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Revisiting high school 50 years later

Baltimore natives reflect on and remember Mercy High School a half century after graduation.

As one friend said after our recent 50th high school reunion, "Those who came were the same as [they were] in high school — only our sharp edges had been rounded off." Girls who snubbed me a half century ago were now tolerant, interested in hearing about my life and telling me about theirs. I was more accepting, too, this time around.

I attended Baltimore's Mercy High School in the '60s. We were mostly from working class families. There were no girls of color — no Asians, no African Americans. When we were sophomores, two Cuban girls — daughters of doctors — showed up after Castro came to power and middle class families fled to the U.S. Those two were the sum and total of diversity at the Catholic girls school back in the day.

Today, Mercy High is richer, more interesting, multicultural. Students come from a wider geographical area. Their uniforms are more stylish, and they have an array of classes we never had, especially in science and the arts.

Baltimore has endured its share of problems, economic, social and political. There is no more Bethlehem Steel or General Motors, no shipyards as before. The city has lost people — and much of its tax base. The ever-increasing drug trade — as "The Wire" so vividly showed us — has claimed block after block, and many lives as well. The dearth of jobs has siphoned off many of the young from the community, sucked into the business of selling drugs. The public schools are often ineffectual, and middle class and affluent residents increasingly choose to send their children to private or parochial schools.

And the Baltimore uprising of last spring has meant even further destruction, more erosion of citizens' faith in the people who are sworn to serve and protect them. Many Baltimoreans have lost what little hope they had that the city would grow vital again. But we knew we were returning to a city that faces enormous challenges. We looked for the things that were then and remain, that we loved and still love so much: a walk through a city park, a stroll on the Hopkins campus, a morning at the central Pratt Library.

Ninety-two Mercy girls from my class year gathered to celebrate this month, to reflect and to take stock of our lives, to consider all that we learned when we were young. Several former teachers, Sisters of Mercy now in their 70s, joined us. There was laughter, sadness, stories of children and spouses who died too soon, divorces, annulment, same–sex marriages sanctioned by the state but not the church, grandchildren, second careers.

One classmate traveled from Hawaii, where she has lived for four decades. She joined five of us in a rented house near the Hopkins campus, bearing orchid and plumeria leis for each of us. She told us of travels to Guam, Johnson Atoll and Iraq in the course of her work. She spoke of losing her only son to an accident and of helping raise his two small children.

When we disagreed about politics, we set it aside and walked common ground. Tales of marital troubles, of illness or death of spouses, worries over grown children, took precedence over Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

We drank wine, ate caramel popcorn from Rehoboth Beach, wore fuzzy socks the Californian had tucked into gift bags — along with jars of Old Bay seasoning and Utz chips — and laughed, talked, wept, talked more. We told anecdotes — the first U.S Beatles concerts we attended, the year we rode our bikes to school even though it was not a very cool thing to do in those days.

The years fell away, and we were once more the same girls we were when we donned the brown skirts, white blouses, and brown and white saddle shoes — though maybe wiser and a little kinder.

Lynne Spigelmire Viti teaches in the writing program at Wellesley College. Her email is lviti@wellesley.edu.

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