Boarding School Blues: Chapter 33
By Louise Peloquin
Ch. 33: Cuisses de grenouille
Back in October, when the sun kissed the grounds and clement breezes made kaleidoscopic funnels from multicolored leaves, biology teacher, Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus – Sister T for short – was allowed to hold classes outside. The headmistress recognized that meeting Mother Nature directly was more fruitful than looking at faded photos in old textbooks. And she was right. Budding scientists or not, the girls thoroughly enjoyed Sister T’s courses and didn’t want to miss a beat. Even Andy didn’t initiate sign language conversations.
But December’s biting winds had come and trekking down icy paths was out of the question. Nevertheless, biology maintained its fascination because class content had evolved from labelling local flora to hands-on tasks.
One particularly bleak day when snow flurries hid the pale sun, Sister T announced, “Girls, I must congratulate you on your botanical scrapbooks. Good job pressing the leaves and flowers. Your clear labelling constitutes a serious scientific effort and will count towards the report card grade. Now we shall tackle the next item in our program – dissecting.”
None of the students had ever performed a dissection and Blanche wondered if torturing insects was included in the definition. “I hate fiddling around with bugs” she thought “it’s cruel and really gross when cousin Pierre catches Daddy Long Leg spiders to rip off their legs. I couldn’t do it, even on a dead bug. The Pennacooks respected every living creature. I wonder if I can find an excuse to get out of dissecting?”
Sister T continued. “During our next class we shall work on frogs. I have ordered ten bull frogs. They are bathing in formaldehyde, ready to be examined.” Sister went to the wall-to-wall cupboard in the back of the science room and removed what looked like a large dill pickle jar containing a huge, stiff, greyish-green frog. “Superb specimens indeed. We shall learn a great deal about anatomy by studying them. Very exciting, wouldn’t you say? You will work in pairs. Andrea with Yvette, Blanche with Cecile, Lorraine with…” Sister T rattled off names and instructed three pairs to sit at each long rectangular table. Blanche saw how well she knew her students because not one was disappointed with her designated partner.
The instructions continued. “One of each pair will come fetch a jar and the other will take two of these.” Sister pointed to a large oval stainless steel tray heaped with sandwich bags containing small metal instruments and what appeared to be a sky blue rubber ball.
Blanche noticed that most of her classmates were not particularly eager to start the project.
“Come along girls. We should commence today and we only have thirty minutes left before lunch so time is of the essence.”
Andy took advantage of collecting her frog to say “great way to work up an appetite” in sign language. When she got back to her seat, her partner Titi, holding the plastic bags asked, “Sister, what do we do with the rubber ball? Are we supposed to cut that open too?”
The response was a hearty laugh. “Oh Yvette, you are the funny one! That’s not a rubber ball. Take a good look. Those are rolled up plastic gloves to protect your hands from formaldehyde irritation.”
“Sorry Sister. I couldn’t see that. OK, I get it.” Titi’s signature giggle spread to the whole class.
“I suspect we won’t get any headway in dissecting today and that’s fine after all” Sister responded. “Let me simply identify the contents of your bag. Open it carefully because the objects are sharp. Thanks to Yvette, you know about the gloves. You’ll find a scalpel to delicately cut open the specimen and tweezers to remove veins, nerves and other bits. You also have gauze squares to dab up moisture. Now I would like you to take a look at your specimen and become familiar with its external anatomy. See its trunk, limbs and head. Note the eyes, brow spot and external nare. Interesting term nare, equivalent to our nostril and also used to qualify the little holes in the beak of a bird. Let us continue with the frog. Notice the forelimb manus, meaning the distal portion. Our human hand is a manus and those of you who are familiar with French will recognise the word ‘main’. So the manus has digits, equivalent to our fingers, and the hind limb has thighs and toes. The frog body includes a trunk and an anus. All of these are perfectly identifiable from the jar as you can see. As we proceed with dissecting, we shall establish the parallels between humans and frogs, a fascinating study which will allow you to be better acquainted with your own physical being and add to your knowledge of God’s nature. I can answer a few questions before the end of class if you like.”
Andy fired away. “Frog legs are a delicacy in France but what’s there to eat? Not much meat on those bones. I wonder what they taste like? Have you tried them Sister?”
“Yes Andrea, ‘les cuisses de grenouille’ are greatly appreciated in France” the teacher responded with a smile. “They are protein-rich and contain essential nutrients like vitamin A and potassium. The classic recipe includes butter, garlic, parsley and lemon. Yes, I have sampled them and found their taste and texture to be a cross between chicken and fish. Frankly, I appreciated dipping bread into the garlic butter sauce far more than eating the legs themselves. It was a culinary adventure however and the sister from France who prepared them was quite a gourmet chef. On that note, time is up. Bon appétit and see you at the end of the week. In the meantime, please read chapter 5 of your textbook where you will find diagrams of frog anatomy – previews of coming attractions we might say.”
The science room was in the basement, a few paces from the dining hall. As Blanche and her friends lined up with their grey plastic cafeteria trays, they tried to guess what was for lunch.
“Doesn’t smell like anything fantastic” Andy whispered, “probably some mystery meatloaf or something. Have you guys ever wondered what was in that stuff?”
“We don’t wanna know what’s in it Andy. For once ‘ignorance is bliss’ “ Titi added.
Sister Gerald sneaked up behind them. “Shush please. You know that cafeteria line discussions hold up the meal process. You may exchange quietly at table. I shouldn’t need to remind you of the rules after three months here. Proceed in silence.”
The girls arrived at the serving table where a novice on kitchen duty handed them a plate of skimpy beige chicken thighs accompanied by pale puckered peas and droopy carrots. “Enjoy your meal” she said without conviction.
Three days later Blanche had to face the fact that no argument would be convincing enough to obtain exemption from dissecting. Protesting against cruelty towards animals wouldn’t work because the specimens could no longer feel any pain. Claiming frog phobia or an allergic reaction to amphibians was ridiculous. If Blanche wanted to ace the course, she couldn’t make waves. “Noblesse oblige” helped her maintain a stiff upper lip, as stiff as the poor frog she and C were about to cut into pieces.
Sister T welcomed sleepy students to the 8 AM class. “Today is the big day! Take your places quickly and put on your gloves like so.” She picked up a blue ball and rubbed it vigorously between her palms to loosen the digits. “Be careful not to tear the rubber.” She pulled and smoothed each finger then stretched the palm and cuff. “See how I have prepared the glove? Gently place each digit into its case beginning with the thumb.” The glove slid onto Sister’s left hand. “There you are! Once the thumb is in, the fingers follow. Your turn.”
Long painted nails were forbidden at SFA so the gloves slipped on without piercing the paper-thin rubber.
“Very good” Sister T assessed. “Now that you have got the proper technique, the process will be quicker next time. Have you got any questions?”
Andy remarked “It’s funny how putting on a pair of gloves can be such a big production. Sorry Sister. I didn’t mean to be fresh but it’s true.”
“Since you have a tendency for ‘obiter dictum’ Andrea, I shall take no offence” Sister responded.
“Sorry Sister. I don’t understand what ‘obit dicta’ means. That’s Latin I guess but we haven’t got to that word yet and yes, I do have a question.”
“ ‘Obiter’ means ‘in passing’ and ‘dictum’ means ‘something that is said’. All of us have noticed how you say a great many things in passing. ‘Obiter dictum’ never offends me but sometimes it is unwarranted and wastes time. We really must commence our project. Surely you understand that Andrea?” Sister T’s voice was firm and her expression showed that she was losing her good humor. “I trust your question pertains to the matter at hand?”
“I just want to know how many classes we’re going to spend on dissection?” replied Andy.
“Given its complexity, it is impossible to complete the task in a single session” Sister specified. “A gifted student like you can surely grasp that? Let us move on. In each pair, one will hold the jar while the other removes the frog with the tweezers. You have all got stainless steel plates in front of you. Place your frog belly side up. Please begin. You may quietly exchange with your partner and I encourage you to do so because you will help one another to better observe the specimen.”
Blanche, C, Andy and Titi had a table to themselves. “I’m with my best buddies and that makes me feel a little better” Blanche thought.
“Do you mind if I take the frog out Blanche?” asked C. “I think this is the best class since the beginning of the school year and I’m sure it will help me become a good nurse.”
“Sure C, go right ahead” Blanche answered. With the tweezers held firmly in her right hand, C lifted the specimen out of the jar and positioned it according to instructions. “Wow he’s really a beaut isn’t he Blanche? I can’t wait to open him up! I guess he’s a ‘he’ don’t you think?” Blanche had never seen her friend so happy at school. Dissecting would be less disgusting with a partner like C, Blanche concluded without responding.
In the meantime across the table, Titi shared C’s enthusiasm while Andy’s face had lost all of its color. “That smell is gross” Blanche heard Andy whisper. Then her eyes turned in their orbits and she slid off her chair onto the floor with a loud thump.
“Oh my, oh my” Sister T shouted, “the formaldehyde must have made Andrea queazy. It happens at times. Here, please help me sit her up Yvette.”
C came to the rescue saying “I’m bigger than Titi, I mean Yvette. Let me lend a hand. I’ll have to do things like this when I’m a nurse.” C, collected and poised, knelt to the floor, took Andy into her arms and gently patted her friend’s cheeks.
Andy came to, obviously confused. “That stuff made me feel sick to my stomach. I can’t stand it Sister and I’m not making excuses to get out of dissecting.”
“I understand Andrea” assured the teacher , “no need to apologize. Formaldehyde vapors are unpleasant. I shall give you smelling salts to ward off queasiness. You will eventually become accustomed to the odor and if not, I shall prepare cotton balls with lavender oil to place on your nostrils. We must move on now girls. Andrea, you can sit at the end of the table and watch Yvette. If you still feel ill, I suggest you go to the infirmary for the remainder of the class. However, I do hope you will participate in the dissection next week?”
C helped Andy onto a chair far enough to avoid the foul fumes. Before returning to her own seat beside Blanche, she rubbed Andy’s back affectionately. Andy turned around and thanked her friend with eyes turned gentle. Blanche had never seen that look.
Sister instructed “your specimens are on their backs. I want you to locate the anus, the little hole between the legs. Now take your scalpel and cut a straight line from this hole to the base of the throat. Look up when you have executed this.”
“Execute for sure, poor frog is literally getting his throat slit” Blanche thought. “Boy am I glad C is beginning this cuz I think I may end up flat on the floor like Andy.”
C handled the scalpel and followed directions as easily as she had prepared the Toll House cookie batter during Thanksgiving break. “This knife is really sharp. It just goes right in there no sweat. I’m sorry PF. Maybe you wanted to start? I’ll let you do the rest, OK? I can’t wait to tell my Mom about this. I’ll bet my biology grade goes up because I’ll have no problem remembering all of this stuff. I just wish math were so exciting, don’t you?”
Blanche acquiesced. “Yeah you’re right C. Hey, have you done this sort of thing before? You’re a natural. I’m getting used to the smell now and yeah, maybe I’ll cut open the next thing. It’s kinda cool to see what’s inside and there’s no blood to gross us out so I guess it’s not so bad. We’ll take turns with the scalpel and I’ll try not to cut myself. I’m clumsy with knives you know. Once I sliced the tip of my finger off trying to cut the fat on a pork chop. It bled so much I almost passed out and I had to keep some special bandaid on for days. It was bad.”
The teacher explained how to stretch the skin to reveal the frog’s insides and pointed to a large illustrated poster of a frog hanging in the front of the room. With a yard-long wooden wand, she indicated different body parts and organs. “You will recognise the intestines, small and large, the urinary bladder, stomach, liver. Please locate these on your specimen.”
Blanche managed the tweezers well enough not to rip the rubbery frog skin. Little by little, she got caught up in C’s excitement. “Yeah, you’re right C. This is the coolest thing we’ve done since the beginning of the year and it’s way more interesting that math.”
At the other end of the table, Titi was handling both scalpel and tweezers with dexterity while her partner kept her distance looking sheepish. Wise-guy, caustic Andy had given way to a whole new persona.
The teacher went around asking students to share their impressions. When she came to Blanche’s table, Titi, looking blasé, commented. “I thought dissecting would be harder than this Sister. Actually, it’s pretty easy cuz it’s a lot like sewing except it’s backward.”
The teacher looked perplexed. “I have never though of it from that perspective Yvette. How is that?”
“You know I make most of my clothes, not the school uniform of course but the things I wear outside SFA. The paisley peasant dress I wore when Madame Greenwood came for her talk was my own design. Well, when you sew, you put things together and when you dissect you take things apart. So it’s backward sewing!” The teacher’s surprised look triggered Titi’s giggles and spread mirth. A class which had begun with apprehension, fear, disgust and uncertainty ended up with hilarity.
Two more periods were devoted to frog dissection with each student actively participating. Andy built up the courage to manoeuvre the scalpel once. Titi and C turned out to be the most impressive scientists. And Blanche marvelled at the intricacies of frog anatomy, especially the heart ventricles. She wondered if frogs got sick. The thought made her think about her Papa’s weak heart.
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
Read Chapter 20: Orderliness
Read Chapter 21: Inspection
Read Chapter 22: The Inner Sanctum
Read Chapter 23: Going Home
Read Chapter 24: Merci Mon Oncle
Read Chapter 25: The Food Fairy
Read Chapter 26: Bon appetit!
Read Chapter 27: Friends
Read Chapter 28: A Grocery Stop
Read Chapter 29: Tempus Fugit
Read Chapter 30: The Chapel
Read Chapter 31: A Nice Kind of Weird
Read Chapter 32: Mnemonic Device