Boarding School Blues: Ch. 55
By Louise Peloquin
Ch. 55: Here Lies . . .
It was already the end of January 1966 and SFA was well into its daily work routine spiced, sometimes, with a little bit of play. The boarders enjoyed their morning maple butter and the chores of post-breakfast employment continued to ease them into the academic day. For Blanche, this remained a welcome escape, even when Sister Fran was busy writing drills to prepare her seniors for the upcoming regional math contest. Never once did she dodge Blanche’s questions about Québec winters, those long months when the mighty Saint Laurence turned into a skating rink.
“All of us children would take out sleds, wooden planks, anything wide enough to sit on, march up Les Plaines d’Abraham and slide down onto le fleuve (1)” she related, eyes twinkling. “But Blanche, I can’t spend time describing that right now. The math competition is coming up and we’ve got some bright young mathematicians who can win prizes for our school, with proper preparation of course. So, enough questions for today, d’accord?” (2)
Occasionally, news from outside campus reached SFA. Blanche and her classmates heard about the five-day blizzard which dumped a hundred and three inches of snow on parts of New York State. When SFA got its share of the white stuff, the boarders, unlike the dayhops, did not get a snow day. The “idle-mind-is-the-devils’s-playground” mantra reigned. Didn’t the headmistress know that, for teenage girls, the work load could not always keep trouble at bay?
“It ain’t fair” Andy insisted. “Why should we have class when the dayhops can spend the day outside building snowmen, or better yet, inside drinking hot chocolate? Snow days are the pits for us.”
No matter what the boarders had to say, classes were held, per Sister Théophile’s instructions. Thus, when Sister Amelia introduced geometry in math class, Andy decided to decorate the worksheet triangles, squares and circles with elaborate doodles. Blanche glanced at them disapprovingly. Her friend whispered “the teacher’s gonna explain this stuff again to the dayhops. I’ll take notes next time and I won’t ask you for anything. Worry pas, PF!”
In Latin class that snow day, Sister Alice decided to stray from the beaten academic path.
“Just for fun, let us take a look at a few phrases found in Medieval documents” she announced excitedly. “Sciant presentes et futuri or ‘know all people present and future’, opens certain legal or official texts, for example. There is also Hiis testibus or ‘these being witness’.”
The Medieval documents didn’t mesmerize Blanche in the least. She let her mind wander during the teacher’s exposé. A memory salad tossed around in her head – the Christmas Eve silence when Maman and Antoine were at Messe de Minuit and Papa, Byron and Maggie were sleeping; the many tumbles and few exhilarating runs at Skyfields ski area; Madame Briard’s elegant collation and her son’s bizarre behavior.
“I wonder what C is doing at home right now?” she asked herself. “Baking cookies and listening to records maybe? Way more fun than Medieval documents. I guess I should pay attention though, in case this stuff is in the next test.”
She forced herself to focus on Latin as Sister Alice declared “hic est finalis concordia – ‘this is the final concord.’ Girls, we have just seen a Medieval document template. I am sure you noticed its solemn clarity. You will not often be exposed to this type of text but remember that Latin is full of phrases which have inspired thinkers, writers and leaders throughout the ages. Furthermore, some terms fill our daily lives. For example, hic iacet which means ‘here lies’. Next time you go to a cemetery, look for it. Lunch time. Class dismissed. Vale. Vide te mox!” (3)
Blanche and Titi headed to the dining hall where Andy greeted them with a “boy am I glad I’m not takin’ Latin. One less pain-in-the-neck thing to do. Typing is a way better elective. I don’t know what you guys are into right now but I’ve got the better deal cuz everyone has to type some time or other, right?”
Titi fired back “sure but we’re learning all kinds of historical things and next time I go to the cemetery, I’ll be able to understand inscriptions on tombstones and that’s pretty cool.”
“Oh yeah, what’s there to read besides dates and people’s names?” Andy asked.
“Well, for one thing hic iacet means ‘here lies’. That’s interesting. Come to think of it though, I don’t hang out in cemeteries much” Titi responded.
“Well you don’t really have to know any ‘hickeyset’, or whatever it is, to figure out who lies where. All you gotta do is read the name. Anyway, why are we talkin’ ‘bout that? It’s depressing enough not to have a snow day off, let’s drop it and eat. Grab that platter of sandwiches, will ya please? Bologna again is it?”
Blanche didn’t drop it. “I don’t mind cemeteries. My mother takes us to family graves pretty often, especially in spring and summer. Sometimes we have a picnic after scrubbing the bird poo and mud and dirt off of the tombstones. Keeping them clean is a sign of respect, she says. Anyway, the cemetery is like a park, not dreary or spooky at all. Actually, it’s a really nice place for a walk – beautiful old trees and a lot of flowers. Some of the graves are decorated with really cool statues of angels and fancy crosses. I like goin’ there. Maman says that even if we feel sad at first, after a while we connect with everyone up in heaven and feel kinda happy cuz we know they’re in a better place. Even Maggie and Byron don’t mind goin’ there. They think the fluffy clouds above are dead people turned into angels and the butterflies are fairies from heaven. Those two have a pretty good imagination, huh? Who knows, maybe they’re right. Aren’t little kids supposed to have special intuition or somethin’?”
Neither Andy nor Titi interrupted the soliloquy.
Blanche continued. “I haven’t really noticed the ‘hic iacet’ inscriptions though. A lot of the writing on the tombstones is in French. Cool names like Onésime Beauregard and Eutrope Courtemanche. Then there’s Jean-Eudes Debroisbriand and Elzéar Tranchemontagne and…”
Andy interrupted. “Don’t tell me you memorized all the names! We get it, a bunch of French-Canadians buried there. May their souls rest in peace. Amen.”
Blanche carried on. “Yeah, you can read stuff like ci-gît Odessa Grandchamp, décédé à 70 ans, died at seventy and Florida Maillet, épouse de, meaning wife of. It’s an amazing place, that Cimetiere Saint Joseph (4). I’ll look out for Latin inscriptions next time and maybe I’ll find…”
Titi intervened. “Boy oh boy PF, I’ve never heard anyone get all excited about a cemetery. Enough already! I don’t feel like thinking of last resting places right now, if you don’t mind. Hand me another sandwich, will ya please?”
As the girls were polishing off their sandwiches and cinnamon-bread pudding, the wooden clapper snapped for silence in the dining hall.
Sister Gerald announced “in all of her wisdom and kindness, our headmistress has decided to shorten today’s academic schedule given that the day students are not in attendance. Post-luncheon recreation is cancelled. Instead, you will have two hours of class and finish at three PM. For freshman and Sophomores, it will be English and biology; for juniors and seniors, English followed by an hour of research in the library. Afterwards, you will be allowed to spend the rest of the afternoon outside under the supervision of Novice Marieanne. Those who do not wish to go outside will practice basketball and calisthenics in the gymnasium with Sister Roger. Now, finish your lunch and run along to class.”
Blanche was no more focussed on English and biology than she had been on math and Latin. Apparently, nor were any of the other students. There was something magical about the way a thick blanket of minuscule, star-shaped flakes could transform one’s universe into a giant snow globe. No one could escape its hypnosis.
Once the academic obligations met, the boarders ran outside into the invigorating air. A horde of bobbing heads, coiffed in multicoloured tuques, dispersed onto the grounds. Some girls dove into snow drifts while others rolled around in the icy blanket and stuffed handfuls of white powder into their greedy mouths. The inner child of even the most jaded teenager awoke during a snow day.
Following Madeleine’s instructions, Blanche, Titi and Andy made snow angels right in the middle of the front entrance.
“Maybe the headmiss and Sis Gerry will see our snow angels from their offices and think we’re having heavenly thoughts, huh gals? They should come out here and have a little fun themselves. It would chill out their heads a little. After all, we’re enjoying God’s beautiful nature aren’t we?” roared Madeleine.
Novice Marieanne heard the sophomore’s comments and scolded. “Don’t you think you’re going a little bit too far Madeleine? That kind of talk is not charitable. We’re supposed to respect one another, especially our superiors. And that holds true whether they are present to not. Don’t waste your energy in sarcasm Madeleine, especially around freshman who look up to you. Please keep that in mind. For now, I have an idea. Sister Gerald has decided to dispose of the old cracked cafeteria trays. They are already stacked up and ready to be binned. How about turning them into little toboggans to slide down the driveway? I don’t think the headmistress would see any harm in that. Madeleine, brush the snow off your coat then go inside and ask Sister Gerald’s permission to recuperate those trays. Tell her I sent you.”
Madeleine’s jaw dropped before her eyes lit up. “Sounds like a pretty good plan. Sure, I’ll go see Sister Gerald and ask permission with my sweetest voice.” In a flash, Madeleine was bolting up the front steps, two at a time. Two minutes later, a young hand jutted out from the half-open door. Like a jack-in-the-box, a thumb popped up. Then the hand disappeared.
Marieanne glowed. “Mission accomplished! You girls are going to have great fun. If it weren’t for this habit, I would certainly join you sliding down the drive. But watching you will give me even greater joy than satisfying my own personal inclination to play in the snow.”
No sooner had she pronounced the words than Madeleine appeared from a side entrance with a large cardboard box. “Hey guys, help me will ya? There’s another box inside. We hit the jackpot – twenty trays in all! Sister Gerald said she was glad we were givin’ ‘em a ‘second life’ and she said we were ‘demonstrating our ingenuity and sense of thriftiness’, whatever that means. Anyway, she said ‘yes’ right away and smiled. Nice teeth but way too white to be real. First time I see that woman smile. Unbelievable. Come on guys, let’s get a move on!”
Apparently, the older girls weren’t interested in the soon-to-be-repurposed trays. Blanche heard Sheila, one of the uppity seniors, chuckle. “No way am I gonna freeze my cheeks, sittin’ on a tray in the snow. Forget it! It’s bad enough my face cheeks are frozen. Maybe I’ll head into the gym even though I despise basketball and Sister Roger’s stupid exercises. Boy, will I be glad to get outa this place.”
Andy didn’t express any enthusiasm either. “You go ahead. No way will my bum fit on a tray and I need minimum comfort to have fun so I’ll just watch, OK?”
Blanche and Titi didn’t hesitate to help haul the precious cargo outside. Novice Marieanne distributed the trays and the sliding party was under way.
Titi’s crystal bell giggle echoed all the way up to the glacier blue sky as she hurtled down the SFA drive, manoeuvring the makeshift toboggan by leaning from side to side as if she were an experienced bobsledder.
Andy encouraged her. “Way to go Titi! Way to go! Countin’ the seconds to the end of the drive.”
Blanche managed to slide several feet and felt the same thrill of that first successful ski run at Skyfields. When a snow drift stopped her impetus, she didn’t mind. Next time she would go further.
“Hey Titi, show me how you turn. Come over here, will ya please?”
Titi walked up the drive to coach her friend. “Sure, I’ll show ya. You gotta get your butt right smack in the middle and grab the sides of the tray and then lean over. I’m comin’. Meet me at the top, OK?”
“OK” Blanche said. “Lemme get outa this snow bank.” She picked up her tray and headed up the drive. Other girls were tobogganing around her. Their voices had that screechy-euphoric-little-kid pitch. Hearing it made Blanche happy. She swiveled around to watch them, lifting her tray high above her head as if to invite the wispy clouds to join in the fun. A patch of ice made her feet skid, her arms flail, her knees buckle and her head nosedive.
- French for – “the river.”
- French for – “Agree?”
- Latin for – “goodbye, see you soon.”
- For a history of Cimetière Saint Joseph – Saint Joseph Cemetery, located on 96 Riverneck Road, Chelmsford, Massachusetts 01824, consult:
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
Read Chapter 46: Advienne que pourra
Read Chapter 47: Smile upon our joys
Read Chapter 48: “Venez, venez, venez!”
Read Chapter 49: “C’est si bon”
Read Chapter 50: Naughty or nice
Read Chapter 51: We all fall down
Read Chapter 52: The Eve of Destruction
Read Chapter 54: Airlock