Boarding School Blues is a fictionalized story by Louise Peloquin of life at a Catholic high school in 1960s New England. The full story will be presented in regular installments over the next few months with one chapter appearing every other week.
Boarding School Blues, chapter 1
By Louise Peloquin
When Blanche’s mother announced that she would be attending an all girls’ boarding school in September, she didn’t know what to make of it. Blanche was puzzled, “There are two kinds, right?” European aristocrats sent their daughters to Swiss finishing schools which teach etiquette and royal protocol along with basic academics. She had read about those places which transformed clumsy girls from wealthy families into graceful young ladies prepared to lure in future husbands among charming princes. Surely her mother didn’t have one of those places in mind? She was thirteen, had never had a boyfriend and was more interested in climbing trees and showing off her skate board stunts than in attracting a suitor. Besides, even with a scholarship, she questioned whether or not her family would care to send her off to Switzerland when Papa was chronically ill and unable to work full time. “No, I’m not going to one of those places”.
Come to think of it, the very label “finishing school” made no sense. How could she possibly “finish” anything when she hadn’t even begun high school? “Nope, not for me”. She sighed deeply, reassured that her future fate wouldn’t include rubbing shoulders with royalty.
“Yeah but there are other kinds of boarding schools, the ones for wild kids who won’t sit still in class or listen to the teacher. I know kids who use four-letter words like S , A-hole and even the F-word. Special boarding schools can turn tough kids into law-abiding citizens instead of future criminals. Maman can’t be sending me to one of those places. My teacher never got mad at me except for the time I threw up on somebody’s desk because I didn’t get to the bathroom fast enough. But that was an accident. Not my fault. Anyway, the toilets at Notre Dame de Lourdes school were way down in the basement so no way could I have got there on time, not even with a sprint down the steep stairs. No, I’m not one of those kids who spits on the floor or trips kids in the school yard or calls people horrible names to their face like scumbag or ratfink. No, I’m not going to that kind of boarding school. It’s called a ‘reform school .’ I don’t steal or break stuff. Why would I go to a place like that? Everyone told me I was a very good student and I even ranked second in my eighth-grade class, right after Michael Cloutier. That wasn’t even fair because Michael was a year older than everyone else and I was a year younger. That made him two whole years older than me and so he could probably memorize stuff much faster. Besides, he didn’t get migraine headaches like mine and never had to put his head on the desk because it hurt so much.” An unending stream of images flowed into her mind as she tried to wrap it around the idea of “boarding school”. She didn’t succeed in calming herself down.
Why go to a boarding school? On the one hand, having a daily pajama party with classmates was a pretty exciting thought. Pajama parties were great fun. On the other hand, she wasn’t sure she would enjoy them every single day. Daily events turned into routine and routine was boring.
Therefore, boarding school could very well be boring. Furthermore, she was the eldest child, responsible for her two brothers and her baby sister. Hadn’t Maman told her time and time again that she was “to set a good example” for her siblings? How could she do that from afar?
Blanche was wracking her brain trying to figure things out. She had always been obedient, docile even, certainly not very assertive. Although enterprising and outspoken in her daydreams, she hadn’t yet managed to transfer those skills to real life. Brooding over boarding school made Blanche moody and listless, unlike her usual perky self. She scrupulously carried out her big sister duties: babysitting, refereeing games and picking up scattered toys. She completed her chores: setting and clearing the table, drying dishes, making the kids’ beds. But her heart wasn’t in the work she once prided herself in accomplishing. Too vain to jeopardize her reasonable young lady status, Blanche didn’t pose the question which obsessed her: “Why do I have to go to boarding school?”
Maman’s life consisted in endlessly tackling tasks. There were wifely tasks, motherly tasks, sisterly tasks, community service tasks, you name the tasks; she tackled them. She even squeezed in a few moments for academic tasks since she had decided to pursue a Master’s degree in French Literature at Rivier College during what she called her “spare time”, that is, in the middle of the night when everyone was sleeping. So Maman’s radar, accurate as it was, didn’t immediately pick up on her daughter Blanche’s distress.
One day, as the three younger children were busy building a Lego Eiffel Tower on the pantry floor, she caught sight of Blanche silently weeping in the corner. Surprised and concerned, Maman gently wrapped her arms around her eldest child and asked, “Blanche mon amour, what’s wrong? Headache? How about a nice glass of cold milk with a fig square from the Yum Yum Shop?” The Cupple’s Square bakery, a few streets away from her Lowell Highlands home, was one of Blanche’s favorite places in the whole wide world. Wafts of warm bread and European-style pâtisserie made her swoon with pleasure every time she crossed its threshold. For Maman to offer such a heavenly snack before dinner was unheard of. “Maman must be really worried about me”, Blanche thought.
She was about to gather up all of her courage and ask the dreaded question when her mother continued, “you’re worried about going to your new school aren’t you? You’re wondering why your Papa and I have decided to place you there.” Blanche should have felt some kind of relief at not having to broach the topic herself. But Maman’s melodious voice and gentle touch merely intensified the flow of heavy, wet tears. She didn’t want to be “finished“ ,”reformed” or cut off from everyone and everything she knew and loved. Her mother had guessed the origin of Blanche’s distress and set out to provide her beloved big girl with a rational expose.
“Your father and I want to offer you a sound, solid education to challenge your intellect, enhance your acquired skills and develop the aptitudes required for your future career”. Blanche understood the words her mother was ceremoniously formulating but she didn’t really get it. Thoughts about her “future career” changed every day. She had just finished a book about Dag
Hammarskjöld and yearned to join the UN. Last week’s readings had narrated Amelia Earhart’s extraordinary adventures and Blanche, albeit terribly nearsighted, dreamt of becoming a pilot. As she was processing her mother’s speech she also asked herself why her mother chose to talk like those politicians on TV who answer journalists’ questions with vague, drawn-out sentences. Did mothers have to adopt that kind of language with future high school kids? Blanche was confused.
Maman pursued her argumentation. “But Papa and I also want to be sure you’re in an environment which includes Christian values and principles as well as a place which offers you all kinds of extracurricular activities like piano, art and embroidery lessons, all additional assets. Saint Felicity Academy is reputed for its academic excellence and rigor. Its students develop strong character, adopt meticulous pedagogical methodology and perfect social skills. They turn out to be stalwart women, ready to face the world’s challenges. ”
Blanche thought, “She’s using that TV talk again. What does it have to do with me?” Her mother had maintained that sweet tone of voice which had seemed weirdly incongruous with the declamatory speech. Blanche then went out on a limb to say, “Yes Maman, I’ve always wanted to play piano and learn to draw better and embroidery is very pretty but I thought school was more for studying math and science, geography, history, literature and maybe something cool like Latin or astrology. I think I can be successful in my future career without embroidery. You don’t even do it yourself because you’re very nearsighted and so am I. And besides, you and Papa teach us all about Christian values. We say grace before meals and we dress up nice for church on Sunday and I believe all of the stuff the priest says. I promise I won’t ever forget it when I go to the high school here in town. And I’ll be able to continue to help you with chores around the house and I’ll always be a good big sister. I’ll study hard and maybe I’ll even be first in the class because Michael Cloutier has moved out of town!” Blanche was trying her best to counterbalance her mother’s arguments in favor of boarding school. Although she realized she wasn’t using fancy speech, her words came straight from the heart. Surely sheer sincerity had more weight than dictionary terms, right? Blanche was about to proceed with more items in favor of choosing the local high school when her mother’s demeanor suddenly evolved.
“Your father is a severe cardiac, a very sick man” she shouted. “I’ve got to oversee everything in this household and make sure he experiences the least stress possible. I’ve got a ten-year-old, a five-year-old and a three-year-old to tend to. I don’t want to deal with a thirteen-year-old and all of the upheavals of female adolescence, ever-changing humors, rebelliousness, impertinence.
You’ve been a good girl and I mean to keep it that way. I won’t have you exposed to the many noxious influences swaying today’s youth. All you hear about these days is drinking and smoking, not to mention the vulgarity of that horrible rock and roll music. I want to protect you from all of that. DO YOU HEAR ME? DO YOU UNDERSTAND? You SHALL attend Saint Felicity Academy!“ Maman’s voice had morphed from soft and melodious to high-pitched and brassy. Blanche knew she had nothing more to add although she was dying to tell her mother that she wouldn’t turn into a teenage monster. She wasn’t like that at all and even when she was in a lousy mood, she made it a point never to show it. The worst part was that she couldn’t even turn to her soft-hearted father for solace. So much for being Papa’s princess! It wouldn’t turn the tables. Yes, certainly, Papa was the head of the family. But her mother was its heart and, as everyone knows, the heart sets the beat.