Lessons in June

by Janet Intscher from Chelsea, QC
Jun 6, 15

It’s been almost 50 years now, but the humiliation of the day I am writing about is etched in my mind with such clarity that my ears still burn at the thought of it. I usually push the memory away and return to whatever it was that reminded me of it — a day like this, perhaps, a hot day in June, with the cicadas buzzing.

The windows in our grade six classroom had been pushed up high to catch any stray afternoon breeze. The boys had beads of sweat on their upper lips from their lunchtime baseball game. So did Margie Ross. Margie got to play with the boys because she was such a good baseball player, as good as any boy. We respected her for this. She never wore a dress, of course, even in June. In June, the rest of us girls were grateful to trade in our navy blue tunics for something more light and frivolous. If I had stuck to the uniform or worn jeans like Margie, none of this would have happened.

It was Mrs. Decambre who started the nightmare. She directed us to take out our Health textbooks, as she had done every day after lunch since the beginning of June. Playground gossip was that she had neglected the health curriculum all year and found it easier to have us read aloud than to teach a lesson in the final days of the school year.

It was June 6th. I know this because when I went home for lunch my mother gave me my birthday present wrapped in white tissue paper. Instead of the usual gift, something sensible like a dictionary or hairbrush, it was, to my utter amazement, a crinoline, a pile of pink and white lace and net. Crinolines were the latest thing in Montreal that spring. They puffed up dresses with froth and scratchy lace and made their lucky owners look divinely feminine.  

But this wasn’t just any crinoline. This crinoline had a unique engineering design. Instead of layers of material or metal hoops, it had a hollow plastic ring two inches wide all around the bottom. The ring that could be blown up by means of a little nozzle. Fully inflated, the crinoline stood out farther than anyone’s. 

And so, my dress floated saucily around me, swinging almost independently as I walked back to school. With a certain degree of self-conscious pride, I entered the warm classroom, watching my blue and white checked cotton dress miraculously borne aloft.

I sat in row six, by the window, second from the front. I slid carefully into my seat, pressing the bouncing undergarment under my desk as it tried to bob away. Behind me, Margie slouched in her seat. Feeling fluffy and beguiling, I cheekily turned around to her when the teacher’s husky voice commanded us to take out our Health books, and, in a stage whisper, said, “I hate Health”. 

Too late, I saw the teacher’s dark eyes staring fixedly at me. I froze. I stopped breathing.

“What did you say, Janet?” Mrs Decambre asked in her penetrating baritone.

I coloured. I stammered a bit. I flushed. 

Mrs Decambre’s eyes narrowed. And then a small smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “Come up to the front of the class and tell us all what you said.” 

Silence dropped on the room. I agonized my way out of the desk and stood beside her, shamefaced and miserable. She repeated her order, “Tell us all what you said.”

Turned partly towards me now, she was fully engaged, fastened on to me like a leech. My classmates’ mouths hung open in thrilled expectation, electrified by my discomfort. Only Margie, her T-shirt still dirty from sliding into third base, looked worried. She locked her sympathetic eyes on mine. 

“Go ahead. Tell the class what you said,” boomed the voice beside me.

It was clear that the only way to escape this unbearable situation was to get it out, get it over with and get back to the safety of my desk. Neither the green of the trees outside the window, the drone of the cicadas, nor the rows of desks with their breathless occupants offered any relief. Heat flooded my neck, my face, my ears. I frantically blinked back the tears of embarrassment that threatened to upset my composure. There were thirty pairs of eyes fixed on me with delight.

I finally spat it out, defiantly, staring at my classmates as I did, “I said, I hate Health.”

“Louder,” boomed Mrs Decambre, and louder I repeated it from my place in purgatory,

“I HATE HEALTH!” I let my arms drop heavily to my sides, a gesture of defeat and humiliation. There, it was done.  

But no! It wasn’t done. It had only just begun. 

I hadn’t taken into consideration the physics of the situation - the weight of my dropped arms on the resilience of the fully inflated crinoline. As soon as my hands hit my sides, the crinoline leapt upwards carrying my dress with it, leaving me dangerously exposed.

I watched in disbelief and horror as the mass of gingham lurched up of its own volition towards my face. In sudden action, I pressed desperately down on the billowing cloth with both hands, causing the ringed tubing to rise enthusiastically to the sides this time, again bearing my dress aloft. 

My memory gets a bit hazy at this point. It couldn’t have taken as long as it felt, me wrestling with the jumping crinoline, the class giggling, then yelping and finally howling with hilarity; Mrs Decambre giggling silently, her face twisting with the effort to remain stern; the roaring in my ears and my eventual release to my desk.

The next day after lunch, when we were told to open our Health texts, Mrs. Decambre flicked her eyes lightly and confidently in my direction. The look we exchanged acknowledged what we both knew, that the class had received the end of year lesson: and that was the importance of meekness and obedience on the one side, the knowledge of power and control and who wielded it, on the other. When Mrs Decambre asked Christine Banfield, the most articulate amongst us, to read the section on Diarrhoea, a word only Christine could have read without stumbling, not one of us breathed a whisper.

And so my classmates and I got to the end of the grade six Health curriculum. 

But more importantly, on that hot day in June, we learned the lesson of power and submission.