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Commencement

A novel excerpt by Ruth Latta

The graduating class was lined up in the main hallway of the school, with the leaders of the procession beside the trophy case just outside the office door. April felt protected by the folds of her dark blue robe, and by the presence of the elderly music teacher beside her. She was thankful not to be teamed up with either Mr. Walker or Miss Quinn. They had organized the ceremony, and now stood with dignity in their academic gowns, adorned with colorful hoods representing the universities from which they had graduated.

Late-coming parents hurried through the front door, smiling their apologies, waving at the grads and teachers as they scurried across the foyer and through the open doors leading to the auditorium. Casey and Midas were not late; they were already seated, probably in the first row for members of the public, behind the graduating class. What a pair! They'd been fussing about the occasion for weeks.

"You can't go to the graduation with hair like that," Casey had informed Midas the morning of April's English exam. "It's not the hippie-dippy '60s any longer."

"I don't have time for the barber, not if I'm going to the sales barn today," he said. "Besides, they charge you twenty bucks the minute they pick up their scissors. You do it."

Casey poured him some coffee. She plunked a bowl of cereal in front of April, insisting: "You can't write an exam on an empty stomach." April was penning a note to herself about Alice Munro's use of magic in Who Do You Think You Are.

"I can't cut hair dirty," Casey told him. "Why don't you take a shower?"

"What, right now? And run the well dry?"

"What's wrong with now? You've finished your morning chores and you're about to go into civilization. What better time?"

He groaned. "Woman, quit nagging me."

April looked up. "It wouldn't hurt to have your hair cut, Daddy. The other day when I saw you in the passenger seat I wondered what lady Mum was chauffeuring around."

She hadn't, of course, as Casey had no women friend—-neither of April's parents had friends—-but she knew that on her say-so he would go off to the shower, grumbling and growling, and let Casey give his hair a much needed cut. As he shoved his chair back from the table, Casey winked at her daughter.

By the time April was going out the door—-she had Casey's car that day and was going for 10:00 a.m

April took her time in getting ready that morning. Her exam was at 10 a.m., so, instead of taking the bus and arriving at 8:45, she was driving to school in her mother's car. By the time she was leaving the house, was dressed in clean jeans and a T-shirt, sitting in a kitchen chair with a green plastic garbage bag over his shoulders. "Now, not too short," he warned. "I'm not going to the electric chair."

"Don't you worry. I'll just cut enough so that you'll be able to see out from under your forelock. Look at these gorgeous curls, April. Isn't it a shame he wasn't born a girl? This hair is wasted on a man."

***

April knew the routine. The handing-out of diplomas was followed by a brief reception for parents and students, then a dance, and finally, for the graduates, an informal, all-night party on the beach at Lake Manitou.

Her official date for the evening was Ryan, who had told her proudly that he had a waterproof pup tent that went up as quickly as an umbrella. His emphasis on its speediness of erection amused her, but she had no intention of enabling him to go through two rites of passage (graduation being the first) that evening. She was no prude, but she wasn't in love with him, or even going steady with him. He was just a date.

As the pianist began the first few bars of "Land of Hope and Glory", the procession moved forward, and April's stomach churned. Too much stress—-exams, university applications, forms for scholarships and bursaries—-culminating in this ceremony requiring new clothes. If she hadn't spent so much time studying this past year, she might have had time to work more hours at Al's and earn enough for a nicer dress. But Mum had done the best she could and some of the gowns that cost hundreds of dollars didn't look any better than this black one from Nearly New on Bank Street in Ottawa.

Mum and Dad were in the third row from the front. April gave them a big smile as she passed. She had made Dad promise that he wouldn't let out a whistle or a cheer; this wasn't a hockey game or the cattle auction; there would be no "Way to go, April!" when her name was called and she went up to get her diploma.

They were well-scrubbed and beaming. It would be hard to leave them next fall, but she wasn't going to admit it or they might decide that she should go to a community college closer to home, rather than to university. She was the first in either of their families to graduate from high school, and the idea of spending more years in further study bedazzled them.

The procession had reached the front of the auditorium. The teachers went up on the stage, the graduates separated from them and filed into the front row of seats. Carefully arranging her gown and dress, April sat. She was nowhere any of her friends, but that didn't matter, because she didn't want to be responsive to whispered comments. Over the past few months, she had wished, on occasion, for a heart-to-heart talk with someone, but there was no one in whom she could confide. Her mother? A teacher? How absurd.

She would miss a certain someone. Now, here in the middle of graduation, she had an island of time in which to ponder.

This relationship wasn't just a phase, or an incident, but the most momentous experience of her life—-so far. It had been tremendous, even though it might not turn out to be the ultimate. She wished that there were someone she could discuss it with, but she couldn't. Telling her mother, or a teacher, was absurd.

Now, the student presiding over the ceremony was introducing Miss Dierdre Quinn, who would then, in turn, announce the teacher bestowing the special awards. What a lot of introducing, praising, thanking! Miss Quinn's university hood was maroon, gold and navy, which went well with her short, golden mop of wash-and-wear hair. Her robe came to her ankles and April noticed, with a smile, that she was wearing red running shoes. Perhaps underneath she was wearing her red jogging suit. No, the spring evening was warm.

The program said that Mr. Jack Walker would be handing out diplomas to the graduating class. At one point, April and her pals had speculated that he and Miss Quinn might become an item.

"Think of the two of them in combination—-her knowledge of geography, and his of all the poets. What romantic travels they could have!"

"What cute kids they could have! Both so blond."

Miss Quinn and Mr. Walker had chaperoned a school dance together in the fall, but although they'd conversed smilingly and danced together once, they didn't see each other outside of school. Mr. Walker filled his free time with extracurricular activities such as the photography club and the yearbook, while Miss Quinn was more interested in coaching girls' basketball and leading the outdoor club on nature walks.

April smiled at Mr. Walker, though he could not see her. If it hadn't been for him, two autumns ago, her post-highschool plans might have involved slinging hash full-time at Al's Roadhouse forever. He had been at the school only two years, and had been her English teacher.

Mr. Walker called his approach to English "reader response." He saw literature was a two-way street, including both what the writer put into it and what the reader got out of it. He encouraged the students to keep a readers' journal. They were allowed to hate the work under discussion, as long as they could explain why.

The approach was seductive, as the journal entry required a commitment to the story or poem. April had gotten deeper and deeper into each book that they studied, and on her first assignment had got an A, a letter that hadn't come her way before in English class.

In the fall, when the first tests had been marked and students assessed, Mr. Walker had called April in to see him.

"April, I was astonished by your interpretation of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, he told her. The assignment had been to pick a poem, any poem, from their anthology and to write a response to it in their best essay style. April had been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TV and had realized suddenly that the famous poem was about the undead. The "pale kings and princes, too, pale warriors, death pale were they all" were undoubtedly vampires. They had "starved lips in the gloam" that "with horrid warning gaped wide." The knight was "palely loitering." It all fit.

"Your interpretation is highly original and accounts for every element in the poem," said the teacher. "May I send it to a magazine on student writing?"

April was flabbergasted. All she could do was nod. When he asked where she was thinking of applying to university, she said, "Nowhere."

"Nonsense," he said. "A mind like yours is too good to waste. Now, what's this problem that you seem to be having with 'Geography and World Issues'?"

"I've never been anywhere and never will, so what's the point of knowing what's going on on the other side of the globe?"

"The world has shrunk," he told her. "Calcutta is as close as Connor Township. No man is an island- that's truer today than when Donne said it in 16-whatever. Besides, how do you know you won't travel?"

She shrugged, but stood taller under his gaze. When he glanced at her essay for a moment she took that opportunity to slip the gum out of her mouth and tuck it under the desk. Then they worked out a schedule to shore up the weak areas in her studies.

***

It was time for the diplomas to be presented to the graduating class. Mr. Walker stood beside the table where the rolled up parchment-like paper, tied with ribbon, stood piled like cordwood. April took deep breaths. What if she revealed something by her manner—-her blush, her downcast eyes? Summing up all her resolve, she rose and walked sedately with the rest. No one knew that the touch of his hand sent a current of electricity through her body. She did not meet his eye or look at his lips, which said, "Congratulations, April." She was afraid that she would weep. She simply continued along the graduation assembly line, and returned to her chair.

Then came the guest speaker. To hear him tell it, his upbringing had been as formative, and as lengthy, as Hughie's in the Ralph Connor novels.

Miss Quinn and Mr. Walker exchanged glances of dismay. Why had they had chosen this speaker? April knew why, he was a backbench Member of Parliament, a former student who had made good. He must have bored the electorate into voting for him—-they probably did it just to make him shut up.

Miss Quinn, like Mr. Walker, had done much to enable April to be at graduation, and to have an Ontario Education Credit in biology. Mr. Walker had asked her to give April extra help, and they had met outside of class to work one to one.

Miss Quinn shared a house with Mademoiselle Bellefoy, the French teacher, a stout woman with a poodle perm. She had not been at the school many years herself, having come from some former French colony via Paris. Previously, April had done well in French thanks to her dad's help, although his Anglicized Eastern Ontario version of the language was not of French Academy standards.

When she'd told Midas that "patates frites" was wrong, that it should be "pommes de terre frites," he had roared with laughter and told her that if he went around talking about "apples of the earth" his cousins in Quebec would laugh him out of the family, or assume that he was thinking of "road apples." Her arguments with her dad had been good-natured, though perhaps she had hurt his feelings on occasion, for she'd heard her mother saying to him when she thought they were alone: "Baiting you gives her a reason to do her French, so put up with it."

But when April advanced in high school French and encountered Mademoiselle Bellefoy, she stopped teasing her father about language, for she didn't want to be like Mademoiselle, who was a mistress of the art of put-downs. "Canadiens" spoke a mongrel French, she told them every day in the classroom. She went wild, for instance, when she heard them refer to a paper clip as a "trombone," but in fact they looked like trombones the way they were bent. Canadiens, she said, would be laughed at in Paris; it was her job to root out provincialisms from their pronunciation and vocabulary and see that they left her tutelage speaking with the correct accent. She came down hard on April, who had a good vocabulary but an "accent tres fort." When she pronounced "chaise," for instance, she gave the vowels an "I" sound rather than the correct long “a.” Where had she picked it up? From Dad, of course.

Mademoiselle Bellefoy's remarks stung, and April wondered if her comments to her father had hurt him as much. She'd always thought of him as tough! As for Mademoiselle Bellefoy, April detested her, from her bright red mouth that was always exclaiming, "Zut! Alors!" to her fat little body encased in expensive floral print dresses. No pantsuits, no casual attire for Mademoiselle Bellefoy; after all, she was from Paree. But April was careful to treat her respectfully because of her power. She never called her "Fifi Va-voom" as the other students did. April couldn't understand how Miss Quinn, who was so active, so casual, so positive in outlook, could bear to share a house with her. Mademoiselle Bellefoy hated everything local, from the plays that the local theatrical group produced, to the food at the best restaurant in town. If nothing pleased her, why didn't she go back to Paris, or back to the girls' school in Montreal where she had taught previously?

Miss Quinn had been one of Mademoiselle Bellefoy's students years earlier at this exclusive ladies' academy, and had kept in touch with her through the intervening years. Any port in a storm, thought April. Rental accommodation was hard to find.

Usually the tutoring sessions with Miss Quinn took place at the school, but a couple of times when the place was being cleaned, the teacher invited April to work at her dining-room table at her home. The house was on the outskirts of town, on a pleasant lot with shrubs and perennials. Mademoiselle Bellefoy was usually out, but returned, all briskness and toothy smile, when it was time for tea. "How is the studying coming?" she would always ask. "Have you discovered the missing link yet?" Then she would make very strong coffee served in demitasses, saying that she could not bear the Canadian custom of "instant" served in mugs.

On one occasion after Mademoiselle Bellefoy's return, April excused herself to use the bathroom, and when she came out, she lingered in the hall for a moment because she'd heard her name. Mademoiselle Bellefoy was saying something about casting pearls before swine, and that Dierdre should bear in mind that teaching was a sensitive profession.

"I don't know what you're driving at, Laurette, but in tutoring April I have a chance to do something positive for a student, and how often can we teachers really claim to have done that?"

April heard a clicking noise as Mademoiselle Bellefoy, in her high heels, left the room.

In January, April wrote off her OEC biology. Miss Quinn congratulated her, urging her to study hard with Mr. Walker, who would make her ready for university English. That January, too, April wrote her OEC exam in French, and was free of Mademoiselle Bellefoy forever.

Mademoiselle Bellefoy was not at the graduation. "It should be commencement," she always insisted, pronouncing the word the French way. She had pleaded migraines. These small-town, collegiate graduations filled her with such a mixture of amusement and despair that for the sake of her health she had to stay home.

Now, people were applauding the M.P., thankful that he was standing down. Mr. Walker, at the microphone, introduced the valedictorian. April tuned out and let her mind wander. One of the overhead lights shone down on Mr. Walker, making his hair glow golden as if he were a heavenly being. A clinch-song from one of April's mother's old 45 rpm records sprang to mind: "Devil or Angel?"

Mr. Walker gestured when he spoke. April had watched those hands gently turning over the pages of a volume of poetry from his university days.

There had been three of them in his classroom after school, getting special tutelage in English: Ryan Baker, her date for the dance, and Kate, who had been in her classes throughout high school, were the others. It became embarrassing when April was the only one with her hand up for the answers. One day, attempting to explain Keats' theory of poetics, she began talking about the way he led the reader through an experience, and she faltered and turned red, breaking off, because it sounded as if she were describing an erotic adventure. She could feel Mr. Walker's eyes upon her.

That day, April dallied after the other two had left. Mr. Walker closed the classroom door and said, "You know, John Keats was attempting to use words to recreate romantic ecstasy. He was making love to the reader."

April held out her arms. Mr. Walker pulled her into the lee of the supply cupboard, and pressed his mouth against hers. Then he broke away. "I should be shot for this."

"No," she whispered. "I want it too."

"Let's go to my place," he whispered. She knew, everyone did, that he lived in an apartment over a warehouse just across the railroad tracks.

She slipped out of the classroom a few minutes later, told her fellow students taking the late bus that she would be getting a ride home, and then called her mother from the pay phone to say that a teacher would drive her home later. Then she slipped out the parking lot door and into Mr. Walker's truck, with its black windows that reflected your face back at you, but were transparent once you got inside.

That first day at his place, they merely kissed, half sitting, half lying on the sofa. But instead of carrying her into the bedroom, as in the movies, Mr. Walker made dinner for her, and told her that he wanted her to consider carefully what they were contemplating.

On the living room bookcase was a photo of his two little children who were living with his wife in Toronto. She was a doctor, and there had never been any question of him having custody of the kids, since his wife's ability to support them in comfort far surpassed his. Her parents regarded him as a hippie bum, an interlude in her life.

April laughed before she realized that it was not funny. She asked if he missed his kids, and he said, yes, though not as much as he was supposed to. They were the image of his wife; he might not have been in on the act at all. Kids were hell on wheels when you were trying to concentrate and write. He talked to them on the phone every weekend and saw them on holidays. They would connect more when they were older.

He drove her home that night, and told her to think carefully. He was not Prince Charming, not the man for her life. He would be an Experience, a significant one, he hoped—-one that she would look back upon with pleasure and tell her grandchildren about. But what they were contemplating was a major step in a young girl's life and if she thought she'd have regrets then she shouldn't do it.

April had already made up her mind. She had no illusions about her "most precious gift." She'd read Tess of the D'urbervilles and was astonished over the preoccupation with virginity, and the notion that the one you did it with first was, your true husband according to nature. From April's observations of nature, few creatures in it were monogamous—-only pigeons, Canada geese, and wolves, she'd heard. She had read John Donne's The Flea and Andrew Marvell's To his Coy Mistress in Pursuit of Time, and agreed with the sentiments expressed therein. She was ready.

She had another reason for saying yes. She sensed that she could do better in English if she could bring to it her body as well as her mind. There was so much passion in literature, it cried to be acted out.

She had kissed boys before, at birthday party games and at dances; she had let young men press close to her. She and her mum had had talks, and she'd assured her mother that it was all play, just practice for later.

Now the time had arrived. When he put his hands on her shoulders it was as if they were introducing her to a language that she had always known, but forgotten. When he touched her breasts she was surprised that these proud possessions were more than just ornamental, but were locales of great sensation. Then his sweater was off, and they were skin to skin, incredibly close.

When Jack-in-the-box popped up, his texture amazed her. He was both hard and soft at the same time—baby-like, pink, but a force to be reckoned with. This latter quality gave her the presence of mind to ask, "What is he going to wear?"

"I'm glad you reminded me." Mr. Walker eased away from her and went into the bathroom, returning with a drugstore bag. In it was a sealed cardboard box, which contained little shiny packets. They reminded April of the hand-wipes at fast food restaurants and she said as much.

"These are much more effective for our purposes," he said, deadpan. Then they were laughing, rolling with laughter on the bed, rocking and rolling with mirth, and what had once seemed impossible actually occurred. 'So this is how it's done,' she thought. Aloud she quoted Star Trek: "To boldly go where no man has been before," and they laughed again. On a subsequent voyage, she cried out from some deep inner well, without knowing beforehand that she was going to do so.

Theirs was a romance without a future. They couldn't take a trip away together. There might be, somewhere, parents who could afford to send their kids to Florida for spring break or to Switzerland, or even Banff or the Laurentians, to ski, but her parents were so far below this class that it didn't bear thinking about.

So theirs was a relationship confined to his apartment. That was the physical location, but they also walked with Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom on the streets of Dublin, sat at an outdoor cafe in Hemingway's Paris, and roamed the moors with Cathy and Heathcliff.

She hated that it had to end, but it must, because Mr. Walker was going back to Toronto to be nearer his children. He said that he was sorry but he knew that she would go on to wonderful relationships and meanwhile, his duty as a parent could not be ignored. April could write; they would keep in touch. Who knew where it would lead when she was of legal age?

Nowhere. It was over, and maybe that was for the best. Still, April wished that on this special night, they could celebrate together, but it wasn't possible.

The graduation ceremony was over. There were embraces from her parents, whose eyes were wet and shining. They had purchased a $15.00 disposable camera for the occasion and posed with their daughter while Ryan snapped the picture. They were about to end the photography session and go next door for refreshments when Mademoiselle Quin and Mr. Walker appeared and asked April if she would pose with them. They wanted a picture with their protege. "Or prodigy," said Miss Quinn as they stood against the backdrop smiling. Casey and Midas thanked the two teachers and then they went to the buffet table. Soon Ryan joined April at the buffet table and made a production of looking at his watch. It was time to change and go to the barbecue.

***

In the firelight, Ryan and April sat companionably on a picnic table. Some of the young people had retired to tents, others were strolling in the moonlight or sitting together in small groups. The noise had died down, though from a distance tiny faint voices emanated from portable radios.

"I've always liked you, April," Ryan was saying, "but I don't want to have any involvements when I go away to school. It will be a whole new world for both of us."

"I feel that way myself," she said.

"Besides, your heart may lie elsewhere. There was some talk earlier in the year."

About her and Mr. Walker? But they'd been so cautious! Of course, he was leaving anyway, so a rumor could not ruin his career. She hoped that the darkness would cover her confusion. She waited.

"I didn't put much stock in the rumor myself," he continued.

"What rumor?" she asked.

"I shouldn't say, I guess. It's just gossip."

"Tell me.

His teeth gleamed in the firelight. "I heard that you were involved with a teacher."

"Which one?" She forced her voice not to quaver. If her dad got wind of it, he would tear Mr. Walker limb for limb.

"Remember, this is what I heard, but I don't believe it. Don't kill me, now." Ryan shielded his head with his arms. "It was Miss Quinn."

"What!" She began to laugh.

"Well, everyone thinks that she's a lezzie, and no one can stand Mademoiselle Bellefoy, so they figured she was looking for someone fresh and new. You were at their house."

"To study. Am I ever disgusted! Who starts these stories? The notion is absurd."

"Oh, come on, April," he said. "Things like that happen. You watch TV. Anyhow the gossip ended when you got your OEC in biology and stopped studying with her."

"I'm so angry I could just spit!" April sputtered. "You suspect that it's true, don't you?"

"Well, I... Well, you're not being very friendly with me, right now."

She glared at him. "I like men. Not boys. Drive me home. No, drive me into town and I'll call my parents to pick me up."

He protested, but the fury of her glare made him comply. The drive took fifteen minutes. When they said goodnight, and he left her at the pay phone outside the railways station, he did not know that her eyes were on the upstairs windows of a warehouse across the tracks.

"April!" Jack Walker's voice was full of surprise.

"May I drop by to celebrate my graduation?"

"By all means. And, think of it as commencement."

"O.K."

Graduation or commencement, who could say?

 

Ruth Latta lives in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of seven books, the most recent being The Secret of White Birch Road (Gatineau, Quebec, Baico Publishing, 2005) For further information about her books and other published writing, please visit her website.

 

Photo "Lashelle, 3v2" courtesy of Peter Gustafson, Longmont, CO.

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