Boarding School Blues: Chapter 44

Boarding School Blues: Chapter 44

By Louise Peloquin

Ch. 44 “Squiggles, snowmen and angels”

The end of library duty threw Blanche back into the SFA routine. Visibly, she was not pleased.

Andy gave her the once-over during the next day’s powwow in the pine grove. “I have no idea what that puny little nun did to you but you’ve definitely not left the library unscathed. We gotta know what happened in there. Were you forced to get down on your hands and knees to wax the floor or did you have to lug heavy books all over the place or what? What’s wrong with you PF? You don’t look happy to be with us. We missed you, especially me cuz the most gullible human being on the face of the earth is my favorite person to tease. I’m talkin’ ‘bout you. Please Blanche, we want PF back!”

Hearing her real name struck a chord. Andy hadn’t used it since the nicknames had popped up in September. Blanche looked at the snow flakes sprinkle from the low pearly sky and decided that library dust was even more enchanting. The library’s stuffy atmosphere tickled her nose and irritated her eyes but it was magical.

Brushing off her harassing friend, she responded. “Whadaya want me to say Andy? I did what I was told – classify books in alphabetical order, dust, make sure the shelves were orderly. It was like morning employment but longer. That’s the story.” Blanche’s drama skills, honed by three months of boarding school adventures, added a touch of authenticity to her narrative.

Andy seemed to fall for it. “OK, right. You’ve already told us all that. I guess breathing stale air made you a little number and a little dumber. Now you’re outside with us so get with the program kiddo. But, come to think of it, I’ve got a mission for your next library visit. The seniors mentioned a list of forbidden books, probably filled with four-letter words and sexy scenes, the sort of thing that scandalizes sensitive individuals. Well, your mission is to reconnoiter, to locate the list and to deliver it to us. Deal? It’d be so cool to read the stuff the headmistress wants to hide. Whadaya say?”

Before Blanche could open her mouth, Titi chimed in. “Well Andy my dear, the program right now is getting our butts to class because recreation is over. Can’t you hear the bell? And now we have to waste our time in the art room making lousy Christmas cards. I have nothing against Christmas cards but that sort of activity is for grade school kids. Drawing a bunch of lopsided Christmas trees with huge yellow stars on top and making parents feel obliged to fawn over their offspring’s artwork, man oh man, I thought those days were over.”

Titi’s unusual negativity surprised Blanche. “Hey Titi! Isn’t it better to spend an hour in art class coloring Rudolph’s red nose than sweating it out in algebra? Those linear equations give me migraines.”

A familiar tinkling of giggles erupted. “Right on PF! I guess all that time cooped up in the library poured wisdom into you. You sound like a shrink telling patients to look at the bright side. I may have an excellent idea for a Noël card after all. I hate drawing but I love writing squiggly letters.”

Andy interjected. “It’s called calligraphy my dear.”

“Yeah that’s it, calligraphy.” Titi repeated with a grin. “That’s what I’ll do. No sweat and it’ll count as art. And if Sister Regina doesn’t like the idea, I’ll remind her that monks during the Middle Ages recopied the Bible with calligraphy. Nothing bad to say about that, is there? Anyway, the art teacher isn’t a pain in the you know where like most of the others. So yeah, making a lousy card will definitely be less of a hassle than math class. But I thought the linear equations were kinda cool. Don’t worry if you didn’t understand them PF. I’ll give you the rundown at next recreation, OK?”

Despite the cutting wind whipping through the tall, snow-dusted pines, Blanche felt warm inside. She urged her friends “get a move on. You guys don’t want recreation deprivation for tardiness do you?” All of a sudden, the idea of another girl getting library duty upset Blanche. She was convinced that no one else could be Sister Claudette’s helper. No one else could share the same love of old books. She dismissed the thought and stomped to the art room with the rest of the class.

Sister Regina was smiling at the threshold. Her airy room benefitted from that northern exposure which provides the best light for artists. After inviting the girls to take a seat at the long pine tables covered with smooth white oil cloth, she gave her instructions.

“It is our tradition here for students to create a beautiful Noël card to offer their loved ones. The upperclassmen may have told you about it. You are free to choose any appropriate motif – the crêche; the magi Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar bearing gifts; the shepherds gazing at the bright star over Bethlehem.”

Titi raised her hand. “Can we do calligraphy Sister? I saw some pictures of the Book of Kells in the encyclopaedia. The monks sure drew unbelievable images and the way they wrote their letters really inspires me. Is that OK?”

Titi’s sugar-coated voice and doe-eyed look made Blanche feel like laughing. She knew her friend could charm a snake. But the art teacher was no reptile, on the contrary. The soft-spoken, non-confrontational nun who seemed to dwell in a pastel-colored universe like the one she created for the chapel, was easily won over. Striving for beauty was her only ordinance. Prominently placed in her classroom was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quotation: “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.”

“Yes of course ma fille” Sister Regina said while pointing towards Ralph’s words. “Anything which triggers your creativity is welcome. Be generous in your work. Generosity has many shapes and forms, just like the humans from which it proceeds. Let us commence without delay. You will find white index cards, colored kraft paper, pastels, water colors, sketching pencils and all the material you need on the back table. And since exchanging with others is always enriching, you are allowed to speak together with an indoor voice. Bonne chance mes filles; good luck my girls.”

After choosing their supplies, Titi, C and Blanche quickly headed for Andy’s table because the most obnoxious among them was also the best artist. Countless doodles of nuns and students had proven that. A couple of pencil-drawn lines and eraser smudges always turned into the most hilarious image of the unsuspecting model. They knew Andy would pride herself in perfecting any of their botched outlines or warped perspectives.

Titi put her nose to the red Kraft paper grindstone and drew a curly “N”, an egg-shaped “O”, a ladder-like “E” and a rippling “L” set off by tiny red petals and green leaves. She picked up the paper to admire her masterpiece.

In the meantime, in less than five minutes, Andy had sketched a whole nativity scene along with a couple of shepherds and sheep. C commented “oh wow Andy, that is really beautiful. Are you gonna paint it with water colors now?”

Andy shrugged. “Nope. I don’t feel like it and anyway, simplicity is best. Lemme take a look at yours? If we finish this we can just talk for the rest of the period. Who wants to sweat it out with these lousy cards’?”

C sheepishly presented her four by six index card. With colored felt pens, she had drawn a snowman sporting a bowler and a red scarf. It had a long carrot nose, a black twig mouth and brown branch arms. From the right one hung a yellow, “J”-shaped ornament.

“Andy” she asked “do you think this is too much like a little kid’s drawing? I’ve always loved snowmen and I build them every winter. I’ll never be too old for that I hope. That’s one of the funnest things to do after a snow storm, don’t you think?”

Andy glanced sideways at C and answered “Nope, the funnest thing is staying in your PJ’s and drinking hot chocolate. But yeah, I kinda like your snowman. He’s cute with his round hat. But what’s that thing he’s holding?”

“An ornament. ’J’ for Jesus. Isn’t Christmas His birthday?”

Blanche, Andy and Titi looked at their friend without commenting.

Andy broke the spell by grabbing Titi’s red Kraft paper. “This ain’t calligraphy kiddo! It’s just squiggly letters and they’re not even even. And what’s with the red daisies? I guess it’s OK though. Sister Regina is such a pushover she won’t say anything bad about it. Just decorate that spot in the corner and then we can call it a day and blab.”

Titi appeared insulted. “They are not daisies Andy. They’re poinsettias, the flowers of the season. Whatsamatta with you? And don’t tell me they don’t look like poinsettias. Imagine this is modern art and I’m an avant-garde artist.”

Andy shrugged her shoulders and turned to Blanche’s white card. “What’s that supposed to be? Some creature? And is that a star in the corner? The creature’s neck is literally breaking to look up. Oh I see the light now! It’s an angel looking at the star. Are you into modern art too? Cuz you’re taking liberties with proportions. Anyway, if that Bethlehem star was bright enough to guide the magi, you don’t need a lantern to see it.  A bright light cancels out a dim one doesn’t it? I think it’s your head that’s gettin’ dim kiddo. But drawing something childish ain’t so bad. Christmas makes all of us fall back into childhood I guess.”

Blanche had been enjoying working on her little angel and Andy’s caustic words stung. The card was intended for Papa and she wanted it to represent his guardian angel, not as a formidable archangel but as an innocent child. She knew Papa loved his patients and was especially tender with youngsters. She remembered hearing about the six-year-old patient who had died despite all of his and the hospital staff’s care. She remembered his reddened eyes when he came home that night and how he did not utter a single word for days. The little angel on her card was meant to be a comforting image for him, an image beyond the confines of earthly reality.

Blanche didn’t want to appear upset. Instead, she decided to play on Andy’s vanity. “Can you correct the mistakes please Andy? I’m not a very good artist. I only like drawing horses. They’re more fun than angels.”

Andy obviously relished showing off her talents. She took Blanche’s card, erased a couple of lines, added a couple more, outlined the angel’s features and pronounced, with an outside rather than an inside voice “the deed is done. I have brought your angel to life PF. Now we can forget about the cards and talk.”

C looked amazed. “Andy, that is unbelievable. Can you please make a bigger angel for me? I love angels as much as I love snowmen and I’d like to decorate my bedroom with one of your beautiful drawings.” She turned to Blanche with a look of remorse. “Oh I’m sorry PF. I didn’t mean to say your little angel wasn’t nice. It’s just that…”

Blanche couldn’t bear to see C unhappy. “I know, I know. Not to worry C. We’ve all gotta admit that Andy is the best artist around. I wonder how she would have decorated the SFA chapel? Yeah Andy, do your thing. Make a bigger angel for C.”

As Andy took center stage, her friends leaned forward to better observe the artist in action. Andy took a pencil and sketched a tall regal figure in a forward stride. It seemed to walk right out of the four by six card. Its outstretched right arm pointed a graceful index finger towards the horizon.

As Andy was adding details, C blurted “I know that angel! It’s the one right in front of Lowell City Hall except that yours isn’t holding a laurel wreath. (1) It looks just as beautiful though. Wow! Have you been to Lowell Andy?”

Andy responded. “Nope. But I’ll go if you are my guide. From your description, the Lowell angel must really be a winged victory goddess. A lotta museums have ‘em. Maybe the most famous one is in the Louvre and it’s called the Victory of Samothrace.” (2)

“Oh yes Andy for sure I’ll be your guide” C offered. “You know so much art stuff, other stuff too but right now we’re in art class. I’ve always loved that statue in front of City Hall. It reminds me to stand tall and never give up. Thank you, thank you so much Andy. Your drawing is the best angel ever and I’ll keep it on my bulletin board for inspiration and I won’t even take it down when the holidays are over.”

Blanche wasn’t surprised at C’s reaction. “That kid is always gushing” she thought. Another feeling was beginning to nibble her insides, one she had rarely felt, not even when Antoine was born and everyone in the family, except for Papa, only had eyes for the new baby boy. The feeling was envy, an unpleasantness which infected her thoughts the way a single rotten apple spoils the whole barrel. She tried to wipe it out of her head just as she had cleaned the dust off of Monsieur Dubé’s books. But the mental dirt was harder to trap. No chamois cloth of positive thoughts would do the job.

Art class ended and each student filed out to the next course with a Christmas card inside a thick manilla envelope.

  1. “City Hall Monuments Tour” article posted on com by Dick H on May 6, 2018: “Victory – “A Gift to the People of Lowell from James C. Ayer. Erected July 4, 1867.”  A draped woman with wings holding the laurel wreath of victory and the harvest sheaf representing peace. It was sculpted by Christian Daniel Rauch, the foremost German sculptor of the 19th century, for the king of Bavaria. The original of bronze stands in front of the king’s palace in Munich.  While traveling in Europe, James C. Ayer saw the statue and thought of purchasing a duplicate and presenting it to the city of Lowell. The day of its dedication there was a big ceremony attended by 20,000 people. James C. Ayer (1819-1878) came to Lowell at age 13 to work in an apothecary. Opening his own drug store in 1841, Ayer began concocting his own medicines and through the shrewd use of advertising built the most successful patent medicine company in America. The $20 million fortune derived from patent medicine sales financed Ayer’s diversification into mill ownership and his many acts of civic generosity.”
  2. The Winged Victory of Samothrace, or the Nike of Samothrace, is a votive monument originally found on the island of Samothrace, north of the Aegean Sea. It is a masterpiece of Greek sculpture from the Hellenistic era, dating from the beginning of the 2nd century BCE.

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Read Chapter 1: The Announcement

Read Chapter 2: Facing the Inevitable

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

Read Chapter 37: Never too many, never too much

Read chapter 38: Dust Bunnies

Read Chapter 39: I’m into something good

Read Chapter 40: Wistful and Admiring

Read Chapter 41: “Anywhere Out of the World”

Read Chapter 42: “If you really want to hear about it

Read Chapter 43: “Why don’t they go and create something”

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