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Lost in translation

Peter McCann looked across the table at his eleven-year-old daughter with skepticism. Unlike her older siblings, she was asking to switch school systems, transferring from a large nondenominational English school to a rural institution of learning in their small town an hour away from Montreal. The way she put it, transferring to a French school would immerse her in French culture and improve her language skills at the same time.


           It wasn’t that he was opposed to the idea of her learning French. But enrolling in the French school system when she could be at the top of her class in middle school, despite being a year younger than her classmates? Still, if this was what she wanted, he would let her try it for a year.

           “Your mother and I have talked, and if this is really what you want to do, we’ll support you. That school teaches only local kids. You’re outside the catchment area, but because you’re Catholic, they’ll admit you. It means you’ll be walking a mile to school rain or shine. And once you enroll, there’s no going backwards.”


            Jane nodded in agreement. “I know it’s going to be difficult, but think how much I’ll learn.”


            “They’re not going to allow a word of English,” he warned.


            “Tout en francais,” she said airily. “We go to church every week in French. It won’t be that hard.”


            To her dismay, Jane discovered that her teachers asked questions and expected full-sentence replies.


           The first time she addressed her teacher, she called him  ‘mon seigneur,’ the same way she responded to the priest’s intonations during religious services. Her words prompted a gasp from her classmates and a chuckle from her teacher. Although she never understood the reason for their responses, she learned to mimic her classmates. This worked well with her regular teachers, but was disastrous the day a guest instructor visited following lunch, during the period usually reserved for math class.


          He wore a long black cassock, with a large set of prayer beads around his neck. He made grand gestures with his outspread hands. She thought he might be a priest, much as the grammar teacher was a nun.


            He greeted everyone with a booming voice. Her classmates heads were uniformly downcast, focused on the tops of their desks. Jane was puzzled.  She didn’t understand why they were ignoring the guest teacher. Bothered by an extended silence, Jane looked up and saw the instructor looking at her. She smiled at him.


            The instructor droned on for what seemed like forever. Jane could feel herself getting sleepy, much as she did at this time every afternoon. She sat up straighter, gripping the edges of her desk. The instructor continued to talk in the same boisterous tone. Jane wondered how he could find mathematics so exciting.


           Why did he keep harping on multiplication? Fois, fois, fois. Why was he trying to convince them of the importance of multiplication tables? She knew her numbers and agreed with him that they were important. Still, she was finding it harder and harder to remain awake.


          At one point, she drifted into sleep and almost fell off her chair and onto the floor. She opened her eyes wide, rested her chin on her middle finger, and dug her index finger into her jawbone in a heroic effort to stay awake. It wasn’t enough.


            She could feel the instructor’s eyes on her. She began to nod her head, first barely perceptibly, then with more force. It worked. She remained awake and the guest instructor focused his attention on her.


            At the end of the day, her regular teacher asked her to remain in the classroom. “Brother Joseph says that he felt a real connection with you,” said the teacher, a male who was new to the district and didn’t know any of the local families.


            Jane smiled, relieved that no-one had reported that she’d fallen asleep in class and almost toppled from her chair. “He speaks with passion,” she replied.


          “He felt you were very interested in what he had to say.”


            She squirmed uncomfortably, afraid to admit that the lecture on multiplication tables was boring, and uncertain how to translate the concept of boredom into French. She remained silent.


            The teacher looked closely at her and spoke to her in English. “I’m assuming you know the difference between ‘la foi’ and ‘fois.’ I know they sound the same.”


            She looked alarmed and wondered why he continued to speak to her in English.


          “Brother Joseph said that you nodded very forcefully when he asked who had faith in God and wanted to devote their life to him. In fact, he said you were the only student to have this gift.


            “Our Lady of One Thousand Sorrows is accepting girls who’ve pledged themselves to God, as you have. You’re too young to become a nun, but you can start your training in January.”

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