Boarding School Blues: Chapter 34
By Louise Peloquin
Chapter 34: “Run along now”
Noël vacation was only two weeks away. Blanche and her friends were plowing through the curriculum from Latin declensions and new vocabulary to the American Revolution timeline including the March 5, 1770 Boston Massacre, the December 16, 1773 Tea Party, Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” speech and the April 18-19, 1775 Lexington and Concord battles. Retaining dates wasn’t so arduous because they had all walked the Freedom Trail and visited colonial towns.
Geography courses on New England’s indigenous tribes especially fascinated Blanche. During recreation, she provided her friends, ad nauseam, with details on wigwams, corn husk dolls, cradle boards, moccasins, deerskin mantles and traditional medicine.
“Enough already!” screamed Andy one frigid December afternoon when breathing created clouds of vapor to fog up glasses and freeze nose tips. “Thanks to your obsession, we don’t have to study cuz you’ve stuffed our heads with it. Can’t we talk about something else now, like ‘what do you want for Christmas?’ You’re worse than a broken record.”
Titi acquiesced. “Yeah Blanche. Talk about something outside of school, why don’t ya.”
C didn’t agree. “I think it’s really interesting. I’m not sick of it, especially the stuff on traditional medicine. Knowing about plant cures will come in handy for me when I’m a nurse. Go on PF. I wanna know more.”
“Thanks C. Well, to give you one example, the Pennacooks dried honeysuckle leaves for a tea to treat sore throats, coughs and…” Blanche was interrupted by Novice Marieanne calling for her. “Sister Theophile wants to see you right away Blanche.”
“Oh boy!” Andy roared. “Did you forget to pick up a speck of dust when you cleaned Sister Fran’s room at employment this morning? Or else did you give Sister Gerald a dirty look? Why on earth would the model student get called in by the headmistress? This is way more exciting than the Pennawhachamacallits!”
Blanche snipped. “I didn’t do anything wrong so get offa my back Andy. Anyway, this won’t take long so I’ll be back and yeah, let’s talk about something else. If you wanna know more about the Pennacooks, figure it out for yourselves. I’m done.”
Perplexed by the headmistress’s summons, Blanche sprinted up the drive. Sister Theophile never initiated chit-chats with the students. Blanche felt her chest tighten when she saw Marieanne’s somber face. With butterflies in her stomach, she asked “Marieanne, what does Sister Theophile want? I didn’t do anything. At least I don’t know what I did if I did do something.” She rattled on knowing full well that the novice would offer no explanation. Without even looking at her, Marieanne accompanied Blanche up the stairs to the main entrance and opened the heavy oak door. Waiting in the hall was the headmistress, standing like a judge about to pronounce a sentence.
“Thank you Novice Marieanne. That will be all. You may return to your duties. Should I require further assistance, I shall ring for you.” The headmistress enunciated each word with solemnity while contemplating the closed parlor door. That door threw Blanche back to the day she had first stepped inside the boarding school with a tour conducted by Sister Gerald and to the late October Saturday afternoon when her mother and sister had come to visit. In an effort to ward off a sense of forboding, she conjured up Maggie’s little kid’s voice echoing in SFA’s grand front hall.
The headmistress opened the parlor door to the dark unheated room and pointed to one of the spindle chairs lining the wall. “Be seated mon enfant.” Blanche obeyed and stared at the floor. Just looking at the headmistress gave her the heebie-jeebies.
Sister Theophile took the tapestry-upholstered throne chair placed in the middle of the parlor and slowly lowered herself into it as if suffering from joint pain. Blanche could tell that Sister was trying to find a comfortable position. “What’s wrong with the headmistress?” she wondered. “That fancy chair looks pretty comfy. It’s weird to see her fidget.”
Blanche was trying not to let her mind race over the reasons why the headmistress would want to talk to her in the middle of a school day. “Recreation will be over in fifteen minutes and then I have algebra, Latin, English.” She reviewed the schedule in an effort to bridle her imagination. “I can’t think of anything bad I could have done lately. Well, maybe that one time in history class when I was looking out the window at the huge snow flakes instead of at the dates on the blackboard. But I wasn’t the only one doing that and anyway, class was over in one minute so it couldn’t count as daydreaming.” Blanche was sitting as still as a statue with a shoulders-back posture that her mother would have lauded.
The headmistress drew in a deep breath and exhaled seven words. “You must accept the will of God.” Only then did Blanche look up into Sister Theophile’s eyes. There she saw a hodgepodge of sternness and softness.
Interminable seconds followed. For once, Blanche did not allow impatience to get the best of her. She knew the following moments were the calm before the storm and understood how ignorance could, at times, be bliss.
Sister Theophile brushed off invisible flecks of dust from her neatly pressed habit before resuming. “Your father has suffered a heart attack and has been rushed to the emergency room in serious condition. The prognosis is not good. Your mother called and will keep us informed. You must accept the will of God. Thank Him for His blessings in all circumstances. Your father is a good man whose entire life was filled with acts of charity. Eternal life is the best destination. I hear the bell. Recreation has terminated. Run along now.”
Blanche was transfixed. Her blood chilled. She tried to find some trace of empathy in Sister Theophile’s demeanor. “Please may I call home?” she uttered with a quavery voice. “Just to know what’s happening, please Sister.”
The headmistress rose from her padded armchair, stretched her torso to its usual stiff posture and turned away. “I have just told you what is happening. No need to repeat. Tardiness is unacceptable. Proceed immediately to your next class Mademoiselle Rejean.”
Blanche shrieked “Sister, please. My mother needs me to take care of my little sister and my brothers. They’ll be scared and upset. I can help them while Maman is at the hospital. Just one minute. Please Sister.”
The flick of the headmistress’s right hand indicated a negative response. Blanche felt cold air on her face as Sister waved her scrawny, blue-veined hand towards her. Wearing her rubber-soled shoes, the headmistress floated to her office down the hall without looking back.
Blanche heard the distant click of coordinated footsteps when she left the parlor. Down the long dark corridor, her schoolmates were heading towards the staircase. Titi and Andy filed by. Only C happened to turn her face. When she caught a glimpse of Blanche, she shrugged and opened her palms to indicate bewilderment. “C figured something’s wrong” Blanche thought. “We have a connection, C and me. She knows there’s a problem. She feels it.”
Blanche yearned to be comforted by her friends, especially C, but how could that happen? Blanche’s slow, robotic steps took her to the now-empty first floor landing. A loud thump echoed from above and Sister Gerald’s voice boomed “Oh my goodness Cecile. How on earth can one be so absent-minded to trip at the end of a flight of stairs? I’ve never seen you so clumsy. If you are not hurt, go to your next course. What is it?”
“Algebra. I was wondering Sister….” C responded. The domino effect of Titi and Andy’s chuckles sent a crescendo of laughs throughout the hallway and down the stairwell. Blanche predicted general pandemonium would ensue. Sure enough, Sister Gerald’s voice boomed once again “You are losing precious time girls. In line this instant. You can wonder all you want once you’re in the classroom. Go now.”
Blanche thought of her father stretched out on a gurney with wires stuck to his chest and Maman by his side holding his hand. It was unbearable. She couldn’t go to algebra class. To hell with the B+ she managed to score in the last quiz. “The last place I wanna go right now is algebra class” she decided. “I understand the stuff on polynomials and new equations but it doesn’t matter. I just wanna call Maman, get outa of this place and go home. Might as well try to go to the moon while I’m at it.”
She assessed the possible escape routes. “Goin’ to the rooftop is too risky and I’ll freeze without a coat on. The doors leading outside are locked so I can’t hide in the pine grove. The gym’s off limits because of basketball practice. The arts and crafts room is always full. The novices are cleaning up the dining hall. I can’t go back to the parlor. Three flights up to the dorm without being seen is impossible. No hole to crawl into even if this place is huge.”
As she stood alone on the first floor landing, her flight instinct triggered audacity. “I don’t give a hoot if I get into trouble. I’m not goin’ to class. Now I know how butterflies feel when we catch them and put them in a jar. Even if you poke breathing holes in the lid, they can’t spread their wings and fly. I’ll never catch butterflies again.”
Someone would eventually see her standing there in the hall. She had to make a move. There were no telephones in sight so she couldn’t sneak a call home. Her heart was beating for two – her father and herself. A potential hiding place was just down the hall – the chapel, where SFA residents satisfied urges to meditate, pray and nap in peace.
Blanche slowly opened one of the solid pine doors. Fortunately, its hinges did not squeak. She peaked inside. Angelus was over and it was too early for Vespers so maybe she would get lucky. A sigh of relief rushed from her lungs and her pulse started to slow down. The chapel was empty. She plopped down on the last pew, let herself slide over and put her feet up thinking that the merciful Almightly would certainly overlook the irreverent posture given the circumstances.
Looking up at the ivory ceiling she made up her own prayer. “Forgive me God for skipping class and for laying down here. I’m not trying to be fresh or anything. I know you’re up there and I just want to ask you to please please make Papa get better.” The supplication snapped something inside. After keeping it together with the headmistress, a water main burst inside and tears flowed uncontrollably. Between sobs she heard footsteps and Marieanne’s voice just outside. “This will be the first day of our novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We’ll pray to strengthen our vocation as we prepare for our final vows. Doing this together is so wonderful, isn’t it?” Marieanne was sharing her fervor with fellow novices.
Blanche slipped under the pew just as the chapel door opened. A dozen young women in their late teens and early twenties filed down the aisle, singing. Blanche recognised a few Latin words while she lay flat on the floor. “Te Deum laudàmus; te Dominum confitémur.” (We praise thee, O God: we acknowledge thee to the Lord.) She took advantage of the crescendo to crawl towards the confessional remembering that the chaplain’s SFA duty was Friday and Saturday Confessions and Sunday Mass. It was a Tuesday so squatting in the little dark cubicle was safe. She slithered under the heavy red velvet curtain to the nook reserved for penitents about to come clean by avowing transgressions big and small. As hymns of praise continued in front of the main altar, Blanche decided to move to the confessor’s corner. “I don’t feel like kneeling inside here. There’s not enough room so I’m gonna creep into the priest’s spot. I’m kinda like a Pennacook trying to find a good hiding place in the woods. Marieanne and her buddies are singing so loud, I can pull this off easy.” On her hands and knees she entered the off-limits territory. “Great! The armchair in here is big enough for me to sit cross-legged so no one will see my feet under the curtain. Oh wow, the chaplain has it pretty good. I guess it’s normal because he has to spend entire afternoons listening to everyone rattling off sins. It kinda stinks in here though – BO mixed with cold incense. Yuk! But what’s this?”
Blanche’s eyes adjusted to the dim light. A couple of objects were stuffed into a fabric sleeve hanging from the wall. “An empty Coke bottle? Very nice. We never get any tonic but the priest can have some. And what else? A bag of Humpty Dumpty potato chips? No wonder Father Sauvage looks like Humpty Dumpty if he munches in here. Funny though, I’ve never heard any crunching noises during Confession. He probably swallows them up in between penitents. Something else? Canada mints? Cool, I love those! I see a couple inside. I don’t feel like chips but a Canada mint, why not.” Blanche reached inside and was ready to plop one of the large white tablets into her mouth when the reason for her whereabouts came crashing down once again. The novices were still singing just outside her lair and tears started dripping from her lids, cheeks and chin. Overwhelming emotion crushed her. She felt as if she were turning into an amorphous blob. Soon the novices’ Gregorian chant hypnotised her into a state of oblivion and she fell asleep.
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
Read Chapter 33: Cuisses de grenouille