Boarding School Blues
By Louise Peloquin
Ch. 18: Dress up, sit up, chin up
The afternoon’s special guest positioned herself in front of the lectern while the headmistress took her seat on the nuns’ platform. Adeline Greenwood’s slim athletic build was similar to Sister Roger’s. Blanche thought maybe she played basketball in Boston when she wasn’t teaching and maybe she knew some Celtics players. She also displayed perfect posture, just like the gym teacher. But that was the extent of the similarities between both women. Madame Greenwood was a life-sized Barbie doll with elongated limbs, torso and neck. Her perfectly-tailored, mustard wool suit consisted in a waist-length, three button jacket with a large, chocolate brown bow at the neckline and a pencil skirt whose just-below-the-knee length flattered her shapely legs. She wore brown suede gloves and matching high-heeled pumps. Taupe stockings showed off dancer’s calves. Andy was right about the Barbie resemblance. The bouffant bubble hairstyle made Blanche remember the doll she had received for her seventh birthday in 1959. Without a single hair out of place, Madame Greenwood’s honey golden hair enveloped her head like a helmet. Underneath the stiff locks, quick brown eyes, discreetly outlined with pencil and mascara, swept the entire room as if to commit every audience member to memory. The curve of her apricot lips seemed to indicate pleasure in offering her services.
Madame Greenwood lowered her eyes and delicately placed her brown suede clutch bag on the lectern as if it were a fragile work of art. Then she lifted her chin to speak.
“I would like to thank Sister Theophile for inviting me. I am very pleased to be here today because I have the greatest respect for this fine school. As you know, I am a professor in an institution of higher education. The headmistress has already informed you about it so I shall not repeat what you already know. I shall merely ask you to keep in mind that I am a resource person for those who are interested in contemplating a career in the tourism or hospitality field. Should any of you have questions regarding that, I shall be most happy to respond after today’s talk.”
Madame Greenwood’s voice resounded in the hall like a horn in the woods during a fox hunt. After her opening words, she removed the microphone from its stand and started ambling with the aplomb of a head of state reviewing troops. Blanche was grateful that the elegant inspector didn’t linger in front of anyone in particular. Like the typical student unwilling to respond to a teacher’s question, Blanche tried to remove herself from the line of fire by lowering her eyes to become invisible. But she had learned long ago that the move was not effective. If the teacher wanted to quiz you she did. The ostrich technique never worked.
After her visual assessment, Madame took the mike. “The first point I would like to touch upon this afternoon is as simple as one two three – how to sit in a dignified manner. I see that none of you are wearing trousers this afternoon but my recommendations hold true regardless of your attire. To be taken seriously in this world, you must keep in mind that your pose reveals a great deal about you. Position your buttocks solidly on the seat, keep your back straight, your knees together and place your legs at a 45 degree angle. Crossed legs are often ungainly. I’m sure you have noticed how crossed-legged women constantly pull on their skirts in an effort to cover their legs. How gauche!”
Madame was managing her mike with the ease of a stage actress. Blanche noticed Andy roll her eyes and was relieved that she didn’t whisper a snide comment which would bring attention to their corner of the room.
“A lady sits like so.” The demonstration was quickly executed. Blanche didn’t think she’d be able to duplicate it. “I’ll never get pencil skirts when I buy my own clothes. It’s too much of a hassle to sit down and they’re never comfortable.”
“Young ladies, now that you have seen how one must sit, please reposition yourselves properly.” As per Madame’s order, the entire student body moved at once giving Andy the opportunity to hiss. “When I sit down I jus’ siddown and I’m certainly not gonna change that! This is NUTS!” Both Blanche and Titi, adjusted their positions and pleaded with their eyes for Andy do likewise and to shush.
“That is much better. After assimilating proper posture when seated, you must think about your carriage while walking. Remember that your bearing also relays a message. Are you confident, cooperative, content? Are you ready to take on your tasks with enthusiasm, to face your responsibilities? Walking is not merely strolling. It tells others who you are and what you are capable of accomplishing. A fine example of this is the determination displayed by Sister Theophile, your headmistress.”
Blanche had never thought walking around could be so significant. That made her feel even more unsure of herself. Already, she didn’t like her wispy hair, her separated teeth, her wide nose, her thin lips, her scrawny neck and her round behind. Now she didn’t like the way she walked. She couldn’t help squirming in her seat and looking at Andy who responded with a pout.
Madame placed the mike on the lectern and strode up and down the hall. “Shuffling is to be banned no matter what your footwear. Pick up your feet and place one in front of the other with steps in a straight line and approximately one foot apart. As always, back straight, chin up and head erect. Look ahead, not at your toes. Shoulders back and down. Refrain from swinging your arms nonchalantly, a sign of disrespect for those who behold you. Imagine you are carrying a book on your head. Spot the destination you wish to reach and proceed, like so.” Even without a mike, Madame’s voice projected.
Andy muttered “This is getting crazier than I imagined. No one I know walks like that. Come to think of it, this show is pretty entertaining cuz it’s getting weirder all the time!”
“Now I shall ask one of you to follow suit. Who would care to perambulate up and down this lovely reception hall?” Like every teacher who has ever lived, Madame waited a few seconds before designating a poor soul trying to hide behind lowered eyes. She directed herself to the row where Blanche and her friends were sitting making Blanche’s heart thump and head throb. “Please God, don’t let her ask me to walk around in front of everyone! I promise I won’t complain ever again and I’ll help people every time they ask me and I’ll dry the dishes when I’m home for Thanksgiving even if I prefer to wash and…”
“Would this young lady in a bright bohemian dress please give us an illustration of a ladylike stride?” Madame designated Titi who didn’t seem perturbed in the least. “Please rise and tell us your name dear.”
“My name is Yvette Lafleur and thank you for complimenting my dress. I chose the fabric myself and my mother helped me put it together. I like bright colors and I like sewing. It’s fun and you can make stuff no one else has.” Titi was standing in front of her chair.
“My dear, you know better than to use banal words like ‘stuff’. Banish it from your vocabulary. I’m sure you have assimilated more elegant terms. But I have not come here to speak about the richness of the English language. Please Yvette, show us how you live up to your surname ‘Lafleur – ‘the flower’.”
Without hesitating, Titi straightened up her tiny frame and glided towards the nuns’ platform with a graceful whoosh of her flowing skirt. She was a natural for the catwalk, enjoying every step like a delicate peacock making the wheel. Andy initiated a round of applause. The nuns joined in.
Madame grabbed the mike from the lectern and interrupted the clapping. “Thank you Yvette. Well done. I shall charge you with training your schoolmates given that you have indeed mastered the technique.”
A delighted Titi slipped back into her seat between Andy and Blanche who both gave her a wide grin and a thumbs up. Blanche suspected that even the headmistress seemed pleased, although no one had ever seen her smile.
“Let us move on. Saint Felicity Academy has its uniform. A set dress code facilitates concentrating on academic pursuits and intellectual goals. No precious minutes are wasted choosing a daily outfit. When I behold all of you in your finery, I suspect that considerable time was put into selecting garments and, considering today’s special circumstances, those efforts were not pointless. Growing into womanhood involves self-awareness in order to assert one’s individuality with dignity. To speak plainly, it will be important for you to find your own style, regardless of your future profession or marital status.”
Madame Greenwood turned her head towards the headmistress and added, “Sister Theophile has asked me to broach the topic. Of course, those of you who lean towards religious life will be spared this preoccupation because the Lord’s brides have already charted their path. But lay women must keep in mind how revealing outward appearance is. Of course, when I use the word ‘revealing’ I mean that your appearance reveals something important about your character. I am in no way referring to immodest attire.”
Madame cleared her throat and Blanche noticed that her cheeks had turned pink as she justified her word choice.
“As senior instructor at the Tourism and Travel Services Management School of Boston, I can assure you that one’s apparel, in conjunction with one’s bearing, transmit a precise image. When dealing with a demanding clientele, the kind we encounter at upscale hotels, gastronomical restaurants and luxury vacation destinations, one has to be impeccable. If the headmistress so wishes, I shall be most happy to delve into the details of this professional sector at a later date, especially with the juniors and seniors contemplating a career in tourism and hospitality. For now, we shall be satisfied with the very basic subject of choosing something flattering for one’s unique self. We have all seen lovely Yvette Lafleur in her bohemian dress. She opted for something long and multicolored which could well have overwhelmed her. However, the empire waist successfully and modestly drew attention to her petite physique and to her exuberant personality. So, her choice, although audacious, was entirely apropos. Again Yvette, well done.”
“Thank you Madame.” Titi’s ear-to-ear smile swallowed her entire face.
“Will ya calm down Titi. You won’t be able to wipe that grin offa your face. It’ll suspend in space like the Cheshire Cat’s!” Andy had to say something at that point, noticed Blanche.
“I believe that the classmate sitting next to you is congratulating you Yvette?” Madame extended her arm in a dancer’s “port de bras” and opened her gloved hand in Andy’s direction. “Mademoiselle, would you please rise and repeat your words aloud? From the beginning of our talk, you have exchanged comments with your neighbours. Verbalising one’s thoughts is laudable; sharing them with others, even more so. Please enlighten us all by sharing your thoughts, Mademoiselle.”
From the corner of her eyes, Blanche could decipher Andy’s mien. Never before had she seen her friend caught off guard and she dreaded the inevitable retort. An audible gasp came from the nuns because Andrea Tremblay, the well-named, was known for making others tremble.
The audience held its breath. An endless second passed before Andy stood up as requested.
“Yes indeed I was congratulating my friend Titi. That’s the nickname we gave her because she’s petite. Sure thing, I’ll share my thoughts. But first, may I ask you question please Madame?”
Andy didn’t wait for a response and fired away.
“Your suit is Christian Dior, isn’t it? I’ve been sewing for years and I saw that pattern at the fabric shop. It’s very flattering for tall, slim figures like yours. Don’t you think most department store merchandise, with its lousy tailoring, just doesn’t cut it? You made a good choice for today’s dress-up too, just like Titi. And on top of that, Dior is French and SFA is dedicated to exposing us to our ancestors’ culture. So that’s great. Thank you.”
Madame was as still as a marble statue and her face turned ashen. Blanche found the exchange between the impertinent student and the special guest gripping and thought “Andy has the guts to say anything she likes! This lady probably feels like putting her right back in her place. At least she ended with a compliment though. And who else but Andy could have identified the designer clothes? Maybe the two of them have met their match?”
Madame took a moment before reacting. “Why thank you Mademoiselle. Yes indeed, I’m wearing Dior today. You are keen-eyed and savvy about fabric and fashion. In fact, I must specify that this ‘tailleur pour dames’ (woman’s suit) was given to me by one of Dior’s ‘petites mains’ (little hands). To use layman’s language, one of Dior’s dressmakers was a guest speaker at our institution, much like me here today, and this suit was her gift to me for extending the invitation. But Mademoiselle, you haven’t given me your name?”
“It’s Andrea Tremblay but my friends call me Andy. May I ask you another question please? Since I’m a seamstress like Titi, can I ask what you think of my outfit?” The question came out with an unusually honeyed voice.
“My my Andrea, yes I shall respond although, in all fairness, I should leave some time for other questions. Let’s see now.”
She took a step closer to eyeball Andy. Titi still had the Chechire Cat’s grin plastered on her face and Blanche felt so uncomfortable she thought she would pass out.
“Superb cut of the fine soft wool, simple lines for a classic jumper style, befitting choice of burnt Sienna for the season, feminine and flattering silky blouse in a tasteful neutral shade.” Madame was dissecting Andy’s outfit with words like shots from a machine gun.
Blanche could tell that Andy was standing firm, unflinching, unafraid and unmoved.
“Very becoming my dear. You found an appropriate outfit for today’s occasion and I have no doubt whatsoever that you will continue to do so in the future. Your determination is visible making you a worthy example of your headmistress’s teachings. Well done.”
Blanche lifted her head slightly to get a glimpse of the platform where Sister Theophile was sitting with the faculty members. The scene was eery. Every single nun was sitting according to Madame Greenwood’s instructions. Their stiffness reminded Blanche of the photo of Luxor Egypt sphinxes in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Just as Madame was about to continue her talk, Andy blurted out. “Thank you again Madame. Since you pointed out that our headmistress asked you to help us find our own style and since you met the people at Christian Dior, would you be willing to help us put on a fashion show right here at SFA? We students could model and demonstrate the proper way of walking and everything you’ve taught us today. We would gain confidence to become strong women just like you and our headmistress. And we seamstresses could make you a present. Even if it isn’t as fancy as your Dior suit, at least it would be handcrafted and original. Everyone could pitch in. It would be a perfect example of SFA teamwork!”
Andy’s flight of fancy came to an end. Admiration spiced with trepidation overcame Blanche who wished she were seated anywhere but beside her cheeky friend. ”When is this gonna end? Please stop now Andy!” No one could hear Blanche screaming inside her head.
“My my, that is something to consider. But such a decision is not mine to take, as you well know. If the headmistress finds it fitting, I can certainly entertain the thought. Surely everyone understands that we cannot undertake such a project without proper reflection. But now I would like to move on. Let’s see. For instance let’s consider the young lady to your right Andrea. Yes you dear. Please rise so that we can take a look at you.”
Madame looked straight at Blanche instantly triggering her fight or flight instinct. The latter would have been chosen had it been possible. Stars glittered in front of Blanche’s eyes, her pulse thumped, her mouth went dry and she silently prayed “Saint Esprit éclairez-moi!” The Holy Spirit must have helped her stand because her legs felt as mushy as over-cooked spaghetti. Everything in the hall disappeared except for the lady in the Dior suit.
“My my dear, how pale you are. No need to worry. Turn around for all of us to properly see your outfit.”
Like strings manoeuvring a marionette, the words made Blanche get up, turn around and face Madame’s firing squad. She knew that all of the blood had drained from her face and prayed that Andy wouldn’t divulge her nickname. Never before had she worn “Pale Face” so well.
“Perfectly fitted, soft, bonded felt. Three-piece ensemble made up of a simple shell, a collarless jacket embellished with black grosgrain ribbon piping attractively swirled in petal shapes around the buttons. Gracefully pleated, knee-length skirt. Beautifully made, elegant outfit in the best possible hue for your complexion. Yes, fire engine red is the shade for you. Bright without being overwhelming, it gives your pallor a bit of zip. Yes indeed, you have found your color my dear. And what is your name?”
Andy didn’t butt in with “PF”. “Blanche Rejean”, she peeped, sure that a death from embarrassment was imminent.
Read Chapter 3: Readying
Read Chapter 4: Au revoir!
Read Chapter 5: Arrival
Read Chapter 6: Settling In
Read Chapter 7: Beginning to Belong
Read Chapter 8: Quick Showers
Read Chapter 9: Inside & Outside Study Hall
Read Chapter 10: Math Manoeuvres
Read Chapter 11: Cinephiles
Read Chapter 12: Camera, Action, Lights
Read Chapter 13: Reconnecting
Read Chapter 14: Back to the Fold
Read Chapter 15: In the Night
Read Chapter 16: Parlez-vous?
Read Chapter 17: On the Agenda