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    My Feller Memories  

Bilingualism? Non!

In my experience, Andy McCullough’s observations on the anglicization of Feller in the late 50’s were, for the most part, true.  During the period I attended, only one or two of the faculty were unilingual francophone. And although Butch Boisvert was sort of bilingual and Mrs. Butch, Lucy and a few others were fluently bilingual, my recollection is that more than half the teachers were unilingual anglophones.  Thus, with the exception of some, but by no means all, of the French classes, the language of instruction was in English.  Well, there was another exception; Mr. Imre’s classes were also not in English, but I’m not sure that pidgen can be considered an official language.  

The student body was a mix, but on the boys side anglos were the vast majority.  Even those who arrived as unilingual francophones picked up a working knowledge of English pretty quickly; certainly they’d acquired all the major curse words within the first week.  When John Gilmour took over in 1963(?), I believe that he initiated alternating French and English weeks but that seemed to have little impact on us in the upper grades of high school.  The intention was that  every second week French was supposed to be used in the dining room and that the Chapel and church services were in French.  I know that this particular innovation did not serve to improve my French, however it did make it much easier to ignore the ‘sermon’ and get on with the serious business of daydreaming. 

Apparently as a result of disinterest, most of the kids in my class did not leave Feller with particularly good French language skills, or if they did, they did a pretty good job of hiding it.  I can’t really speak for anyone else, except in the most general terms, but it seemed that in those days, the prevailing attitude amongst anglos was bilingualism meant that the French guys had to be able to speak English. 

I’ve suggested elsewhere that my folks encouraged/expected me to make the most of my educational opportunities and this was also true of learning French.  My mother did have a horrible English (from England) accent but her vocabulary was pretty good.  And since in the summers I hung out with the Caron brothers (Guy and Paul), the Masseaus, Paradis and later the Duponts, all of whom were fluently bilingual the langue du jour was often French.  Thus, I developed an ear for the language and acquired an ability to understand it fairly well, even if I was reluctant to try and speak it.  Fortunately everyone was bilingual and I could answer in English even when the conversations were in French.  It always amused me when someone would be rattling along in French and then would forget a word or something and instantaneously would switch seamlessly into English without missing a beat.  And then the rest of the group would continue on in English, apparently without noticing the switch. 

I didn’t actually become comfortable speaking French until one summer at Lake Selby when my parents rented a cottage from Liz Todd’s dad.  The two cutest girls on the lake (by far!) were unilingual francophones whose parents owned the cottage beside one of the teen hangouts.  Fortunately for me, one of these girls developed a crush on my very unilingual anglo friend and I got to go along on double dates with them and act as translator on those occasions when we were actually talking.  The end of that summer was the first and last time I found myself thinking in French.  The first few days I was back at Queen’s I often caught myself translating parts of my lectures into French. After almost 40 years living in Ontario, Alberta and the US, I don’t do that anymore. 

Pranks and other assorted misdemeanors

In grade school, we started out with traditional juvenile time passers such as pink belly, pinch-the-tittie-make-the-whistle-blow and sixers (remember you were supposed to say safety after you dropped a rose to avoid this punishment).  In grade 5 or 6, slightly bolder things were added to the repertoire; short sheeting, pulling the fire alarm in the middle of the night, passing notes across the iron curtain (wouldn’t you love/hate to read some of these, although it seems some of you may have saved them), getting together with our sweeties, and sneaking off for a smoke.  The truly bold among us progressed to climbing the water tower between the main building and Massey Hall or better yet the RCMP communications tower that sat in one of the fields on the farm that belonged to one of the Paradis families.  I seem to recall that one year someone decided to advertise their accomplishment and attached a flag to the aerial.  Two rather large, very serious young men turned up the next day because communications in the surrounding districts had been disrupted.  Other similar things involved sneaking off to stores in Ste. Blaise for cigarettes, or for the high schoolers, heading for the bars in St. Jean (what was the conventional wisdom those days, if you were tall enough to reach up and put your money on the counter, you were old enough to be served). 

Although most of us seem to be looking back through rose coloured glasses, clearly, some people were not happy with the situation, as there were always a few every year who decided to run away.  Mostly these individuals were homesick and occasionally someone made it all the way home and was apparently able to convince their parents of the seriousness of their plight and never came back.  I know my Father used to collect one or two a year at the Bus station in St. Jean, or, as Carmen described, along the roads.  Whenever I see a failed prison break in a movie, it evokes memories of this, but I guess I wasn’t ever completely able to really understand it.  I couldn’t run away from Feller to get home and when you get right down to it, I guess for a lot of people there wasn’t much to run away to. 

As students our existence was somewhat insulated from outside influences and I always felt that our pranks were uniquely ‘Feller’.  Thus, it was a bit surprising to later discover that similar things were going on in schoolrooms and dorms across the country.  Still, a few unique pranks stand out.  Rick Elger has documented the drill team precision of our classroom stand to attention, so I won't recapitulate that, but for me one of the most creative pranks that I remember was played by some of the older boys on Spence (was his name John Spencer Oostrom?), AKA, ‘Tired Blood’, [I think] because he extolled the virtues of a daily dose of Geritol.  My take on Spence was that he was an older gentleman(?) close to, or past, retirement age, whose primary teaching credentials, as was true of a number of the teachers during my time at Feller, were that he had been a Baptist minister in a previous existence.  Did it seem possible at the time that he was a career minister before coming to Feller?  I believe that there is already sufficient material contained within the pages on this website to suggest that Spence was not the gentlest or most forgiving of Christians and that his biblical leanings were more towards the old testament writings (his God was a vengeful God). 

It pains me to confess that I was not a participant in this particular incident so what follows is an approximation of the story as it was related to me the next day.  As the story went, one evening after supper a large group of boys congregated in a single room just down the hall from Spence’s suite.  They had accumulated virtually every radio and record player on the floor and plugged them in to a proliferation of extension cord spaghetti that was attached to a multiple-plug light fixtures (these were officially verboten but unofficially ignored since in these old rooms there was a total absence of actual wall plugs).  To set up the prank, a string had been tied to the door handle and rigged so that it ran up to the top of the door frame, over to the chain on the light fixture, back to the molding, down the wall and was looped over the light switch, which in typical Feller fashion was installed backwards so that up was off.  Thus, opening the door would turn off the overhead light and pull the chain cutting off the power to the radios and record players.  Once the string was rigged, everybody but the actual occupants of the room piled into the closet, and the noisemaking commenced.  Needless to say, every single one of the devices was turned to full volume and the noise was likely inducing migraines as far away as Ste. Blaise, if not St. Jean.  This set up must have dimmed the lights in the whole building (it truly was amazing that the place didn’t burn down years earlier).  Spence stormed down the hall and flung open the door, but confusingly the racket ceased instantaneously and he found a dark and silent, albeit echoing, room with two ‘innocent’ individuals apparently taking an after supper nap.  The clever thing was that when the light was turned back on, the music did not come back on.  One boy sat up, rubbed his eyes and complained about having his rest disturbed.  Spence was reportedly so flustered that he turned out the light, backed out apologizing, and closed the door.  Everyone piled out of the closet set up the tripwire and re-commenced the ruckus.  Unfortunately, they had not allowed for the fact (or likely did not care) that Spence had not returned all the way to his room so that this time when he flung open the door he caught most of the culprits out of the closet and laughing.  My recollection was that his persuader got a real work out that evening, but I’m sure that all the boys involved thought it was well worth it.