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TODAY'S PAPER
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Opinion

Where we learned to be strong women

At Dominican Commercial High School, there was never a mention of limitation.

Dominican Commercial High School, an all-girls Catholic school,

Dominican Commercial High School, an all-girls Catholic school, in Jamaica, Queens, closed in 1998. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

It has been 39 years since I graduated from high school, but several former classmates and I recently went back to say goodbye to the building itself.

Dominican Commercial, an all-girls Catholic school in Jamaica, Queens, closed in 1998 after 62 years because of declining enrollment. The building had since been leased to various outreach programs and remained largely intact. But now the school building, two convents and a parking lot have been sold by the Dominican Sisters of Amityville.

Sunday, April 22, brought an opportunity to walk through those halls one last time and meet up with old friends — and old memories. Gone were the chunky, white “marshmallow” shoes and textured hose we had worn to spice up our dull brown uniform skirts. Instead, most of my former classmates — who grew up to be police officers, teachers, secretaries, journalists, and every other profession — wore comfort shoes and mom jeans. The bathrooms were as cramped as I remember: Back in the day, a dozen of us would somehow crowd inside, experimenting with eyeliner, swapping stories about boyfriends and sharing a cigarette between classes. (The latter, of course, was forbidden.)

The rows of desks laden with typewriters were gone. “Typewriting 1,” still engraved in black letters on a wooden classroom door, had been required for most of us. The salmon-colored lockers that once lined the hallways were gone, but by chance, I happened upon a remaining few in an alcove. They looked so small. Since my locker was all the way up on the third floor, I shared my friend Grace Ferragamo’s locker every day for four years. How did we squeeze all of our stuff in there? Was it the close quarters that made us close friends?

Entering the cafeteria, I felt as if I had driven a DeLorean back in time. As I filed through the old hot-food line, I could smell the French fries and knishes that made up my daily diet. I could hear one of the nuns welcoming us to our daily prayer. (Oh, wait — that was a retired nun actually addressing that day’s attendees!)

When the hundreds of accomplished women present began to belt out our school song, “Dominican alma mater, pride of our high school days . . . ,” I had a revelation:

Long before anyone talked about finally shattering the glass ceiling by electing a female president, long before the #MeToo movement showed women how to stand up to the most powerful men in business, a coterie of warm and intelligent Dominican sisters taught several generations of New York girls what it meant to be a woman.

There was no mention ever of our expected or limited female roles. (At least, I never heard it.) Instead, we were charged to fulfill our potential as responsible and loving people. In this girls-only environment, we were free — to explore, to ponder, to question — without the typical teen angst about how we looked or what the boys in the next row thought of us. The result? Our true selves were unleashed. For me, it was the first time in my young life that I started to think for myself. Yes, I became a feminist.

Virginia Woolf famously wrote that every woman deserves a room of her own. Well, we girls of the late 20th century certainly benefited from a school of our own. Who knew that a small high school best known for churning out highly skilled secretaries (and later also sending hundreds of others on to college and professions) was actually so cutting edge?

Thank you, dear Dominican.

Reader Barbara Hetzer Wagner lives in Smithtown.

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