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At L.A.'s Immaculate Heart school, the mission is to tell the world about 'the real Meghan' Markle

At L.A.'s Immaculate Heart school, the mission is to tell the world about 'the real Meghan' Markle
Meghan Markle's school community wants to share stories about the future royal with the world. (Ian Watson / USA Network)

Meghan Markle stood out to the students and teachers of her Los Feliz Catholic school long before she started standing out to the world.

Ever since her engagement to Prince Harry last November, the school has gotten many, many calls to know more.

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It could drive those on campus crazy. But mostly it doesn’t.

”It’s a huge amount of work,” said her former homeroom advisor, Christine Knudsen, who still teaches at the school. “But we just want the world to know who the real Meghan Markle is.”

Markle graduated in 1999 from the all-girls school, which wants its students “to become women of great heart and right conscience through leadership, service, and a life-long commitment to Christian values.”

She was a theater kid who excelled not just academically but also as a leader — someone to whom others listened, recalled Knudsen, who taught a senior elective Markle took on spirituality and literature.

“She had a lot of depth, probably because of her own experiences and hard knocks growing up,” Knudsen said, referring to Markle’s experience of her parents’ divorce. “She’d take conversations to a deeper level.”

Maria Pollia, who taught Markle theology in her junior year, described her as a focused young woman who challenged herself to reflect on the toughest texts. Pollia particularly recalled Markle’s commitment to understanding the thinking of Thomas Merton.

In 2017, Markle appeared in a book called “The Game Changers: Success Secrets From 40 Women At The Top,” in which she credited Pollia for inspiring her activism. When Pollia talked in class about her own volunteer work, Markle told the teacher she had worked with homeless people and wanted to know how to get involved again. Pollia sent Markle to the skid row kitchen where she worked. Markle volunteered there for a year and a half.

“The people that I knew at the kitchen would tell me what a natural she was,” said Pollia, who also still teaches at Immaculate Heart. “Skid row is a very scary place. Once she got over that and she was talking to people, she knew everybody’s names.”

At school, Markle would tell Pollia about her time there — how Betty is doing, whether Ralph still has his dog.

Markle has talked about some struggles she had as a biracial child of a white father and black mother. But Knudsen said that when they talked when Markle was in high school, race didn’t come up all that much. “It’s not a big deal simply because our school is so diverse,” Knudsen said. “There’s no looking down on someone because she comes from something different than you do.”

Last year, 35% of the school’s students were white, 20% were Latina, 17% were multiracial, 17% were Asian and Pacific Islander, 5% were black and 6% preferred not to state. The school’s demographics the year Markle graduated were similar, though there were slightly more black students, the school said.

Markle, who went on to be an actress, with a starring role on the TV show “Suits,” had big roles in school plays, including Lola in the Loyola High School production of “Damn Yankees.”

For the school’s student-led Kairos retreat, she was chosen as a leader, an honor reserved for the most empathetic.

At Kairos, seniors spend four days and three nights in nature and break into groups to discuss their struggles and experiences. Markle was Immaculate Heart’s first choice her year, Knudsen said.

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“Meghan was the kind of student who, even though she had a circle of friends, she was friendly and welcome to everyone,” said the teacher. “Everyone liked her, even if they weren’t her close friends.”

At the retreat, Markle led a group of students. She left such an impression on one of them – a girl Knudsen described as an introvert — that, 19 years later, the girl still kept a note the teen leader had written her.

In neat, loopy cursive, Markle wrote, “you are so strong and so wonderful — your courage and strength in times of hardships is as admirable as your optimism and friendly nature. … Never stop sharing your beautiful spirit and always remember how special you are.” She signed off with the words, “I am here if you ever need me. I love you, Meghan.”

Long before Markle became famous, she was a student leader who wrote this note to a school acquaintance. The girl kept it for nearly 20 years.
Long before Markle became famous, she was a student leader who wrote this note to a school acquaintance. The girl kept it for nearly 20 years. (Courtesy of Christine Knudsen)

At Immaculate Heart, Markle is now the most famous alumna — and she’s found her way into classes.

One teacher has turned media coverage into course material. She brought in a magazine that showed Markle in tears and claimed Harry was unsure about the wedding, Knudsen said. The teacher talked to her class about how sensational stories sell tabloids.

Long before Markle’s engagement, Knudsen showed students a speech she gave at the United Nations.

“We were proud of her before she was dating Prince Harry,” she said, adding, “We know what she’s bringing to the relationship.”

Mia Speier, an Immaculate Heart senior, said she’s proud of the young woman who has been described to her by teachers. “It seems she’s very in tune with her identity,” Speier said. “That’s very powerful to see.”

The school’s prom is Friday night. But Immaculate Heart spokeswoman Callie Webb said about 150 parents indicated some time ago that they would be happy to take their children to school at 3 a.m. Saturday to watch the ceremony live as a group.

The school started its celebration early. On Tuesday, several hundred students gathered in the quad for a “Here’s to Meghan!” party. They sang, danced and toasted the couple.

Students seem to care more about Markle’s activism and service than her royal status, said Pollia, the theology teacher.

A journalist from Europe, she said, visited and asked a student, “Do you, too, dream of becoming a princess?”

The girl stood up, stared him down and said, “I have my own dreams.”

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