Spain Remembers

Spain Remembers

Monday, March 7, 2016

Smokey Dreams

(This story is based on true events from my early teaching career in Port Arthur, now part of Thunder Bay.  Joan)

Smokey Dreams
By Joan Baril
Janet leaned back into the easy chair in the corner of the women teachers’ staff room and took a long welcome drag on her cigarette. Happiness flooded over her like the late April sun streaming through the tall western windows.   Her dreams were all coming true. 

All day long she had felt herself bouncing with joy, a joy that had communicated to her grade three students who seemed to work harder and be more lovable than ever.  On her lap was a pile of open scribblers.  Janet balanced her cigarette on the ashtray set on the wide arm of the chair and took up her pencil to correct the last spelling exercise of the day. After finishing each workbook, she set it on a small table beside her.  She moved quickly down the pile.

It was mid April, 1954, and close to five o’clock.  Teachers came and went, some for a quick smoke break and a chat before running for the bus, others to get coats and boots from the tiny cupboard by the door.  Many carried full bags of scribblers or papers to mark at home but Janet preferred to do her marking at school in the quiet of the staff room when everyone had gone.  She loved to sit in the streaming sunlight and see the smoke curl from her cigarette and the steam rise from her mug of instant coffee. And today, after all the workbooks were piled on the side table, she could lean back and relive her intense happiness.

“Still here?”  Janet’s eyes jumped open. It was Mrs. Cousins, the grade seven teacher, and the person Janet turned to if she needed advice. Janet remembered she needed advice now.

“That darn janitor ,” Janet said.  “He told me I had to take down the student art I put up on the walls. It’s really too bad. The kids love to see their paintings displayed and they work so hard at them.”
Mrs. Cousins sighed.  The school was run by the janitor who never hesitated to complain to the principal, the wispy Mr. Highgate, or his brutish side-kick, the new vice-principal, Mr. Holmes.  

“You’ll have to take them all down, Janet. There’s no help for it.  He probably thinks the scotch tape is going to mark the paint.  Why don’t you put them up on the empty bulletin boards by the front door?  No one can complain about that.” 

Janet sighed inwardly—more work. But Mrs. Cousins’ always came through with a good solution.   She smiled at the older teacher. “Anyway, today I did remember to get the kids to straighten out their desks before they left and put their chairs under.” Janet’s modern idea of learning circles had earned her a reprimand from the vice-principal because it left a messy classroom and made sweeping up cumbersome for the janitor. 

She was not worried about the negative reaction.  The provincial inspector had given her a glowing report.  “An exemplary teacher, true rapport with the students, first class lessons,” were among his many complimentary phrases.  But how she hated the vice-principal’s beady rat eyes. “Holmes should be happy with my perfectly straight rows of desks,” she said. “He’s probably in my classroom now, checking up.”

She saw Mrs. Cousins wince at the vice-principal’s name.  Even though Janet’s colleague was considered one of the best teachers in the system, she’d been passed over for the vice principal job because she was a woman. Holmes, a nineteen year old, straight out of teachers’ college, got the position and acted as if he deserved it.

“We’re surrounded by idiots,” Mrs. Cousins said as she took off her heels and put on her boots. “And I don’t mean the students either.”

After Mrs. Cousins left, Janet lit another cigarette, balanced it on the ashtray and then went into the kitchenette to put the kettle on for a second instant coffee.  She had not told Mrs. Cousins her news, the fact that next week she planned to send her resignation to the school board.  She would wait for a day or so to tell everyone.  

She wanted to savour her good fortune on her own for a while.  She let the sunlight bathe her face.  This would be her last spring in Port Arthur.  Her thoughts drifted back to the heart-leaping moment on the bus that morning when she opened the morning’s mail:  a job offer with a contract to teach grade two at Breadner School on the RCAF base at Station Trenton.  Moreover, the accompanying letter had informed her that room and board was available in the officers’ quarters at $60 a month, much less than the ninety dollars, half of her monthly salary, that she was paying her mother now.  She closed her eyes to better recall her delight when she opened the second envelope. She had been accepted into Queen’s University Summer School to study history.

She imagined the pride in her Aunt Sissy’s eyes when she told her the news. “You’re the first in our family to go to University,” her aunt would say. Janet pictured herself walking among the limestone buildings of Queens with Diana and Loraine, her two Port Arthur girlfriends.  She was desperately hoping to persuade them to apply for summer school.  And her dreams proliferated.  Maybe, just maybe, her friends would also try for teaching posts down east.  The Globe and Mail want-ads listed dozens of available positions.  They could visit each other on week-ends.

She imagined a simple room in the officers’ quarters.  A room of her own.  No more messy sister borrowing her clothes and strewing them all over the floor, taking up most of the bed and stealing all the blankets.  She would be free, independent at last.  Out on her own.  At teachers’ college last year, a professor had praised the military schools – small classes of less than thirty students, not the forty five plus she was teaching now.  Lots of supplies, no more begging the janitor to unlock the supply cupboard if she ran out of pencils or coloured paper.  No more lectures on conserving and preserving.  No more tattered readers or ancient library books.  She let her mind wander, dwelling on handsome pilots, the formal mess dinners, officer’s status granted automatically.  Her mind swivelled to Queens, its prestige and traditions, a library full of history books, her own room at the residence, new summer clothes, perhaps a pair of white sandals, a cotton dress with eyelet trim.  How could anyone be happier?

Time to go home.  As she walked to the outer door of the school, she glimpsed the janitor far down the hall, slowly pushing a broom.  She did not wave or call good night.  Soon she would no longer have to deal with that little sneak. 

The bus came every fifteen minutes.  She stood shivering in her short wool car coat, the sharp wind cutting through her nylons.  Her new job would paid 200 dollars a year more, over 2 thousand a year in all.  She’d be rich.  One day, she thought, I’ll have my own car, a wild dream of course.  Only the janitor and the principal drove cars. Meanwhile she was tired. She’d been on her feet since 8:30 that morning with only a ten minute break for lunch before yard duty.  The top edge of her girdle was cutting into her waist but there was nothing she could do about it.  Her pointed shoes were squeezing her toes. As the bus took off, she heard sirens somewhere close by but she was sinking against the bus window, back into dreams.

It wasn’t until the next day that she learned about the fire in the women teachers’ staff room.  The flames had almost spread to the hall.  “The blaze started in one of the easy chairs, probably by a careless smoker. The entire school might have been destroyed,” the principal said to his staff assembled in his office, his eyes glaring at them one by one. 

 Janet knew she was the culprit.  She tried to recall if she had put out her last cigarette but could only picture it burning in the ashtray as she drank her coffee. No doubt it had fallen down between the cushions.  Should she confess?  Never. She was just finishing the first year of her three year probation and during that period one could be fired without recourse.  Last Christmas, a young teacher who had been four days late getting back from a skiing vacation in Banff, had been fired forthwith.  

 The principal was going on. “For now,” he said, “female teachers will use the men’s staff room. It will be some time before we return to normal. The damage is extensive.”

At morning recess, the women teachers trooped into the large room off the main office immediately taking over the coffee mugs and commandeering the best chairs.

“It’s very agreeable in here isn’t it, Mr Holmes?” said Mrs. Cousins to the vice principal who was sitting on a metal folding chair crammed into a corner between the table and the wall. “Now you won’t be so lonely, all alone in this nice big room.  I think we should make the change permanent. Wouldn’t that be friendly?”

Everyone was smoking.  “Watch how you put out your cigarettes,” muttered Holmes.

“It’s so easy for a spark to catch in upholstery,” Mrs Cousins said. “It can smoulder for hours.  The fire marshal agreed with me.”  Her eyes flicked over to Janet and flickered on. “At the end of the year, we’ll have to have a good-bye party for our military gal. We owe her a lot.  How about the last day of school?”   

Everyone nodded.

“Fine by me,” said Janet.

1 comment:

  1. And the next chapter begins!!! Fun thanks Joan