia.” I raised my head and shifted my gaze to Sister Mary-Joan. “I am sorry, Sister Joan.” It was the expected cause of event and so I took it. But not without upholding my point of view. “I was only trying to make you understand that it would not be bad if I braided my hair as a senior student. It would not make any difference at all to my studies, of that I am certain.”
But it did.
And the certainty of that difference eluded me then.
Sister Mary-Joan accepted my apology—that too had been the expected cause of event. But she had continued to argue her own point. That was until Sister Mary-Cynthia had given a soft-voiced opinion that it shouldn’t really matter if I wanted to braid my hair. There was always a choice and I should be allowed to make mine, she’d reasoned.
And I made it. The very next day, I visited the salon close to the convent and with the money Sister Mary-Cynthia had provided me, I threaded my hair. It wasn’t long enough at that moment for cornrows, which of course I preferred.
But it soon grew and I soon shed the threads and began to favour the many styles that came with cornrows.
And as Sister Mary-Joan had said, though I would not admit it at the time, it soon became a distraction. I started to spend more time in front of my handheld square-shaped mirror. I would look at my hair, admire it and admire even more the different looks each new style gave my face.
I began to notice, and to enjoy the fact, that I was a pretty young girl.
While the likes of Assumpta and Theresa were maligned by pimples, I still possessed my smooth-skin face and it seemed to become prettier with each new hairstyle. My light skin, not as light as Sister Mary-Cynthia’s though, but was light enough that it gleamed and glowed. It was as if the Johnson’s baby lotion we all used had a magic touch to it.
I was pretty and I stared long in the mirror admiring this awesome fact.
The longer I stared, the more vanity took hold of my senses—but I did not know it then.
I only knew that when John-Bosco, the boy at my catechism class paid me a compliment a new feeling came upon me and with that new feeling came, new knowledge.