They were gathered around a conference table in a high-rise,
eight men and women, no one under the age of sixty-five, all
of them wealthy beyond measure. And they were here, in the
middle of Manhattan, to decide my fate.
I was not quite sixteen and only one month out of my
sophomore year of high school. My parents, philosophy
professors, had been offered a two-year-long academic
sabbatical at a university in Munich, Germany. That’s
right—two years out of the country, which only really
mattered because they decided I’d be better off staying in
the United States.
They’d passed along that little nugget one Saturday in June.
I’d been preparing to head to my best friend Ashley’s house,
when my parents came into my room and sat down on my bed.
“Lily,” Mom said, “we need to talk.”
I don’t think I’m ruining the surprise by pointing out that
nothing good happens when someone starts a speech like that.
My first thought was that something horrible had happened to
Ashley. Turned out, she was fine; the trauma hit a little
closer to home. My parents told me they’d been accepted into
the sabbatical program, and that the chance to work in
Germany for two years was an amazing opportunity for them.
Then they got quiet and exchanged one of those long,
meaningful looks that really didn’t bode well for me. They
said they didn’t want to drag me to Germany with them, that
they’d be busy while they were there, and that they wanted
me to stay in an American school to have the best chance of
going to a great college here. So they’d decided that while
they were away, I’d be staying in the States.
I was equal parts bummed and thrilled. Bummed, of course,
because they’d be an ocean away while I passed all the big
milestones—SAT prep, college visits, prom, completing my
vinyl collection of every Smashing Pumpkins track ever released.
Thrilled, because I figured I’d get to stay with Ashley and
Unfortunately, I was only right about the first part.
My parents had decided it would be best for me to finish
high school in Chicago, in a boarding school stuck in the
middle of high-rise buildings and concrete—not in Sagamore,
my hometown in Upstate New York; not in our tree-lined
neighborhood, with my friends and the people and places I knew.
I protested with every argument I could think of.
Flash forward two weeks and 240 miles to the conference
table where I sat in a button-up cardigan and pencil skirt
I’d never have worn under normal circumstances, the members
of the Board of Trustees of St. Sophia’s School for Girls
staring back at me. They interviewed every girl who wanted
to walk their hallowed halls—after all, heaven forbid they
let in a girl who didn’t meet their standards. But that
they traveled to New York to see me seemed a little out of
“I hope you’re aware,” said one of them, a silver-haired man
with tiny, round glasses, “that St. Sophia’s is a famed
academic institution. The school itself has a long and
storied history in Chicago, and the Ivy Leagues recruit from
A woman with a pile of hair atop her head looked at me and
said, slowly, as if talking to a child, “You’ll have any
secondary institution in this country or beyond at your
feet, Lily, if you’re accepted at St. Sophia’s. If you
become a St. Sophia’s girl.”
Okay, but what if I didn’t want to be a St. Sophia’s girl?
What if I wanted to stay home in Sagamore with my friends,
not a thousand miles away in some freezing midwestern city,
surrounded by private school girls who dressed the same,
talked the same, bragged about their money?
I didn’t want to be a St. Sophia’s girl. I wanted to be
me,Lily Parker, of the dark hair and eyeliner and fabulous
The powers that be of St. Sophia’s were apparently less
hesitant. Two weeks after the interview, I got the letter in
“Congratulations,” it said. “We are pleased to inform you
that the members of the board of trustees have voted
favorably regarding your admission to St. Sophia’s School
I was less than pleased, but short of running away, which
wasn’t my style, I was out of options. So two months later,
my parents and I trekked to Albany International.
Mom had booked us on the same airline, so we sat in the
concourse together, with me between the two of them. Mom
wore a shirt and trim trousers, her long, dark hair in a low
ponytail. My father wore a button-up shirt and khakis, his
auburn hair waving over the glasses on his nose. They were
heading to JFK to connect to their international flight; I
was heading to O’Hare.
We sat silently until they called my plane. Too nervous for
tears, I stood and shouldered my messenger bag . My parents
stood, as well, my mom reaching out to put a hand on my
cheek. “We love you, Lil. You know that? And that this is
I most certainly didn’t know this was best. And the weird
thing was, I wasn’t sure even she believed it, not as
nervous as she sounded when she said it. Looking back, I
think they both had doubts about the whole thing. They
didn’t actually say that, of course, but their body language
told a different story. When they first told me about their
plan, my dad kept touching my mom’s knee—not romantically or
anything, but like he needed reassurance; like he needed to
remind himself that she was there and that things were going
to be okay. It made me wonder. I mean, they were headed to
Germany for a two-year research sabbatical they’d spent
months applying for, but despite what they’d said about the
great “opportunity,” they didn’t seem thrilled about going.
The whole thing was very, very strange.
Anyway, my mom’s throwing out, “It’s for the best,” at the
airport wasn’t a new thing. She and dad had both been
repeating that phrase over the last few weeks like a mantra.
I didn’t know that it was for the best, but I didn’t want a
bratty comment to be the last thing I said to them, so I
nodded at my mom and faked a smile, and let my dad pull me
into a rib-breaking hug.
“You can call us anytime,” he said. “Anytime, day or night.
Or e-mail. Or text us.” He pressed a kiss to the top of my
head. “You’re our light, Lils,” he whispered. “Our light.”
I wasn’t sure if I loved him more, or hated him a little,
for caring so much and still sending me away.
We said our goodbyes, and I traversed the concourse and took
my seat on the plane, with a credit card for emergencies in
my wallet, a duffel bag bearing my name in the belly of the
jet , and my palm pressed to the window as New York fell
Goodbye, “New York State of Mind.”
Pete Wentz said it best in his song title: “Chicago Is So
Two Years Ago.”
# # #
Two hours and a tiny bag of peanuts later, I was in the 312
, greeted by a wind that was fierce and much too cold for an
afternoon in early September, Windy City or not. My
knee-length skirt, part of my new St. Sophia’s uniform ,
didn’t help much against the chill.
I glanced back at the black and white cab that had dropped
me off in front of the school’s enclave on East Erie. The
driver pulled away from the curb and merged into traffic,
leaving me there on the sidewalk, giant duffel bag in my
hands, messenger bag across my shoulder, and downtown
Chicago around me.
What stood before me, I thought, as I gazed up at St.
Sophia’s School for Girls, wasn’t exactly welcoming.
The board members had told me that St. Sophia’s had been a
convent in its former life, but it could have just as easily
been the setting for a gothic horror movie. Dismal, gray
stone. Lots of tall skinny windows, and one giant round one
in the middle. Fanged, grinning gargoyles perched at each
corner of the steep roof.
I tilted my head as I surveyed the statues. Was it weird
that nuns had been guarded by tiny stone monsters? And were
they supposed to keep people out . . . or in?
Rising over the main building were the symbols of St.
Sophia’s—two prickly towers of that same gray stone.
Supposedly, some of Chicago’s leading ladies wore silver
rings inscribed with an outline of the towers, proof that
they’d been St. Sophia’s girls.
Three months after my parents’ revelation, I still had no
desire to be a St. Sophia’s girl. Besides, if you squinted,
the building looked like a pointy-eared monster.
I gnawed the inside of my lip and scanned the other few—and
equally gothic—buildings that made up the small campus, all
but hidden from the rest of Chicago by a stone wall. A royal
blue flag that bore the St. Sophia’s crest (complete with
tower) rippled in the wind above the arched front door. A
Rolls-Royce was parked on the curved driveway below.
This wasn’t my kind of place. This wasn’t Sagamore. It was
far from my school and my neighborhood, far from my favorite
vintage clothing store and favorite coffeehouse.
Worse, given the Rolls, I guessed these weren’t my kind of
people. Well, they used to not be my kind of people. If my
parents could afford to send me here, we apparently had
money I hadn’t known about.
“This sucks,” I muttered, just in time for the heavy, double
doors in the middle of the tower to open. A woman—tall,
thin, dressed in a no-nonsense suit and sensible
heels—stepped into the doorway.
We looked at each other for a moment. Then she moved to the
side, holding one of the doors open with her hand.
I guessed that was my cue. Adjusting my messenger bag and
duffel, I made my way up the sidewalk.
“Lily Parker?” she asked, one eyebrow arched questioningly,
when I got to the stone stairs that lay before the door.
She lifted her gaze and surveyed the school grounds, like an
eagle scanning for prey. “Come inside.”
I walked up the steps and into the building, the wind
ruffling my hair as the giant doors were closed behind me.
The woman moved through the main building quickly,
efficiently and, most noticeably, silently. I didn’t get so
much as a “hello,” much less a warm welcome to Chicago. She
hadn’t spoken a word since she’d beckoned me to follow her.
And follow her I did, through lots of slick, limestone
corridors lit by the tiny, flickering bulbs in old-fashioned
wall sconces. The floor and walls were made of the same,
pale limestone, the ceiling overhead a grid of thick wooden
beams, gold symbols painted in the spaces between them. A
bee. The flowerlike in the beelike shape of a fleur-de-lis.
We turned one corner, then another, until we entered a
corridor lined with columns. The ceiling changed, rising
above us in a series of pointed arches outlined in curved,
wooden beams, the spaces between them painted the same blue
as the St. Sophia’s flag. Gold stars dotted the blue.
It was impressive—or at least expensive.
I followed her to the end of the hallway, which terminated
in a wooden door. A name, MARCELINE D. FOLEY, was written in
gold letters in the middle of it.
When she opened the door and stepped inside the office, I
assumed she was Marceline D. Foley. I stepped inside behind her.
The room was darkish, a heavy fragrance drifting up from a
small oil burner on a side table. A gigantic, circular,
stained glass window was on the wall opposite the door, and
a massive oak desk sat in front of the window.
“Close the door,” she said. I dropped my duffel bag to the
floor, then did as she’d directed. When I turned around
again, she was seated behind the desk, manicured hands
clasped before her, her gaze on me.
“I am Marceline Foley, the headmistress of this school,” she
said. “You’ve been sent to us for your education, your
personal growth, and your development into a young lady. You
will become a St. Sophia’s girl. As a junior, you will spend
two years at this institution. I expect you to use that time
wisely—to study, to learn, to network, and to prepare
yourself for academically-challenging studies at a
“You will have classes from eight twenty a.m. until three
twenty p.m., Monday through Friday. You will have dinner at
precisely five o’clock and study hall from seven p.m. until
nine p.m., Sunday through Thursday . Lights-out at ten
o’clock. You will remain on the school grounds during the
week, although you may take your exercise off the grounds
during your lunch breaks, assuming you do not leave the
grounds alone and that you stay near campus. Curfew begins
promptly at nine p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Do you
have any questions?”
I shook my head, which was a fib . I had tons of questions,
actually, but not the sort I thought she’d appreciate,
especially since her PR skills left a lot to be desired. She
made St. Sophia’s sound less like boarding school and more
like prison. Then again, the PR was lost on me, anyway. It’s
not like I was here by choice.
“Good.” Foley pulled open a tiny drawer on the right-hand
side of her desk. Out of it, she lifted an antique, gold
skeleton key—the skinny kind with prongs at the end—which
was strung from a royal blue ribbon.
“Your room key,” she said, and extended her hand. I lifted
the ribbon from her palm, wrapping my fingers around the
slender bar of metal. “Your books are already in your room.
You’ve been assigned a laptop, which is in your room, as well.”
She frowned, then glanced up at me. “This is likely not how
you imagined your junior and senior years of high school
would be, Ms. Parker. But you will find that you have been
bestowed an incredible gift. This is one of the finest high
schools in the nation. Being an alumna of St. Sophia’s will
open doors for you educationally and socially. Your
membership in this institution will connect you to a network
of women whose influence is international in scope.”
I nodded, mostly about that first part. Of course I’d
imagined my junior and senior years differently. I’d
imagined being at home, with my friends, with my parents.
But she hadn’t actually asked me how I felt about being
shipped off to Chicago, so I didn’t elaborate.
“I’ll show you to your room,” she said, rising from her
chair and moving toward the door.
I picked up my bag again and followed her.
St. Sophia’s looked pretty much the same on the walk to my
room as it had on the way to Foley’s office—one stone
corridor after another. The building was immaculately clean,
but kind of empty. Sterile. It was also quieter than I would
have expected a high school to be, certainly quieter than
the high school I’d left behind. But for the click of
Foley’s heels on the shining stone floors, the place was
graveyard silent. And there was no sign of the usual high
school stuff. No trophy cases, no class photos, no lockers,
no pep rally posters. Most importantly, still no sign of
students. There were supposed to be two hundred of us. So
far, it looked like I was the only St. Sophia’s girl in
The corridor suddenly opened into a giant, circular space
with a domed ceiling, a labyrinth set into the tile on the
floor beneath it. This was a serious place. A place for
contemplation. A place where nuns once walked quietly,
gravely, through the hallways.
And then she pushed open another set of double doors.
The hallway opened into a long room lit by enormous metal
chandeliers and the blazing color of dozens of stained glass
windows. The walls that weren’t covered by windows were
lined with books, and the floor was filled by rows and rows
At the tables sat teenagers. Lots and lots of teenagers,
all in stuff that made up the St. Sophia’s uniform: navy
plaid skirt and some kind of top in the same navy; sweater;
hooded sweatshirt; sweater-vest.
They looked like an all-girl army of plaid.
Books and notebooks were spread on the tables before them,
laptop computers open and buzzing. Classes didn’t start
until tomorrow, and these girls were already studying. The
trustees were right—these people were serious about their
“Your classmates,” Foley quietly said.
She walked through the aisle that split the room into two
halves, and I followed behind her, my shoulder beginning to
ache under the weight of the duffel bag. Girls watched as I
walked past them, heads lifting from books (and notebooks
and laptops) to check me out as I passed. I caught the eyes
of two of them.
The first was a blonde with wavy hair that cascaded around
her shoulders, a black patent leather headband tucked behind
her ears. She arched a brow at me as I passed, and two other
brunettes at the table leaned toward her to whisper. To
gossip. I made a pretty quick prediction that she was the
leader of that pack.
The second girl, who sat with three other plaid cadets a few
tables down, was definitely not a member of the blonde’s
pack. Her hair was also blond, but for the darker ends of
her short bob. She wore black nail polish and a small,
silver ring on one side of her nose .
Given what I’d seen so far, I was surprised Foley let her
get away with that, but I liked it.
She lifted her head as I walked by, her green eyes on my
browns as I passed.
She smiled. I smiled back.
“This way,” Foley ordered. I hustled to follow.
We walked down the aisle to the other end of the room, then
into another corridor. A few more turns and a narrow flight
of limestone stairs later, Foley stopped beside a wooden
door. She bobbed her head at the key around my neck. “Your
suite,” she said. “Your bedroom is the first on the right.
You have three suitemates, and you’ll share the common room.
Classes begin promptly at eight-twenty tomorrow morning.
Your schedule is with your books. I understand you have some
interest in the arts?”
“I like to draw,” I said. “Sometimes paint.”
“Yes, the board forwarded some of the slides of your work.
It lends itself to the fantastic—imaginary worlds and
unrealistic creatures—but you seem to have some skill. We’ve
placed you in our arts track. You’ll start studio classes
within the next few weeks, once our instructor has settled
in. It is expected that you will devote as much time to your
craft as you do to your studies.” Apparently having
concluded her own instructions, she gave me an up-and-down
appraisal. “Any questions?”
She’d done it again. She said, “Any questions?” but it
sounded a lot more like “I don’t have time for nonsense
“No, thank you,” I said, and Foley bobbed her head.
“Very good.” With that, she turned on her heel and walked
away, her footsteps echoing through the hallway.
I waited until she was gone, then slipped the key into the
lock and turned the knob. The door opened into a small
circular space—the common room. There were a couch and
coffee table in front of a small fireplace, a cello propped
against the opposite wall, and four doors leading, I
assumed, to the bedrooms.
I walked to the door on the far right and slipped the
skeleton key from my neck, then into the lock. When the
tumblers clicked, I pushed open the door and flipped on the
It was small—a tiny, but tidy space with one small window
and a twin-sized bed. The bed was covered by a royal blue
bedspread embroidered with an imprint of the St. Sophia’s
tower. Across from the bed was a wooden bureau, atop which
sat a two-foot-high stack of books, a pile of papers, a
silver laptop, and an alarm clock. A narrow wooden door led
to a closet.
I closed the door to the suite behind me, then dropped my
bag onto the bed. The room had a few pieces of furniture in
it and the school supplies, but otherwise, it was empty.
But for the few things I’d been able to fit into the duffel,
nothing here would remind me of home.
My heart sank at the thought. My parents had actually sent
me away to boarding school. They chose Munich and
researching some musty philosopher over art competitions and
honors society dinners, the kind of stuff they usually loved
to brag about.
I sat down next to my duffle, pulled the cell phone from the
front pocket of my gray and yellow messenger bag, flipped it
open, and checked the time. It was nearly five o’clock in
Chicago and would have been midnight in Munich, although
they were probably halfway over the Atlantic right now. I
wanted to call them, to hear their voices, but since that
wasn’t an option, I pulled up my mom’s cell number and
clicked out a text message: “@ SCHOOL IN ROOM.” It wasn’t
much, but they’d know I’d arrived safely and, I assumed,
would call when they could.
When I flipped the phone closed again, I stared at it for a
minute, tears pricking at my eyes. I tried to keep them from
spilling over, to keep from crying in the middle of my first
hour at St. Sophia’s, the first hour into my new life.
They spilled over anyway. I didn’t want to be here. Not at
this school, not in Chicago. If I didn’t think they’d just
ship me right back again, I’d have used the credit card my
mom gave me for emergencies, charged a ticket, and hopped a
plane back to New York.
“This sucks,” I said, swiping carefully at my overflowing
tears, trying to avoid smearing the black eyeliner around my
A knock sounded at the door, which opened. I glanced up.
“Are you planning your escape?” asked the girl with the nose
ring and black nail polish who stood in my doorway.