Saturday, January 4, 2020

How to Get an F in French

EH VOILA: My first peek at the Far Side
Photo by Chuck Swinden, first published in Northern Life
When I was growing up in the west end of the Northern Ontario mining community of Sudbury, I attended St. Albert's Catholic Elementary school for exactly eight years and one half day.

Yup. An extra half day.

On what was supposed to be my second day of kindergarten, instead of heading up the hill to St. Albert's, I snuck around the house and hid under the back porch where I remained until it was safe to come out, certain that I wouldn't have to go back to school ever again.

Here's why:

We Carters — and there were lots of us — lived a block south of St. Albert’s, on Eyre Street. I was the youngest of 10,  so was the last to go to school. 

My parents Tom and Huena were extremely progressive and thought it wouldn’t be bad if we were bilingual so they gave us a choice: St. Albert’s had two streams; one French and one English. Most took the easy route and went English though my sister Mary wisely opted for French and is now fully bilingual with I believe two university degrees; one in either official language.

But more than two streams, St. Albert’s actually consisted of two schools: the first floor was English; the second storey French.

And I just thought of something. We called St. Albert’s a separate school. Until 10 minutes ago, I thought that meant, separate, as in “not public.”

But what it really meant was that it kept two cultures firmly and distinctly and — I should add  unfortunately — separated. 

The French and English kids had separate classes, separate administrations, separate entry and exit times. Separate Christmas concerts. Separate everythings.

The French kids’ 15-minute morning and afternoon recesses were 15 minutes before ours, so we could hear them in the yard, having way more fun than us while we were still in whatever class we had before recess.

I’m sure there was a logical explanation for the separation but for the life of me; I mean literally —  for as long as I’ve been on earth — I haven’t been able to make sense of it.

All we knew was that the French kids were different and I’m certain it was a case of vice versa, too.

A few years ago, I was at a street festival in downtown Toronto and had a conversation with a woman that went something like this:

Her: “You’re from Sudbury, you say? My husband’s from Sudbury.”
PETIT CHIEN CHAUDE: Who thought he
could outsmart the system.

Me: “Really? What part?”

Her: “West end. Pine street.”

Me:  “Ha! I was raised on Eyre, which is very close. I wonder what elementary school he attended.”

Her: “St. Albert's.”

Me: “What year was he born?”

Her: “57.”

Me: “Me too! What’s his name?”

Her: She said a French name, that I remember but won’t use here because I didn’t ask her permission.

The thing was, he and I had never met. He was French!

She and I laughed and commented how strange it was and I was like, “to us English kids, all we knew was the French kids liked to fight; the boys were dumb and the girls were easy.” 

(I've not sure but I'm pretty sure my bilingual sister Mary is no easier than the other Carter women.)

We were laughing a lot by this time. 

Her again: “My husband thought the same thing about the English and he didn't find out until he was at university that English moms and dads sleep together, too, just like French ones.”

Here’s something weird. 

I had a friend in high school and then university named Raymond Cote; one of the coolest kids around. 

He rode a motorcycle, had more than his share of artistic ability and super taste in music. Loved parties. 

Get this. Ray was my age. He lived directly across the street from St. Albert’s, two houses west of my aunt Kaye MacDonald. He, like, me, was Catholic though I should add that the French and English Catholic kids attended separate churches, too. The English St. Clement's was kitty corner from the school; the French St. Eugene's was another block north. Sheesh!

Ray and I didn't even get to know each other until high school.

(Of course Ray Cote was one of the brightest kids I ever hung out  with.)

Decades after I had left Sudbury, Northern Life newspaper published that photo of St. Albert's being demolished and I realized that was the first time I got a look at the second floor of the building. 

I can’t believe I’m not making this up!

And that, to make a short story very long, is why on day two of KG, my mom found me under the porch..

When I was four, I thought I’d be smart and attend French school. So my very first day of school was spent in French kindergarten. surrounded by people speaking a language I couldn’t understand a word of.  I did not see an upside.

And my mom — who I should add spoiled me something perfect — never forced me to go back.

I missed kindergarten in either official language. 

So here I sit; unilingual and really bad at colouring inside the lines. 

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