Why are some memories cast in bronze, when most of life only leaves footprints in
the sand? In my brain’s jumbled memory box, where fuzzy trivia outweighs the
important one billion to one, a few jewels beckon, sculpted and polished, waiting to
be cherished time and time again.
I was fourteen, a maelstrom of teenage emotions, looking for a safe harbour. School
was an escape from my teenage angst; I enjoyed learning and the promise of future
freedom coming from academic achievements. In my household, excellence was
expected and I complied, with high grades all through primary and secondary
school. In Grade 9, I was asked to participate in a contest offered by the St
Jean-Baptiste Society. The aim was to promote the French language in Quebec. The
competition took place at three levels and focused on spoken French, including the
ability to use synonyms, and to improvise on a given topic in front of an audience. In
my small Quebec village, better known for its joual than for la langue de Molière, I
did well in French and was deemed a good candidate. I looked forward to the
My French teacher, Soeur Jacques, by far my favourite because of her clear teaching
style and pleasant demeanour, became my coach for the competition. For five
months, we met after school, three hours a week. She walked me through the
intricacies of French; I learned synonyms and improvisation, I expanded my
vocabulary, we shared laughter and stories. I had long exhausted the meager
offerings of the school library. She lent me books from the nun’s own library, French
classics that opened my mind and heart to good literature. She was attentive,
encouraging and a good listener. My parents were not prone to compliments, certain
that praise led to a swelled head. My father was fond of quoting the Bible, and
hubris ranked high on his list of deadly sins; pride goeth before the fall and all that.
Those three hours a week spent with Soeur Jacques became a cocoon of calm and
sustenance for me.
The hard work paid off as I zipped through the local and regional competitions. The
final contest took place in Trois-Rivières, in front of assembled parents and
dignitaries. Travel expenses were covered and my parents came, along with Uncle
Albert and his wife. I met the other competitors and we swapped stories about our
experiences to date. Everyone was excited and apprehensive. This was another
level altogether and I felt intimidated at the thought of speaking in front of an
audience of five hundred.
My anxiety disappeared when I learned that first prize for girls was a pearl necklace.
The group leader showed us a picture in the course of laying down the ground rules;
there, in a blue velvet box lined in white satin, shone the necklace, the pearls small to be sure, and most certainly cultured, not wild. I did not care. I immediately
coveted that necklace with a level of greed sure to have me burn in hell for eternity.
Pride reared its head as I pictured myself in a twin set and A-line skirt, the necklace
gleaming at my neck; a far cry from my usual hand-me downs. I could hear the
compliments coming from all sides. I wanted it, I had to have it.
With this strong motivation at the forefront, I glided on stage with the assurance of
an old actress, and presented with such poise that the results seemed a foregone
Alas, only in my mind. I did not win first prize. Gone was the pearl necklace. Gone
was my pride. I received two juvenile books: Les deux soeurs (The two sisters) and
L’ânesse inconsolable (The inconsolable donkey). That was me: bereft and
stubbornly inconsolable. That first prize should have been mine; I knew it in my
heart. I put up a good front and accepted the congratulations of my family, but my
heart grieved. I was thankful for the celebration that the school organized in my
honour back home. I felt cheated. I never read the books, a reminder of my failure
to secure that necklace.
Life goes on. The years passed and I busied myself with the task of becoming an
adult, the recollections of that contest well hidden in my memory box.
Twenty some years later, I ran into Soeur Jacques at my local university. I was
running up the stairs, late for a class; she was coming down, on her way out. She
recognized me. I did not, the sight of her in civilian clothes a jarring contrast to the
nun’s habit she used to wear. We exchanged a few tidbits. She was a civilian now,
single, and teaching at the university. I was divorced and in graduate school. The
encounter was over before we had time to reminisce.
That brief meeting stirred things up in me. That night, I pulled out the memory from
the far corners of my brain. It all came back: the hours spent in preparation, the
competitions, the mad craving for the pearls, the disappointment. But, with the
perspective of an adult, what stood out was the shining memory of the care, respect
and attention Soeur Jacques had showered on me, the encouraging comments given
to boost my fragile ego, the books loaned to broaden my horizon. She treated me as
a person, someone worthy of attention.
I finally understood the extent of her selfless acts of kindness. Gratitude welled up
as I realized I had indeed won first prize, with the best of all possible rewards, the
gift of love.