Boarding School Blues
By Louise Peloquin
Ch. 17: On the Agenda
In the run-up to Thanksgiving, testing set the beat as teachers were bent on evaluating performance. Students seemed to resist the temptation to daydream in study hall and even Andy filled her Oxford copybooks with school notes rather than cartoons.
New activities popped up on the agenda. One afternoon, the headmistress summoned the entire student body to the reception hall. Blanche and her friends thought that Sister Theophile would issue another warning about some potential danger as she did during the shower speech a few weeks before.
“Young ladies, I have gathered you today to announce that Saint Felicity Academy will receive a special guest tomorrow afternoon. Madame Adeline Greenwood will speak to us about ladylike comportment and behavior. These topics are in harmony with our broad educational objectives and we are privileged to benefit from her expertise. Indeed, she is a faculty member at Boston’s Tourism Management School and, as the aunt of one of our novices, she has graciously offered her services. On this occasion, you will be allowed to replace the SFA uniform by a skirt or dress from your personal wardrobe. Naturally, modest garments are indispensable to welcome our guest with dignity and decorum. I have assuredly made myself clear. That will be all.”
With her eyes riveted on the exit, as if she were afraid to be left alone among a hundred astounded adolescents, the headmistress floated out of the hall in her usual ceremonious manner.
After an hour of scribbling concepts, dates, formulas and rules on yellow legal pads followed by a baked bean supper, the boarders went outside in the frosty November air, eager to talk about the next day’s speaker.
Andy wasn’t enthused. “Wouldn’t you know it, the headmistress couldn’t find anyone better than a novice’s aunt to come and talk to us about, of all things, ‘comportment’? What the heck is that about anyway?”
“Well, Madame Greewood is coming for free so that won’t put a dent in the SFA budget. Anyway, I’d like to find out who the novice is.” Titi always kept the monetary considerations in mind, Blanche noticed.
“ ‘Comportment’ comes from the French word ‘comportement’ meaning ‘behavior’. So actually, the headmistress said the exact same thing twice. I wonder if she did that on purpose?” Blanche wanted to show off her linguistic skills.
“And I’ll bet Madame Greenwood is really a Madame Boisvert. A lot of French-Canadians translated their last names to English when they immigrated to the States. Maybe they thought French was too different? For example, you don’t pronounce the ’S’ and the ’T’ in ‘Boisvert’ so…”
“There she goes again, Professor PF is shooting her mouth off. Can’t we take a little break while we’re outside? This is supposed to be recreation after all! You can get back to your intellectual pursuits in a half hour PF. Boy oh boy, are you a pain sometimes!” Andy wasn’t in the mood for a French phonetics lesson.
“If ‘Madam Bwaveer’ is coming to teach us how to behave in a ‘ladylike’ manner, she’s in for a surprise! She’ll have a tough time of it. The headmistress said this stuff was ‘in harmony with our broad educational objectives’. Is she planning on turning us all into ‘broads’? Ha! Ha! Ha! Either she had no idea what she was saying or else she did it on purpose. Maybe you were right about that PF. Anyway, whatever she talks about, it’ll sure beat going to class, especially boring geography when I usually doze off. I’m mastering the technique of sleeping with my eyes open. It makes you look like a zombie but that’s OK because the teacher thinks you’re amazed at learning the names of every single capital city on the face of the earth.”
“Andy, you told us you liked geography because you wanted to travel around the world in eighty days just like Phileas Fogg. And you even wanted Titi and I to be your two Passepartout, remember? Geography is cool. You said so yourself.” Blanche was relishing pointing out Andy’s quirks.
“OK, OK PF. Let’s drop the school stuff now. What are you guys going to wear tomorrow? I’ve been living in this uniform for so long I don’t even remember what normal clothes are like. It’d be nice to slip into a pair of pants but I didn’t bring any. All I have here is a lousy jumper. It’s a pretty burnt Sienna shade though and I have a silky beige blouse to go with it so that should do. What about you guys?” Titi and Blanche had never heard Andy manifest any interest in clothes; they exchanged a surprised look and a smile.
“I have a bright paisley dress, kinda hippy style. It’s long and flouncy so I shouldn’t have any problems with the modesty thing. I don’t have the right shoes though. My blue, knee-high, patent leather boots are at home and all I have here are these ugly black school shoes. No matter. It’ll be fun to wear something else for once. Maybe we won’t recognize each other without the uniform. Ha! Ha! Ha!” Titi’s crystalline giggle filled the air as the girls headed back towards the building. She turned to Blanche. “What about you PF? What ‘modest garment’ will you choose for tomorrow’s event?”
“I dunno really. I only have one outfit here and I’ve never worn it before so I won’t really feel comfortable. You’ll see tomorrow. I wonder why we have to dress up for this lady anyway and what’s ‘burnt Sienna’?”
“ I give up on you PF! Didn’t you guys have crayons at home? There’s a ‘burnt Sienna’ in the Crayola box. I’ll tell ya, any shade is better than this navy blue” Andy shouted as she looked disdainfully at her rumpled uniform. “When I’m outa this place, I’ll never wear it again as long as I live. Well, tomorrow we’ll be dressed so brightly that we’ll blind Sister Theophile!” And it’ll be her own fault because she is the one who told us to wear our own outfits!” Andy rejoiced along with Titi and Blanche as they headed to study hall.
Madame Adeline Greenwood’s talk was scheduled on the Friday before Thanksgiving, after days of tedious academic tasks which make students long for a break. That afternoon, they filed into the reception hall in unison; their strides had become automatic after so much SFA time together. They did not resemble a military-style drill team however, because the uniforms had been replaced by outfits which lit up the large room. Like butterflies fresh out of cocoons, the adolescents seemed to be displaying their newly unfolded wings in every possible Crayola shade. Although the ban on mini skirts and jeans limited the carte blanche, boundless imagination allowed them to show off their individuality while following the headmistress’s dress instructions.
The nuns were already inside and comfortably seated on the platform at the far end of the hall. As they beheld the vibrant sight of the student parade, Blanche noticed that Sister Fran mischievously winked and several of the other teachers sported an unabashedly admiring look. A thought crossed her mind. “The nuns don’t get to see how kids dress these days because they hardly ever leave campus. Maybe a day like this is interesting for them too.” Blanche and her classmates knew that the teachers had noticed the extraordinary metamorphosis but not one of them was glowering. On the contrary, their smoothed brows and upturned lips showed that they were amused.
Some girls, like Titi, wore long, flashy, empire waist dresses. Others, like Madeleine, had chosen fitted ones in rich solid hues set off by rows of eye-catching oversized buttons. There was also a variety of skirts – fitted, gathered, pleated, flared, draped. Snappy belts showed off waists. Scarves and shawls draped shoulders. Showy bead necklaces swung around necks and skinny bangles clung to wrists. Gaudy earrings in geometric shapes hung from ears. Sister Theophile had not said anything about jewelry and make-up so the girls went hog-wild, the more bespangled, the better.
SFA forbade the use of cosmetics. A good face scrub with Ivory, Camay or Dove was the boarders’ only beauty routine and day-hops sporting maquillage were immediately sent to the rest room to wash up. Of course, Titi the rebel had hid her collection of beauty paraphernalia and was determined to put it to good use for the occasion. Both Andy and Blanche had declined Titi’s offer to borrow some of her stash. Andy hated makeup and knew that her complexion didn’t require any enhancement and Blanche was content with a dab of Chapstick. While entering the reception hall, Titi made sure everyone noticed the turquoise shadow and black mascara outlining her doe eyes as well as the pink gloss on her pouty lips. Several girls had painted their mouths with conspicuous cherry reds, tangerine oranges and bubblegum pinks, making their smiles even more striking. Some had even done their nails in matching shades since white gloves were not required for the occasion.
New hairdos added to the clothing and make-up transformation with pony tails becoming beehives, flipped bobs and mop tops. Titi and Andy had coiffed their flowing locks into a Brigitte Bardot “bombshell” with a wide showy headband. Madeleine had slicked down her pixie like Twiggy’s and Blanche had let loose her fine silky hair.
To complete the new looks, a motley assortment of loafers, moccasins, square-toed flats, clogs and even espadrilles replaced the plain black school shoes. From the tops of their heads to the tips of their toes, the girls had rejoiced in dressing up.
Andy commented, “Psst, hey guys, did ya see how the nuns are checking us out? I’ll bet they think we look pretty cool. Who knows, maybe the next step will be to let us put on a pair of pants, at least for gym class, right? It’s far out to see everyone all dolled up.”
Titi added, “Yeah, and who woulda thought just putting on ‘normal’ studs could be so exciting. We really need to get outa this place soon before we forget what it’s like to live in the outside world!”
“Hey you two, let’s not get ourselves kicked out of here for talking! Please, hush!” The spectre of sanction was always in the back of Blanche’s mind.
Once the student body was settled in folding chairs placed in a half dozen rows on each side of the hall, Sister Roger carried a lectern to the middle of the room. She installed a microphone, tested it “one two, one two three” and took her usual spot on the sidelines, ever ready to deal with technical mishaps. Sister Gerald left her seat and stepped up to speak. The mike was a bit high for her bent frame but her piercing voice managed to project.
“Girls, I shall invite you to welcome Madame Adeline Greenwood and our headmistress who had the brilliant idea of organizing today’s special event. I would ask you to please join me in…” A burst of applause interrupted Sister Gerald’s introduction. The girls’ excitement could not be contained. Blanche saw that Andy was tempted to initiate a round of foot stomping but Titi stopped her in the nick of time with a firm elbow nudge in the gut.
Sister Gerald left the lectern and the clapping continued as Sister Theophile strode into the hall with her guest. Andy quipped. “You can tell Sister Theo spent time in England. She thinks she’s the queen going to a formal reception with another royal. Talk about pomp and circumstance! Woah, get a load of that Barbie doll Madame!”
“Can’t you button up for once Andy? You’re right, but we don’t want this to end up being cancelled after three minutes like our movie night! If the headmistress hears you we’ll all get into trouble and we’ll never have an afternoon event again.” Titi was the only girl who could get Andy to comply.
Blanche agreed. “Yeah Andy. Let’s just see what this lady has to say. Anything is better than more quizzes and no one wants to go to study hall right now.”
Every set of eyes was examining Madame Adeline Greenwood as she accompanied the headmistress with strides synchronized to the applause. Once both women arrived at the lectern, Sister Theophile’s raised finger signaled for the clapping to end. Instantly, it did.
“As you can see chère Madame, the SFA student body warmly welcomes you today and is eager to benefit from your enlightenment. Since your time is precious, without further ado, the floor is yours.”
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?