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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Single File
By Kathleen Alfiero

  Kathleen Alfiero

Kathleen Alfiero

The first time I heard of a bomb threat was when I was a sophomore in high school.

“We have a bomb scare, girls!” Our principal, Sister Mary Raymond, shouted into the PA. Her voice cracked. I could feel her fear. It unnerved me that she could be afraid of anything.

The 400 girls in our high school knew that Sister Raymond was born and brought up in a military academy. I had no doubt of that. She was tall and strong and often reminded us that earrings were not an appropriate part of a uniform. I thought they looked good with my plaid skirt and white blouse. When I heard her stunning announcement, my legs immediately felt like jelly and my heart began pounding!

“Everyone stand, get in ‘single file’, and go directly back to your homeroom,” she ordered us. Fear or no fear, Sister Raymond was a master at telling us what to do.

Apparently, stewing somewhere in the back of my mind was the concern that one day the Russians would fire their missiles our way. I had no idea why they hated us, but I was sure that this day was it! Our time was up!

My older sister Diane attended the same school. I was very attached to her, and she was attached to getting me out of her hair. I would do anything to win her affection. When she laughed at one of my jokes, I’d repeat it until it was hard even for me to remember what was so funny. She made it clear that to win her over, I’d have to shut up. Still, Diane and I were close, and when I heard Sister Raymond’s dreadful words, I was pretty sure that she must be worried about me. All I wanted to do was to run to her.

But no—I did what I was told. Containing my panic, I walked single file, behind and in front of my classmates. I didn’t know what my friends were thinking but I could tell they were scared too. We walked quickly through the halls in an orderly fashion—in silence! Walking in silence was thought to be a virtue. I didn’t see what was so good about it, but that belief led someone of influence to make a rule that we rarely broke. My eyes darted quickly at the girls who were hurrying past me but I didn’t see my sister. I remember thinking, “I want to die with Diane!”

When we got back to our homeroom, we were directed by our frantic teacher to get our coats and to go outside immediately. (Again, she reminded us to walk single file.) When I reached the sidewalk, a girl I knew told me that she heard a nun saying that someone had called the main office claiming to have hidden a bomb in our school.

“You mean it isn’t the Russians?” I yelled. I’ll never forget the feeling of relief that swept over me. I couldn’t wait to go home and watch my favorite soap opera, “Another World,” with my sister.

It’s a challenge to be open-minded when you have been trained from a very young age to believe that there are right and wrong ways to live—right and wrong ways to think—and right and wrong things to do. I heard quite often that the oh-so-important rules were the main ingredient of the one-and-only-way recipe to get to heaven. There was a lot of focus on getting to heaven. It was considered to be the universal ultimate goal.

Many years later, when I was in my late twenties, I was in Chicago visiting one of my friends from high school. By that time, I had become an eager student of life, studying different points of view and opening to new ways of looking at things. I read books, went to workshops, and meditated—trying to get the answers to the questions that were haunting me. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? What makes me happy? What does spirituality mean?

In those days, my friend and I commonly referred to ourselves as “Recovering Catholics.” We reflected (and mostly laughed) about how we used to see things and how rigid our thinking had been when we were kids. We bragged about our expanded minds. We concluded that we were both doing quite well!

After a couple hours of shopping at Marshall Fields, we decided to have lunch in their cafeteria. As we entered the restaurant, my friend took one of the food trays and set it down on the steel rails. I noticed that the design of the food line had more twists and turns than most buffet-style eateries. Walking (single file) behind her, I set my tray down and followed her lead, riding the rails with my tray just like she was. I noticed the huge fruit basket on the top shelf at the first turn. It was quite some distance beyond where we had started. Then it hit me that the fruit basket held our first food choice of the buffet!

Then I noticed that everyone else was walking past my friend and me, holding their trays in their hands, headed directly to the food! I burst out laughing. When my friend heard me, she looked up, paused a minute, and began laughing too. It was one of those awakening moments for both of us.

Giggling, my friend said to me, “I can still do a line—and do it well!” I confessed that I was apparently still a good follower also.

We picked up our trays and joined the others. I can’t remember exactly what I ate, but it’s likely that I had a sandwich with some chips and my favorite oatmeal cookie. What I do remember for sure, though, is that day my friend and I woke up to the realization that if we remained unconscious about what we were thinking, we would continue to miss out on the good stuff of life. At least we saw what we were doing and appreciated where we were; most important, we could laugh at ourselves. We made a deal to support each other to be more intentional about our life choices. I was clear that my new ultimate goal had become to live a happy and healthy life.

I appreciate Sister Mary Raymond for being one of my important teachers. She helped me to see how I want to be. I have opened to the knowledge that I have the choice to create a life of ease and go with the flow, and that has made all the difference in how I feel.

Despite the world’s tensions, I’m quite lighthearted these days. My son thought of a new phrase that speaks to me. He’s trademarked it and plans to sell t-shirts. I’m buying one! It’s “Rock Bottom’s Been Good to Me!”

I cherish the variety that life offers. When I’m in a cafeteria these days, I don’t waste any time. I march right up to the delicious choices that are mine for the taking. And the only lines I’m interested in following are the lines that connect the dots between the string of positive thoughts I construct that bring me joy.

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