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Sister E & Me

“In West Philadelphia, born and raised.”

(Will Smith)

Try reading that not in the Fresh Prince’s voice. I bet you can’t do it. I can’t and

I really did grow up there. No, I’m not related to the Fresh Prince nor do I know him personally, but I did see him tapping MAC in the City Line Shopping Center once.

I went through 12 years of Catholic school. I always say I survived 8 years and thrived for 4. I spent the first 8 years at my local, parish, archdiocesan Catholic elementary school. I did not experience one nice nun in those 8 years. They were terrifyingly grouchy and mean. They did their best to guilt, shame and scare you senseless, telling you that you might get the calling to enter the religious life like them! Oh hell no!!!! I spent my time praying that I would NOT get the calling (and praying that I would get to kiss Jeff Atella). The natural progression of things was that once you graduated from your parish school you then attended the archdiocesan Catholic high school that your elementary school fed into. However, from around the time that I was born, my mother told me that I was going to attend a certain all girl’s private academy for high school. It never once occurred to me that I would spend my high school years anywhere else. It also NEVER occurred to me that I might not get in!!!!

My oldest and dearest friend’s name is Sonia. Sonia and I met in kindergarten and have been friends ever since. Sonia was planning on attending the same all girl’s private school. There was no way in the world I could attend any school without her therefore we would go together.

There were 3 all girl private academies in the suburbs, somewhat near us. The one my mom always talked about was the closest in proximity to us. When Sonia and I reached 8th grade we took the entrance exams for each of these 3 schools. Hello, I didn’t know there were going to be tests involved!!!! I hated and always scored poorly on standardized tests (I took a nap during one of the 4 times I took the SATs). An interview with the principal of the school was also part of the admissions process. Interviews involve talking and I can talk my face off so that part didn’t freak me out. Plus, once they talked to me they would love me. They would find me so charming and funny and think that I would look so cute in their unflattering uniforms and offer me tons of scholarship money, right? WRONG!

One by one the acceptances also known as “invitations to attend” were sent out. I was immediately accepted to the 2 schools I did not care about. No scholarship offers but I would look cute in their uniforms. Then one day I walked in from school and my mother looked like she was going to vomit on me. She handed me a letter from THE school. The envelope was much smaller than the other “invitations” I had received. I ripped it open and read the words “wait list”. I had NO idea what that meant and as my mother explained it, the phone rang and it was Sonia telling me how excited she was about getting in to “our” school. Then 2 other friends called to say they were accepted as well. To say I was devastated is putting it mildly. I demanded that my mother call the school and find out if this was a mistake and if not, how long would I have to wait to find out if I would get in. My mother flat out refused my demand! By this point I was hysterical and furious at her. This was all her idea. She started filling my head with the fact this was where I was going to school, before I could even talk! She needed to fix this shit and fix it now. She would not pick up that phone and told me to call myself. So, I called the operator and got the phone number. This was 1982, there was no google! I called the school and the secretary answered. I asked to speak to the principal and I think the secretary was so amused that a child was calling the principal she put me right through.

This is how the call went down…

Me: “Good afternoon, Sister. This is Deborah DiTomasso and I just received a letter saying I was placed on the wait list and I need to know what number I am on the list”

Sister E: “Good afternoon Deborah. I can’t tell you that information dear.”

Me: “ Sister you are the exact person who can tell me that information and I need to know now. I have to go to your school!”

Sister E: “Dear, the invitations just went out. We need to wait and see if anyone declines. It takes a few weeks.”

Me: “Sister, I understand but I need to know how many girls are on the waiting list ahead of me so I know how many declines you need before you get to me.”

Sister E: “Dear, I don’t have that number you just have to be patient and wait.”

Me: “Actually Sister you do have that number and I need to know.”

Sister E: “Dear, you need to be patient.”

Me: “Thank you sister I will call you tomorrow to see if anyone declined. Have a nice afternoon.”

And I hung up!!!! My sassy, bold, 13 year old, smart ass self, hung up!

I called that nun every day for 2 solid weeks. She took all of my calls. Some days we chatted and she asked about my day or my baby brother. Some days it was just “hi and no news.”

It became a new routine, I would walk in my front door and head straight to the phone, I had the number memorized (I still know part of it). As week 3 began and I marched through my front door my mom stopped me and handed me the right sized envelope from MY school. I received my invitation to attend and be a part of the class of 1986. It was like when Charlie gets the Golden Ticket! After I stopped carrying on like a lunatic I called Sister E and thanked her. She told me how excited she was for me and she looked forward to seeing me soon.

Now I know I wasn’t first on that waiting list. I probably wasn’t even in the top 10 but I had something that not one of those other girls ahead of me had. I had a burning desire and a relentless spirit. NO one was going to tell me I couldn’t have what I wanted. NO one was going to ruin 13 years of maternal brainwashing. Bottom line…. NO one was going make me go to school without Sonia!!!

So, September 1982, with my knee socks pulled as high as they could go and my uniform blazer buttoned, I walked through the doors of my Alma Mater and spent the next 4 years half applying myself, half goofing off, fully making lifelong friendships and whole heartedly learning first hand that women can run things and do anything they desire. During my freshman year, Sister E would call me down to her office quite a bit to talk to perspective students and their parents. I sold the shit outta that place. My parents really should have received some sort of tuition reimbursement! Sister E retired at the end of my freshman year and sadly died shortly thereafter.

A few years ago, I was in a really bad headspace. My anxiety was trying desperately to rule me and keep me from growing and trying new things. One morning Sister E popped into my mind and I remembered 2 things. First, I remembered how bold and persistent I had been and by not giving up I got exactly what I wanted. Secondly, I remembered how truly kind Sister E was to me and how she gave me shot ahead of other girls with better grades because she knew intelligence and talent are nothing without drive and persistence!

Every time I get spooked about being an entrepreneur, every time I get a no from a client or one of my programs doesn’t sell and I start questioning if I’m doing the right thing I remember that brave little girl and the, ahead of her time, kind, slightly amused, nun who saw the confident, capable, kickass woman in me and I stay the course of creating the life of my dreams!

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