Home > Called Out of Darkness(8)

Called Out of Darkness(8)
Author: Anne Rice

The city of New Orleans as I knew it was divided into church parishes and each one had its church and school. There was no area where there was no Catholic parish. I lived on a Catholic map.

An extremely important aspect of all my schooling was this: we lived and breathed our religion and our religion was interesting, and vast, and immensely satisfying, and we had an unshakable sense of the "goodness" of Catholic education, and we were also aware of something else. There was no better all-around education to be had in other schools. We were learning science and arithmetic and history and geography just as any child in public school would be learning them, and we had no sense of being insulated from anything that those children might be learning. We felt we were getting a thorough and practical education and more.

Our teachers never spoke of any conflict between religion and science. We were never taught that there were theories or ideas about science or social science that we couldn't believe.

In sum, there was nothing defensive or especially protective about our Catholic education. We weren't being kept away from anything. We were being given everything and more.

Indeed, we were to leave the schools well equipped for the world on all levels, but we would take with us a stronger sense of our religion than other people might have.

We were convinced as well that the discipline of our schools was an outstanding feature.

At those times when the whole school attended a motion picture downtown, or went to the Municipal Auditorium for a concert, we were proud of the order and quiet that we reflected as a body of students, compared to the unruly and noisy crowds of public school students taking their places with a lot of shouting and talking and moving around.

Around the freshman year of high school, I began to actually read. The first novel that I recall truly enjoying and loving for its language as well as its incident was Great Expectations by Charles Dickens which was in our textbook. We read it week by week. The other novel I discovered in the school library. It was Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

Surrendering to the world created by the written word was not only wholly new to me but difficult, and I think it took me a year to consume these two books. It might have taken two years. I can still remember the classroom in which we were reading Dickens. And I can remember the table in the school library where I read chapter after chapter of Jane Eyre.

It's worth noting here that I identified strongly with Pip, the hero of Dickens' novel, and also with Jane in Bronte's novel.

In fact, all during these years I identified as easily with male figures as with female figures, and took no note of any particular distinction having to do with being male or female.

The "he" used in books to refer to humanity was inclusive for me. It did not occur to me that statements involving "man" or "humankind" or "us" in the catechism did not include me. As for the saints, let me repeat, there were saints of both sexes, and the gender of a saint seemed to be the least important characteristic of a saint. True, there was a passive St. Clare connected with the active St. Francis. But within convents, there were powerful mystics like St. Margaret Mary, whose visions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus transformed the world. Or so it seemed.

None of the books I read, including these magnificent novels, made me a true reader. For the first time, I did imbibe style with Dickens and Bronte, and I loved it. But it was slow go.

I continued to listen for knowledge and continued to hang on the words of those who said interesting things. I continued to look forward to the moments in class when the teacher told a story, or rambled on about personal experience, or gave her opinions, and though I'd accumulated the names of many authors, I felt unable to penetrate the book world.

During these years, our family received an upright piano from someone as a gift. My father, who liked to go out and make music with two friends of his in the evenings, also acquired a large, heavy, and expensive tape recorder, a thing unknown to anyone else we knew. This was a family without a television set. Yet we had this tape recorder, a strong indica-tor of my father's values.

I pecked away at music on the piano, desperate to make music, and as unable to do it as I was unable to read.

On the tape recorder, I made "radio programs." I wrote them or recited the voices extemporaneously, I don't recall. I remember one long play I wrote involved the piano and my younger sister, who was persuaded by me to play a blind pianist who, gaining her sight, asks to be made blind again.

The world was beautiful when she was blind, she said. And seeing the world had taken away the beauty. I think my parents were a good audience for this particular program. I wrote another about being abducted by aliens and taken into a strange spaceship and then escaping from it. There was a favorable response to this as well.

My father used the tape recorder sometimes to record radio programs, and one of these was the last act of the opera Carmen, being broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera in New York. We listened to this last act of Carmen, including Milton Cross' passionate reading of what was happening in the act, over and over again as I grew up.

My father listening to the opera on Saturday afternoons was a delightful part of our world. He would sit at a table in the back bedroom working on his wood carvings, and the sounds of the opera would fill the house. I loved the voice of Milton Cross, who always read a synopsis of the action before each act, with great and elegant expression. And I associate all of this with sheer happiness, with the breezes flowing through the open windows, even with the rain falling, with the windows filled with the green of the surrounding trees.

These were the ingredients of my education that had lasting effect.

Another notable aspect of my education was that I went all the way through the eighth grade being schooled only with girls. For two years I experienced a coeducational Catholic high school, and that was a different experience altogether, as I had become a teenager and become interested in "boys." After that I went to a Catholic girls' academy for a year, and then, after our family moved to Texas, I experienced a real true American public school. It was a fine, decent suburban school.

It's probably worth noting that I went on to an all-girls college, Texas Woman's University, and remained there for one school year, and one long summer, during which I took enormous course loads and worked full-time in the evenings to support myself. I was utterly desperate to get a college education, and after one year and two summer sessions, I had almost enough course credits to be a college junior.

It was on this college campus that my life became happy, really happy. We were treated as adults. The confusion and humiliation I associated with childhood came to an end.

I took to the freedom of college, and to navigating amid interesting classes and lecturers; and I responded strongly to complete lectures which enabled me to learn without the necessity of cumbersome and difficult books. The classes in sociology and in journalism and in music appreciation were particularly illuminating. The classes in English were discouraging. I made less-than-perfect grades because I wasn't considered an effective writer. And the atmosphere of the English classes was disciplinary and confining.

"We may assume," said the teacher, "that there are no Hemingways or Faulkners in this classroom. Therefore we expect you to write in decent sentences." I loathed the very idea of assuming mediocrity. I barely got by.

The one story I submitted to the college literary magazine was rejected. I was told it wasn't a story.

But these weren't defining experiences for me.

In the fifth grade, I'd written a novel which my school-mates had read with great interest. And in the seventh grade, after seeing the film King Solomon's Mines, I wrote another novel in longhand which my classmates loved too. I wrote some short stories, and I attempted to write other grander longer works.

I was able to sink into my writing in a way that I could not do with books. I wrote fast, and my work had a penchant for character and action. What style it had I don't recall.

People were impressed with these compositions of mine, but there was no real place for this type of creative writing in my world. It was not something rewarded in the classroom. It happened on the margins, and the good responses to it were not something that involved the teachers. In fact, I sort of kept it secret from my teachers, and when I did attempt original writing, in response to an assignment, the results weren't so good.

All during these years, I struggled to do something significant, usually with music, or with reading. And I was not a success.

Not only had I pecked away at the piano, and struggled to learn some simple songs on my own, I'd also fallen in love with the violin. As a young teenager I wanted desperately to learn to play it, as there was no sound like it for me on earth.

I'd heard Isaac Stern play the Beethoven Concerto for Violin and Orchestra at the Municipal Auditorium and this had been one of the transformative experiences of my life. I bought a violin at a pawnshop, with money given me by my father, and I struggled painfully hard to learn to play it. A kindly teacher at Loyola University even offered to give me lessons at no cost, but she was candid about my lack of ear and lack of general talent. She promised me that if I stuck with it, I could play well enough for the orchestra someday.

But I wanted to be a virtuoso. And I found the discipline overall too difficult and finally gave it up.

Later on, I wrote novels about people who are shut out of life for various reasons. In fact, this became a great theme of my novels - how one suffers as an outcast, how one is shut out of various levels of meaning and, ultimately, out of human life itself.

I recall that I was shut out of the realm of music by my lack of talent, and I was shut out of book learning, and also, in a real way, I was not part of the world of the child.

I came out of my education with no sense at all of gender, and no liking whatsoever for being a child.

I can't say that Catholic education in all girls' schools made me a genderless person, because obviously thousands of girls went to Catholic schools and they didn't come out of the experience with no sense of gender. And many of them probably understood childhood and how to be children perfectly well enough.

But I emerged from these years with no clear sense of either one, and most likely because I did not get a sense of either one at home. If you are named Howard, if you grow up calling your parents by their first names, if you are raised to believe you can do just about anything you set your mind to, if you are never around "a superior gender" which takes precedence over you in anything, well perhaps you'll grow up having no sense of gender. But I would say that my lack of gender understanding transcends even these influences.

I had no sense then of being a feminine person, or indeed of being a masculine person. I did not identify with girls. I did not know boys.

And I felt extremely uncomfortable being called a child.

I didn't fit as a child. I didn't "get" what childhood was. And I was a failure as a child. I knew I was. I made blunders with other children. I couldn't really speak their language. They knew something was "wrong" with me. They never trusted me and I didn't blame them. I didn't fit.

In retrospect, I feel the adults I knew did not give me a clear understanding of what a child was, and why anybody would want to be one.

I am not trying to be humorous.

As I look back on it, the state of childhood was regarded by adults of this time with suspicion, and there was a slight criminal taint to being a child. I resented this and refused to acknowledge it. I didn't agree that children had to be controlled, taught, restrained, disciplined, and above all made to do dull and boring things ad nauseam because this is what they deserved.

I didn't like other children, and I did not identify with them in any general war on adults.

I certainly didn't think I was guilty of any crime in being a child, or really that any other child was guilty of any crime, and I deeply detested the fact that we were treated as though we were guilty of weakness, sneakiness, poor ambition, general ignorance, and that we were being punished for this by the routines of our life, by the daylong prison of school, by the year-in and year-out confinement with some forty other persons, and by the intolerable burdens of written homework which was supposed to devour our free evening hours, and that this would go on until we grew up.

No disaster of my adult life ever equaled the misery and sometime hopelessness of childhood, as far as I'm concerned.

At no time did I feel as frustrated, as angry, as useless, as cut off from the real world as I did as a child. Huge blocks of my childhood were shameful wastes of time.

The slow deterioration of my mother led to the feeling of powerlessness. Indeed, around me I saw much deterioration.

New Orleans was an inefficient, crumbling city in which garbage was piled in open heaps or cans on the curb every day. The French Quarter had a smell one caught two blocks away. Gutters were filled with litter. Great old houses were marked for demolition because it was believed they could not be maintained in the present era. Magnificent mansions here and there were replaced by hideous modern apartment buildings. Along St. Charles Avenue, splendor and ruin coexisted on almost every block.

I wanted to escape this soft, endless drift towards ruin.

Because I unconsciously identified with adults, and preferred to be with adults, I was mortified and insulted by them when they ignored me, patronized me, or degraded me, and I couldn't wait for this strange purgatorial state to come to a natural end. Let me repeat: my mother treated me as a person, not as a child. My father pretty much did the same thing. My sisters were interesting people to me, not children per se. But all this happened in the highly special world of our own household, with its disorder and its secrets, and its inevitable griefs.

I roamed around the city of New Orleans on foot or by bus and streetcar. And I did go all over the city, sometimes alone, and sometimes with a friend who liked to walk as much as I did. In fact, I walked all the time for the sheer joy of it, and riding the streetcar was dreamtime. In my wander-ings, I became obsessed with architecture. I would stand for long moments contemplating some ruined house, dreaming of its restoration, dreaming of an adulthood in which I would live in some splendid building and restore it to grandeur, but how I didn't know.

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