Excerpt: 'Anyone Can Grow Up'

The nuns taught as if each of us might win a Nobel Prize, and if they gave them out for long division or diagramming sentences, I'd have one under my belt by now. Their horizons didn't stretch much beyond the Susquehanna River. While others worried about Sputnik, we took up collections for pagan babies and went to see only those movies acceptable to the Legion of Decency. Our class trip was always to Hershey Park, where, after watching chocolate being made and stuffing ourselves with free samples, we rode the roller coaster. There was no slow track: each of us had a soul to be saved, so each of us had a brain to be honed. I never saw the nuns hit a student. We feared detention, censure, disappointment, but not the ruler. Step out of line and you would be ostracized, not just by Sister Mary William, but by the whole class. We'd all be deprived of crossword puzzles and spelling bees for a week.

But even the nuns' expansive idea of who could be taught wasn't enough to encompass Jimmy. What were my parents to do? Their main point of reference was the Kennedy family, which suggests that all the money and all the experts in the world is not enough. Ashamed of his eldest daughter, Rosemary, who had been deprived of oxygen at birth, Joe Kennedy, without telling his wife, had her lobotomized. She had lived at home before but was shipped off afterward to a school in Wisconsin for "exceptional children." Our small town had no schools for exceptional children, and surely if it meant living there, my brother would not have gone. Instead he started going to a "sheltered workshop" nearby, where the production of lanyards and pot holders outstripped local demand, but which occupied him. He looked around and didn't understand why he was there at first. "I'm not handicapped," he kept saying. But soon he was engaged in the activities. At dinner, he gave a blow-by-blow of his day, which was exactly like every other day, which was why he came to like it. We were thrilled by every word.

The dynamic of our family changed when I went off to Bishop McDevitt High School. Before then, I'd been a child of limited means but endless possibilities. We had everything I could think of — a shiny Chevrolet, a TV, summer vacations, a big lawn with a volleyball net, and Reader's Digest condensed books. We fit into our neighborhood with houses so similar that you could practically walk into someone else's kitchen and open the refrigerator before realizing it wasn't yours.

Suddenly I entered a new world. McDevitt had a modest tuition, which many of my former schoolmates' parents couldn't pay. Soon I had a group of new friends I didn't want to explain to my parents, and parents I didn't want to explain to them. I became aware of class distinctions. I met the children of doctors and lawyers from Camp Hill I hadn't known before because they went to private school, and a new set of kids who lived on the other side of Harrisburg, which was flourishing with new development. There were builders' and bankers' kids with big houses and their very own cars.

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