Boarding School Blues: Chapter 37
By Louise Peloquin
Never too many, never too much
Sister Claudette wasn’t expecting anyone that evening in the two-hundred-square-foot library adjacent to study hall. The elfin nun in her seventies was bent over a thick black tome and didn’t hear Blanche’s footsteps. Her eyes peered over her round spectacles only when she heard the timidly-uttered words – “Excuse me Sister. I was told to report here before study hall. I’m supposed to work in the library this week and…”
Sister Claudette interrupted. “My dear child, you know very well that talking in the library is forbidden but since we are alone I cannot help succumbing to the temptation of infracting the rule. Alas, the extent of my communication is limited to whispers among book racks, prayers in chapel and laconic exchanges with the sisters. I was a notorious chatterbox before taking the veil. Bridling my penchant for babble has been the most difficult aspect of my vow of obedience.”
Blanche, taken aback, thought “this is the first time I hear Sister Claudette’s voice. I thought the nuns could talk as much as they wanted, especially to make comments and give orders. This one looks strict but I guess she’s different.”
Sister Claudette closed her eyes and softly chanted, Gregorian style – “ ‘He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds. He telleth the number of the stars; He calleth them all by their names. Great is our Lord, and of great power: His understanding is infinite’. Psalm 147 verses 3 to 5.”
Lifting the heavy volume she added “this is an antique copy of the King James Bible. It is not to be placed in chapel because we use another version of the Word. Why have we not been more encouraged to delve into the Good Book without the guidance of an abbé? Are we not sufficiently equipped to receive Scripture? I have abandoned discussion on the topic lest it bring anathema upon me. We receive Bible texts during the Sacrifice of the Mass. And yet, I have always yearned for more. When I saw this magnificent book I couldn’t help turning its soft parchment pages and now I cannot stop reading them. The Psalms are poems after all and the three verses I have just read are particularly appropriate in light of today’s events. I know of your father’s condition and am aware of your reaction to the news. Just remember – ‘He healeth’. He healeth us physically and spiritually, not always when and how we expect but I assure you Blanche, the healing process is real.”
Blanche didn’t want to interrupt Sister Claudette. She saw that the little librarian had a mind of her own.
Sister continued. “Now for an overview of my instructions. Your time here will benefit everyone at SFA. Monsieur Normand Dubé, one of our novice’s forebears, bequeathed the contents of his library to our school. This Bible is a sample of his treasures. They include rare books and signed first editions. Most exciting wouldn’t you agree? I asked our staff members to assist me in classifying this godsend but no one showed any particular enthusiasm. Sister Gerald, God bless her, reminded me that running the library was my responsibility. She pointed out that, for years, SFA students have successfully pursued their studies without such a collection and that an excess of books could deter from our academic pursuits. I dare say joining the words ‘excess’ and ‘books’ is nonsensical, especially in an educational establishment! Our religious order values frugality. But studying such a windfall is not akin to the sin of gluttony is it? How on earth can one ration books? Can temperance possibly exist in the pursuit of knowledge? Sister Gerald is a superb bursar and is skilled at multiplying the loaves and fishes but sometimes her sense of moderation turns extreme and clouds her judgement. I maintain that there are never too many books and never too much knowledge.”
Standing in front of the plastic card table Sister Claudette used as a desk, Blanche waited for the end of the soliloquy thinking “Yeah she’s right. How can anyone have too many books? I guess working here is gonna be kinda cool after all. Anyway, I can think of worse punishments, like cleaning the bathrooms. I’m glad that job is reserved to test the novices’ humility, whatever that means.”
Sister Claudette was still slouched in the faded blue wing chair placed behind the cluttered table, with hands protectively covering the antique Bible. Her weasel eyes looked mischievous as they swept across the room towards large cardboard boxes pushed against rows of book racks. Her prominent dowager’s hump prevented her from straightening up to make proper eye contact with library patrons. Blanche thought maybe the posture was due to the years spent pouring over printed material.
Sister explained, “Monsieur Dubé’s collection fills ten large boxes. Six are still in the basement. His family labeled them all. The four you see there contain general literary works. Our task will be to make an inventory and to classify. But the first chore is dusting. I am told you like books Blanche? They deserve to be treated respectfully. That means keeping them in the best possible condition. Tomorrow morning you will dust each one with a chamois cloth, paying attention not to tear any pages. Sister Gerald promised new storage containers to house our volumes while we prepare a place for them in our racks. We are welcoming them into our home as new family members. Exciting, isn’t it?” Sister’s tiny eyes blazed like a fourth of July sparkler. She then slid what looked like a treasure chest out from under the table. It was made of shiny black wooden slats and decorated with rows of tarnished brass nails and a warped scratched lock.
“The contents of this trunk will never grace our shelves. You see Blanche, Monsieur Dubé’s eclectic collection included some rather scandalous texts. The young minds in our care lack discernment and can be harmed by potentially offensive material. Therefore, it will remain off limits. Even so, I shall ask you to dust them, clean the container and polish the brass. Naturally, you will not speak of them nor will you read them. You may go to study hall to catch up on your school work now. Bonsoir ma fille.”
Blanche wondered if Monsieur Dubé was some kind of pirate whose most precious booty was hidden inside a black chest. Her imagination raced. “Forbidden books kinda blow my mind, like Papa’s medical books. Maybe that’s bad but what’s the big deal? Taking a quick peak won’t hurt anyone but me. When I get nightmares after looking at pictures of gross tumors it’s my own fault. At least I don’t show them to Byron and Maggie. That would be a sin. I can’t wait to get inside that trunk. I can’t talk about the books with my buddies which is lousy but oh well.”
The thought of discovering the contents of the black chest made Blanche’s heart race and her fatigue vanish. The hardest day yet at boarding school ended in a veil of mystery. Perhaps a week of recreation deprivation wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Her thoughts turned to Papa and intuition told her he would pull through. Again.
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
Read Chapter 34: Run along now
Read Chapter 35: Consequences of playing hooky
Read Chapter 36: Good Vibes