Boarding School Blues: Chapter 20
By Louise Peloquin
Ch. 20: Orderliness
That Friday evening in study hall, Sister Roger had special instructions.
“A week from today, you will be home eating leftover turkey sandwiches and telling tales of your first weeks here – the friends you have made, the academics, sports and experiences as an SFA boarder. I shall also spend three days with my family in Maine and just the thought of it fills me with joy. Embracing religious life does not loosen ties with loved ones you know.”
Blanche, Titi and Andy were quizzical. The gym teacher hadn’t shared anything personal since the run-up to the cinema evening.
“My thoughts are leading me away from the task at hand. You already know that our educational objectives include promoting orderliness. The headmistress expects everything to be in perfect order before Thanksgiving and therefore part of tomorrow’s study period will consist in tidying your dormitory cubicles. I shall provide further details in the morning. Your job this evening is organizing your desks – removing its contents, dusting inside and out, disposing of unneeded papers and used supplies, and so forth. The upperclassmen know what is expected and will instruct the younger girls. Tomorrow morning after breakfast, Sister Gerald will inspect all desks.”
Blanche could tell that Andy was in the mood to spar and sure enough, her friend shouted, “Hey Sister, does that mean no more school work before the holiday? It’ll be like training to be free again. I forgot what’s it’s like not to have my whole life planned.”
Sister answered with a smile. “I have become accustomed to your wry observations Andrea, and will choose to ignore them. Naturally, you will be using your desks until Wednesday’s departure and your schoolmates will show you how to stack books in such a fashion as to quickly locate everything needed. Is that clear?”
Andy wisecracked. “Stacking books can’t be that hard Sister. Why make such a big deal out of it?”
It was obvious that Sister Roger would not lose her cool. “That will be enough Andrea. Now we must get down to business if we want to finish before we retire.”
Madeleine, the ever blasé sophomore, raised her hand. “Sister, may we please have permission to talk tonight? Gestures wouldn’t show the freshmen exactly what to do and everything would take a really long time. We promise we won’t be too loud.”
“Yes you may speak. Just remember to keep your inside voices please.”
“Thank you Sister. And, if it’s OK with you, may I please help Andrea, Yvette and Blanche because I’ve come to know them well.”
“Certainly. Madeleine, you are responsible for those three. The others, please join up with one or two freshmen. I shall now leave study hall and trust all of you to complete this task in such a way as to impress Sister Gerald. I have got my own tidying to tackle. If you need me, please send an envoy down to the gym where I shall be putting away athletic material. You have got forty-five minutes. Here are the dust rags and garbage bags. Madeleine, you will collect them and hand them to me at the end of the period. Bon courage!”
Madeleine responded with an enthusiastic “yes of course Sister” and turned to her three young friends.
“She’s cool. Not like the other nuns. She senses what’s important and what isn’t. Like your chutzpah Andy. Sister Rog knows how much you love pushing everyone’s buttons. She won’t punish you but be easy on her will ya please?””
Growing up in a bilingual environment had stimulated Blanche’s curiosity and turned language into a whole universe to explore so she had to ask, “What’s ‘chutzpah’? I like the sound of it. Is it Latin? I’m only a beginner in that subject.”
Madeleine chuckled. “ ‘Chutzpah’ is Yiddish and means self-confidence and audacity. Very appropriate for Andy isn’t it?”
Grateful to add a new word to her vocabulary, Blanche said, “Thanks Madeleine. Is it polite? I don’t wanna start using dirty words because that becomes a bad habit and it’s hard to stop.”
Andy sounded irritated. “No, PF. You won’t get your mouth washed out with soap if you use ‘chutzpah’. I already knew that word cuz my father taught it to me and besides, I’m proud of my chutzpah! But maybe you’re right about giving Sister Rog a hard time Maddy. Yeah, she’s cool.”
Madeleine agreed. “For sure Andy. It makes me think of that time in gym class when she was talking about ‘gratuitous violence’, as she called it. I remember those words. She explained that fights, even verbal ones, lead to more fights and everything accelerates and that’s how wars begin. We all figured she was a peacenik. Imagine, a peacenik nun? And then, she brought up the fact that three thousand five hundred marines had been deployed to Viet Nam in March and another fifty thousand troops sent there in July and she wanted to go on about what could happen but Sister Gerald came by and interrupted her saying she wasn’t a history teacher. When Sister G left the gym, Sister R flashed us a peace sign. That woman is one of a kind – an athlete, a peacenik and a cinema buff. We’ve all gotta stand by her cuz this place would be tougher if she weren’t here.”
Blanche drank in Madeleine’s words and wanted to hear more. “Boy I think I’m gonna ask Sister Roger to give us some of the latest news during gym class. I wanna know what’s happening beyond this campus. Her stories about Québec history are really interesting and I want to continue hearing about our ancestors but we have to know what’s going on today too. How can we get her to do that Madeleine?” She was thinking about her father never missing the news and added, “My father says our world has become a ‘global village’ an expression a Canadian philosopher made up I guess. I remember his name – Marshall McLuhan. Anyway, Papa says we should get acquainted with the players living in our village. So he never misses Walter Cronkite and the other news guys. He switches channels during commercials even if that gets on my mother’s nerves.”
Madeleine suggested, “PF, just ask Sister Rog and she’ll give you the latest headlines. Now let’s attack those desks. Here, grab a rag. First take everything out, then put the stuff on your chair and dust inside. When that’s done, I’ll help you organize à la Sister Gerald mode. Let’s see what you’ve got there Titi.”
As Madeleine opened Titi’s desk, her eyes lit up. “Woah girl – loose leaf sheets with red hearts all over? That don’t look like no school notes to me! What? A poem called ‘ Love’s Philosophy’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley? Isn’t he the one who wrote ‘Frankenstein’? Let’s see now.
The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?
See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?
Titi ripped the sheets from Madeleine’s hands. Her face turned scarlet and her hazel eyes glowed like burning embers. Blanche had never seen her so incensed. “No, he did not write ‘Frankenstein’; his wife Mary did! Gimme my papers Maddy! They’re not for you guys. I have the right to my privacy!”
“Get a grip, will ya” said Madeleine. “So you’re into poetry? Nice.”
Titi inhaled deeply and exhaled noisily. “I do not like losing my cool. But you guys should at least ask before reading my personal papers out loud ya know. Anyway, I was skimming through this book on Romantic English poets in the library and found a few poems I liked and copied them all and drew hearts and squiggles. I thought they would come in handy during Thanksgiving vacation when I’ll be seeing old neighbourhood friends. There’s a guy two houses down who was in my grammar school class and I’d like to go over and say hi and see how he’s doin’. Maybe he turned into a hunk so….”
With an ear-to-ear grin, Madeleine commented. “Oh wow, you’ve got everything planned don’t you! But what do poems have to do with seeing some guy down the street?”
Titi explained with conviction. “It’s simple. A lotta people think boarding school will make me cultured and sweet. Might as well take advantage of that. Those poems could help me send a quick message. A guy could be moved by a pretty poem with hearts on the paper, right? I could say I was thinking of him during English class or somethin’. I’m tellin’ ya. I’m planning on getting a date for the movies or at least the soda fountain for a raspberry-lime rickey. Thanksgiving break is only four days and I intend to do more than eat turkey and pumpkin pie. I wanna move ahead in my life’s journey. After all, the poem says – ’What is all this sweet work worth if thou kiss not me?’ That’s pretty clear ain’t it?”
Blanche was dumbfounded and the thought of being kissed made her turn crimson.
“Way to go Titi! We’re in for some poetic, juicy stories. Can’t wait to hear them. We’ve only got twenty minutes to get to these desks. Here’s how to arrange your stuff.”
In a jiffy, Madeleine demonstrated the book stacking protocol and displayed her class notes placed in a brown folder. Blanche found the crisp outlines and clear diagrams to be an invitation to plunge into learning. Not an inch of desk space was wasted, a wooden suitcase filled with neatly arranged books rather than garments.
Madeleine moved on to her next protégée. “OK, Andy, let’s see what you’ve got. Open up.”
Andy’s displeasure was obvious. “I’ll take care of my own desk, thank you very much.”
Madeleine opened anyway and gasped. Stuffed inside were papers of all shapes, sizes and colors. “Oh my! This type of orderliness is just what Sister Gerald will not appreciate. What did you do, just dump everything in there? Wait a minute, what is this?” She grabbed a handful of papers and took a close look. “Well, I’ll be! These are creations from America’s next great cartoonist. I cannot believe what you can do Andy. You drew everyone – nuns, boarders, day hops, even the chaplain. How come so small though?.”
Andy explained with a sonorous sigh. “I draw in class and I have to look like I’m busy taking notes and when the teacher walks by, all of it has to look legit and too small to attract attention.”
Madeleine, glowing, said, “positively brilliant Andy. I’m tellin’ ya. You’re one of a kind. This is unbelievable. Who taught you how to draw like this? Anyway, I could have had the best art teacher in the whole wide world and I’d never be able to do this. You’ve got real talent dearie. Have you ever thought of becoming a professional? Seriously!”
Andy’s face lit up. “That’s not the only talent I have Maddy. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Well, my father is an artist. I told you that already. He worked with some dudes who were connected with Lee Lorenz. You know, the guy from ‘The New Yorker’. I love comics. They’re much more exciting that school stuff. Yeah maybe I’ll write a comic book one day. I’ll call it ‘Wonder-Boarder to Wonder-Broad’. If this place doesn’t destroy us it’ll make us invincible. ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ right?” Blanche could see Andy lighten up.
Madeleine turned to Blanche. “OK PF, you’re next. What are we gonna discover about you? Titi is the romantic poetic type and Andy is the eagle-eyed artist, what hidden talents have you got?”
Andy responded before Blanche could even open her mouth. “I don’t need to see inside her desk. PF is a mental case about her stuff. If you move a pencil, she freaks out. She takes neatness to the next level. It’s kinda sick really. She could give Sister Gerald a lesson or two about orderliness.”
Knowing it was useless to justify herself, Blanche lifted the desk lid. “I’m not even gonna answer Andy the supposed know-it-all. Here you go Maddy.”
Madeleine took a quick look and, sure enough, the desk was in perfect order except for a brightly-coloured glossy publication sticking out amid the text books and Oxford notebooks. “This doesn’t look like a school book. What is it?” Madeleine slipped the unidentified foreign object out from the lot.
“Oh that. I had forgotten all about it. It’s the ‘Seventeen’ Magazine my mother brought me a few weeks ago. I never looked at it because we’ve had so many quizzes, I really needed to spend my time studying. I’ll read it during Thanksgiving break.”
Andy commented. “Well, be sure to bring it back PF. It could give us a few ideas for the fashion show. We gotta start brainstorming about that.”
Madeleine reminded Andy, “That ain’t no done deal Andy. I don’t know if we’ll get permission. Don’t get your hopes up too high, kiddo. You don’t know this place as much as I do. But I guess it’s always good to dream right?”
Andy turned to Titi and quipped, “Well, leave it to us Maddy. We’ve got a plan. Permission will be granted, you’ll see!”
“OK Andy. Tell me about it later.” Madeleine asked Blanche. “So your Mom gave you this magazine? She’s cool. Can I borrow it? Your desk is fine. No need to dust it.”
Madeleine’s training ended just in time for Sister Roger’s return. With her usual energy she complimented. “I can see you have successfully completed the evening’s task. Wonderful! Sister Gerald will be pleased. SFA will be empty without you next week but left in perfect order. You know how much our headmistress is attached to the proverb, ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’.“
Blanche slipped her magazine on top of her books. The girls filed out of study hall and marched to Faith, Hope and Charity dorms after a job well done.
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
Read Chapter 18: Dress up, sit up, chin up
Read Chapter 19: Post Conference Assessment