Refinement

The evening I presented myself on the flagstone terrace of the Chapel, I wore a new dress that was still too big. I had pleaded with my mother: I’ll grow into it, no one will be able to tell. The room to grow showed itself now in the lovely portrait collar, which kept slipping well off my shoulder so that I had to hold one sleeve to keep the dress straight. The New England night was warm, and had I been a bit older, I might have let the collar stay lopsided, as if to say, That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

But I was fourteen, a new student, and, along with my peers, required to parade past the returning students gathered in two lines ahead of us. The young chaplain directed us to proceed in alphabetical order through their rows. They clutched tiny candles to their chins. The flames deepened the hollows of their faces so that we saw cheekbones and dark niches instead of eyes scanning us, one by one.

Since my name is Winter, I was in the back of the line. The girl on my right was a Williams. Abigail, she said, without smiling, her voice deep and ruffled, a grown-up voice; her eyes were steady and bright. If she hadn’t been through this procession before, she’d heard about it. Clare, I answered. We smiled politely, but not having much else to say we fell back to silence, not sure if we were supposed to be talking. Low voices passed between the old students, but none of them was intended as invitation to us.

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