Boarding School Blues: Chapter 46
By Louise Peloquin
Ch. 46 “Advienne que pourra”
The headmistress orchestrated the honor roll ceremony two days before Christmas break. Her September welcoming speech had focused on “taking the highroad” until June, a recommendation reiterated that December day in the drafty, chilly reception hall kept just warm enough to stave off sneezes and sniffles.
The student body – seniors first – filed inside, took a cold metal folding chair seat, sat up straight and kept uniform-covered knees together. “A ladylike demeanor at all times” Sister Gerald specified before adding “no looking around, no grimacing, no outbursts. Behaviour befitting the occasion.”
The last injunction triggered a flurry of messages among Blanche and her buddies. An intricate series of winks, lip puckers, finger flutters and shoulder shrugs made it clear that no one was looking forward to discovering the list. Blanche signed “Advienne que pourra” (1) to Titi who responded with a dramatic roll of her twinkling dark eyes.
Once the students seated, four novices carrying two by four feet plywood boards concealed with pastel-colored sheets strode inside like bridesmaids down the aisle. The ceremony began with Sister Théophile’s invocation to patron martyr Saint Felicity. She asked the novices to place the boards on easels in the middle of the hall. One of the nuns-to-be slipped on the freshly-waxed oak floor and fell into a perfect split without dropping her load. The fall made the sheet flutter into the air like a butterfly and land on her head. She got up as nimbly as she had slipped, positioned her board on its easel and took her seat in the back of the room, Blanche and her friends recognized their good buddy Marieanne.
Next entered the headmistress, not the blushing bride but the stately queen about to grant royal titles to worthy subjects. She positioned herself in front of the first board, delicately pinched a corner of its sky blue sheet and folded it back. “We shall begin forthright. Here are the outstanding seniors of the 1965 Autumn term.”
A couple of gasps and muffled giggles accompanied several groans as the students discovered the list.
“Come now girls! Patience and composure! These boards will be on display in the gymnasium.” After the call to order, Sister Théophile removed the pale pink sheet covering the junior class list.
The first two boards left Blanche and her friends indifferent because freshmen didn’t associate much with upperclassmen. The elders didn’t want to waste time with “the juveniles.” Sophomore Madeleine was the exception because she enjoyed mentoring the “wets-behind-the-ears.” So when the headmistress removed the sage green sheet from third board, “the young’uns” zoomed in.
Titi’s gestures expressed her appreciation for the calligraphy. Andy’s shrugs demonstrated that she found the pageantry stupid. Blanche just tried to decipher the names. C spotted Madeleine’s and gave two thumbs up. Sitting a few rows away, the new honor roll recipient popped up from her chair like a jack-in-the-box, plopped down again and beamed with pride, tears welling up in her limpid green eyes as if she were a newly-crowned Miss America. Andy abandoned the sign language and whispered “Madeleine told us she didn’t give a hoot about the honor roll. How come she’s on it now?” From the girls’ vantage point, only the beautifully-scripted names were visible, not the details.
Sister Théophile stalled before removing the forsythia yellow sheet from the last board. While scanning every one of the twenty-six freshmen, she lifted the cloth.
Although skipping classes and trespassing on sacred confessional territory had killed her hopes of making the cut, Blanche was crestfallen. “Nope, no Blanche Réjean squiggles. Maman will be disappointed and Papa will tell me ‘persévère, c’est tout’ (2).” She was very pleased however, to read Titi’s name in big beautiful calligraphy and was eager to discover the distinction specifics. When she saw “Andrea Tremblay”, a corrosive acid wave of envy surged inside and all she could do was stare. “How can that pain in the neck be on the honor roll?” She thought. “I don’t get it. Andy is right about one thing though. This list is stupid.”
The headmistress resumed her exposé. “There you have it girls, first-term honors. And this year, respecting the late Monsieur Dubé’s wish to reward distinguished students, a worthy representative from each class will receive one of his rare books. Sister Claudette, please come forward.”
The diminutive nun appeared out of nowhere. The weight of the prizes exacerbated her dowager’s hump. Without looking up, she handed the books to the headmistress as if she didn’t want to part with them.
Blanche figured “maybe Sister Claudette is worried the kids won’t respect ‘em and just dump ‘em in a corner someplace. I don’t know who’s gonna get those books but I’ll tell ‘em I’ll take ‘em if they don’t want ‘em.”
The headmistress announced “I have decided that this is the propitious time to distribute these treasures rather than at the academic year’s end. I shall now ask the Latin scholar, senior Francine Lafond, to receive this superb Latin Grammar.”
Blanche and her friends had seen Francine around but had never talked to her so hearing the name of this tall, lanky girl with a very frizzy red pony tail and very thick black-framed glasses didn’t faze them in the least. Still, per Sister Gerald’s indications, they clapped, feebly.
“The junior class will be proud of our budding historian Yolande Lavoie. Please come up for this illustrated edition of World War I horrors. Refrain from sharing it with sensitive souls as some ‘gueules cassées’ (3) photos are quite ghastly. Voilà Mademoiselle Lavoie. Enjoy your reading.”
Andy blurted a couple of words between two fake coughs. “Yeah we sure do enjoy looking at young men with half their faces blown off.”
C added while clearing her throat “it’s important for a future nurse to see that. I wonder if she’ll let me borrow her book?”
Yolande Lavoie, a willowy, close-cropped brunette, looked a bit more enthusiastic than her predecessor as she thanked the headmistress while accepting the thick black volume. As soon as it was in her hands, she opened it and gasped. Sister Théophile ignored the undignified reaction and carried on.
“Mademoiselle Alice Patenaude, your voice has graced our religious services for more than a year now. It is only fitting that you receive this bilingual libretto of Jacques Offenbach’s ‘Les Contes d’Hoffmann’. Perhaps you’ll want to learn some of the French lyrics and open our next piano recital with a song?”
“Mercy ma Sur (4), I do wanna improve my French. My grandparents speak it but I don’t and I…” blurted the stocky ash blonde. She took the libretto with her short thick hands, stretched her strong neck and puffed out her generous chest as if she were about to vocalize.
“C’est bien ma fille” interrupted the headmistress. “And now for freshman honoree Mademoiselle Cecile Coucy who performed an exemplary frog dissection. Monsieur Dubé’s portfolio of New England wetlands fauna goes to you Mademoiselle” solemnly proclaimed the headmistress. “Please note Cecile, that each page is an original watercolor. The details of toads, tadpoles and bullfrogs will astound you. And that marks the end of our honor roll unveiling. Sincere congratulations those who have been recognized and strong encouragement to the others. Always remember: take the highroad.” At that, the headmistress floated out of the reception hall with a squeak of each rubber-soled step.
The girls stood up from their cold metal folding chairs and filed out of the drafty, chilly reception hall, seniors first. An irrepressible urge to gossip spread like wildfire among the entire student body. But there were two more classes before recreation and Sister Gerald’s “ladylike demeanor” refrain managed to extinguish the sparks. Blanche focused on her Oxfords instead of exchanging sign language with her friends. Her right shoe was adorned with a couple of pine needle mementos from the last recreation outside. She wanted to congratulate Titi and yearned to give C a big hug. But the thought of Andy’s cheekiness made her blood boil. “What kinda flak is she gonna give me now? I feel like joining another gang after Christmas. I can’t stand Andy’s lip any more. I’ve had it. I’m done. I wonder if Titi and C would end it with Andy too? I dunno.”
Blanche was in the last row of exiting freshmen. As she was crossing the threshold, someone caught hold of her right elbow. “Blanche, come with me a moment. I shall give you a signed pass if perchance you arrive late for class.” It was Sister Claudette. Blanche hoped library duty would replace the history course. The freshmen trooped off leaving Blanche with Sister Claudette who breathed “Let me sit down for a bit. Carrying those heavy books revived the back pain. My physical strength is not what is used to be but, thank the Lord, my intellectual acuity remains intact. Blanche, you deserve a distinction for welcoming Monsieur Dubé’s treasures to the SFA library. Throughout this task you displayed conscientiousness, meticulousness and punctiliousness, in addition to total discretion. Therefore, the longstanding librarian I am rewards you with a precious papyrus, a roll of parchment I have been keeping for a special occasion. It was given to me by a relative who had the privilege of visiting Egypt years ago. I want you have it. Voilà ma fille.”
From the yellowed scroll, Blanche read the tightly-looped longhand: “Certificate of honor for Blanche Réjean’s outstanding library duty in December 1965. May her love of books be lifelong. ’Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.’ – C.S. Lewis.”
A small rusty paper clip joined a dog-eared postcard to the papyrus. Blanche recognized the book mark tucked in the middle of “Ulysses”, a yellowed photo of Dublin’s Trinity College library, the “long room.” On the back of the card she read a single faded word – “paradise.”
Blanche and the librarian exchanged looks rather than words of gratitude.
1) French for “come what may” or “whatever happens happens.”
2) French for “persevere, that’s all.”
3) In French, literally, “broken mouth.” The expression refers to the young WW1 soldiers who suffered severe facial injuries.
4) “Merci ma soeur” – thank you Sister.
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”
Read Chapter 44: Squiggles, snowmen and angels
Read Chapter 45: A Measure of Mirth