I have very clear memories of when I was a student at The Study, a girls’ school in Montreal, I cried in French class because Madame Looten, our teacher, conducted brutal dictees. (And I think maybe she despaired, as a French woman, about the lame Anglos who couldn’t spell or conjugate verbs easily or correctly.) She was capable of superb Gallic huffs. But I loved my English teacher, Mrs, Willmott, with her bucked teeth and crisp A-line skirts. She was very keen on Canadian literature, which was at the start of its great flourishing – we read Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and lots of Leonard Cohen. Mrs. Willmott somehow saved my life because she would talk to me about ideas and books after class. I fell into consciousness at the age of 13, grade 7, suddenly aware of life and all its complexities – and sometimes overwhelmed by it. I was an anxious, skinny thing, and she helped me find solace in books.
Here I am in 1975, age 16, about to graduate from grade 11, which is when high school in Quebec ends.
And here is a picture of me, bottom right, when we went on an outing for biology class. (It involved some smoking of cigarettes out of view of our teachers.)
I am not exactly sure why high school figures in the memory so strongly. Perhaps because we are on the edge of becoming adults. And that consciousness I spoke of – that loss of childhood innocence, I suppose – has a way of changing how you see the world. I think of that time with laughter, mostly, because all of us were on the edge of becoming who we would have to deal with for the rest of our lives. And the things that drew us in then still do in large measure.
So, of course, I was delighted to be asked to come to the school this past fall to read from my debut children’s picture book, Dr Coo and the Pigeon Protest. I have in touch with the school over the years, attending various events in Toronto. And the alumnae group hosted a reading for me from my first book, a memoir, Happily Ever After Marriage: A Reinvention in Midlife, in Toronto in 2010. But I hadn’t been back to the school in Montreal for about 40 years. And while a lot has changed – so many additions and improvements to the building, which is a former private mansion in Westmount – those old classrooms where French and English classes are held remain the same. Wow, like being in a time machine back to 1975 and myself in a tunic and tie! The art room, up in the attic was the most unchanged. Ghosts up there for sure.
Alumnae Director, Pattie Edwards, had kindly made wonderful arrangements for my visit. The entire elementary school sat in the auditorium while I read the book and the book’s beautiful illustrations by Kass Reich were projected on a screen behind me.
One of the grade 1 teachers, Barbara Zurtzman, had started a Dr Coo craze with her students, talking to them about the book’s theme of tolerance and diversity and the need to understand the hidden stories of people whom we think of as “other.” She had her girls make posters about Dr Coo’s message. And in art class – up in yhat attic, where I once produced pieces of art – some of them made me clay pigeons! Really! I was quite overwhelmed with the love and interest in the book. After the reading, I faced a sea of raised hands as they all had questions about the writing process, why I write and the message of love in community,
Several of the young girls came up to me after, standing in front of me as I sat in a wing back chair. They were practically vibrating they were so excited. They were pushing a bit at one another in an effort to be the first to ask me a question. They wanted to know more about pigeons. They wanted to talk to me about their love of birds. And one of them even said that she understood how some children can be mean. As she was recounting her story to me of “mean girls”, her teacher leaned in and reminded her, “Now, remember, be positive!” And the little girl adjusted her demeanour and continued on in a more cherry frame of mind. At the end, she spontaneously have me a big hug.
As a writer, it is such a joy to meet actual readers, especially those who have responded well to what you have written. Writing is such a lonely business – just you and your computer and your mind. This was a very special day. Separately in the morning, I talked to the grade 9 and grade 11 English classes, describing my career as a journalist and author and explaining my love of literature – why fiction, in particular, matters. I will write more about that in a separate post. For now, I am simply thinking of those little, smart girls, filled with questions and curiosity about the message of Dr. Coo.