“You wouldn’t think we were being rude if we asked whether you could find another seat, would you?”
Student at the McGehee School for Girls
Monday morning, 17 August 2015
Amelie: Amelie goes through the rest of her weekend quietly. She takes the mandated trip to McGehee’s campus. Bereft of any distractions, her mind wanders on social anxieties tied to the first day at school. It doesn’t help that her first day will also be her senior year.
The evening before the big day, she lays out her uniform and does everything she can to make herself look presentable. Sleep doesn’t come easily either after spending all day agonizing, but it comes. The alarm she set on her phone rings the next morning, followed by several other alarms minutes after the first.
GM: “I was looking up bus routes, and McGehee turned out to have its own private ones,” Christina remarks after Amelie has showered and come downstairs for breakfast. She’s sitting at the table and eating from a plate of toast and grapefruit. “That’s very good, if taking the bus is how you plan to get to campus. It turns out public schools are obligated to provide transportation to qualifying private schools, and I can only imagine what mixing the students does. God knows that most public school students in this city are delinquents in the making.”
True to the pair’s conversation on Friday night, however, Amelie’s aunt has left her to make her own transportation arrangements, whether that’s walking to school, taking the bus, or whatever else.
Amelie: Amelie comes down fully dressed in her new uniform, a bit unimpressed with the length and existence of the skirt, not mention how the school charter asked it be so high on the hips with the shirt tucked in. Her hair is brushed, but still thick and wild as ever. Hearing about the transit system eliminates one of her worries, however. A walk creates an awkward first impression in a white dress shirt.
“I think I’ll take advantage of that. I underestimated the sun down here yesterday,” she affirms, draping her uniform’s black blazer carefully over the back of a chair. While she can’t agree with the ‘delinquents’ line, she has to admit she likes the thought of the private bus. Young girls in school uniforms are a stereotypical harassment target. Still, her more pressing concern is her aunt, and the best way to fully break the ice this morning.
GM: “That’s the subtropics,” Christina replies between a sip of coffee. “The school should have air conditioning, though. Practically every building down here does.”
Amelie: Amelie replies to the word ‘subtropics’ with a groan of distaste, but she’s glad they’re at least mid-way through August. Only a month before fall. She sits down across from Aunt Christina and has a simple breakfast that almost mimics hers: an apple and some plain toast.
“I’ll be a little busy this week with a few things. Is there anything you’d like me to do or help you with?”
GM: Her aunt shakes her head. “That’s kind of you to offer, but you should focus on school right now. I imagine your first day of classes will give you enough new things to occupy yourself with.”
Amelie: “I’m not sure what to expect there, so far as classes. I’ve only ever been in public school. But I’m confident I’ll be fine in that regard. Did you and my mother attend a private school?”
GM: “Oh yes, the public schools in our area were terrible,” Christina confirms. “Not so bad as New Orleans’—I’m sure it’s no small feat to top those—but some of them might have had daycare centers too.”
Amelie: Amelie thinks as she takes a last bite of toast, trying not to look too interested. Her mother is a sore mystery. “That’s a sad thing for a school to have. I never understood people who didn’t take studies seriously.”
Amelie cleans her dish and sits back down, checking the time on her phone with a sigh. The social aspects of high school aren’t missed by the young woman. But it’s nearly time. “I should go. I need to introduce myself to the headmistress anyway.”
GM: “They’ve called them principals since the ’60s or thereabouts,” Christina mentions wryly.
Amelie: Amelie wonders back to the pamphlets but nods to her aunt. “That’s a shame, too. Principal just doesn’t carry the same weight as a title.”
GM: “Anyways, feel free to either head home or go wherever else once school’s over. I’ll be out until sometime later this evening.”
Amelie: Hearing that her mysterious aunt is going to be home late makes the young woman wonder if it’s safe to venture into New Orleans without a guide. At least this early into her time here. “I want to check out the New Orleans public library, across the river. So I’ll probably do so after school today. Until then, I should get going.”
GM: “You mean in Algiers? That’s a bad part of town,” her aunt warns. “I’m sure there’s quite a few other libraries on the north side of the Mississippi. That’s where most of the city is, including the Garden District here.”
Amelie: The young woman thinks a moment and shakes her head. Directions aren’t her strong suite, but she’s looked this up already. “The one a half-hour walk away, in the Central Business District. Unless I’m wrong about which is the flagship location? Thanks for the warning though. I saw some worrying things on the drive here with Oscar.”
GM: “The CBD is on the same side of the river as we are,” Christina confirms. “I’m not sure off-hand if its library is the main branch, but that seems more likely than it being in Algiers. The CBD is a fairly safe part of town, too.”
Amelie: Amelie reflects on the river, and how her aunt makes it seem as though it’s the proverbial train tracks separating the good and the bad in a small town. She finally stands, slings her backpack on, and takes a deep breath, bracing for the day as she starts for the door. “I’m off, then! Have a good day at work.”
GM: “And you at school. Good luck, too,” Amelie’s aunt wishes as she tabs through something on her tablet.
Amelie: It’s a short trip to the bus stop once Amelie finds it on her phone. Some anxiety starts to peek in, inspired by American movies in English on late night TV. They had a lot to say about the horrors of both American high schools and all-girls schools. She hopes the bus is empty.
GM: For the moment there is no sign of the bus. It’s 7:30 in the morning, and the temperature already feels like it’s hovering around 80 degrees. Together with the abundance of drooping oaks, thick hedges, palm trees, and other greenery in the neighborhood, it almost feels like waiting in a tropical rainforest. The morning sky is a bright and cloudless azure that promises an even hotter August day.
A yellow school bus eventually pulls up near the gate to Christina’s house. The driver, a middle-aged black woman in a green vest, wishes Amelie good morning as she gets on. Her ears are immediately filled with the high-pitched but still sleepy chattering of her identically-dressed schoolmates… all of whom look much, much younger than she is. Half of them don’t have breasts, and the other half are awkward in their braces and acne. Backpacks are pink or rainbow-hued and depict characters from Disney films and other cartoons. The children variously quiet, furiously whisper into one another’s ears, or simply stare as the twenty-year-old makes her way down the bus aisle.
Amelie: The young woman makes her way onto the bus and wishes the driver a good morning, only for the awkward childrens’ faces to drive home a stark thought: most people her age in this wealth bracket are probably driving. The importance of a learner’s permit seems all the more socially relevant now. Her demeanor stays true to the Roberts family brand of poker face as she makes her way to the nearest empty seat and plops down. She takes out her phone to pass the time unless her underclassmen approach her.
GM: Amelie observes that the bus is nicer than the ones in her hometown. There still aren’t seatbelts, but the windows are cleaner and there aren’t anywhere nearly as many visible doodles, graffiti, or tears on the seats. She’s only just gotten out her phone before a high voice behind her asks, “Excuse me, why are you taking the bus?”
The speaker is a blonde-haired girl who’s at least one head shorter than Amelie. She’s dressed in the same uniform as the high school senior and every other student on the bus.
Amelie: Amelie notices but ignores the cleanliness. It feels wrong somehow to be on a bus that’s this well-maintained. The underclassman however takes her off guard, and she turns slowly to get a look at whoever she’s speaking with. She keeps her answer short. “I’m new to the city.”
GM: “Are you poor?” the little girl asks curiously.
Amelie: Amelie raises a brow at the girl’s brash question, but stays polite and shakes her head. “I’m not poor, no. Just not from here.”
GM: “I’m friends with a poor person. She’s mostly like me, apart from not having a dad.”
Amelie: “That’s common.”
GM: “That’s what my mom says too,” the kid remarks. “My friend’s mom used to be our maid before my mom fired her. She says married people are more honest.”
Amelie: Amelie raises a brow again, feeling something like she did looking out at that dark part of town. “Everyone lies sometimes.”
GM: “I guess. Some people lie more.”
Amelie: “Do you want to know the secret of how to tell who?”
GM: The little girl leans forward. “What?”
Amelie: “Practice listening to people. Liars talk a lot.”
GM: “Why’s that?” the child asks.
Amelie: “It’s different for everyone. But the secret works. Try it,” she answers, turning around and putting a ‘shhh’ finger over her lips. It’s half actual answer, half trying to quiet her down.
GM: The little girl turns away from Amelie to listen to the students in the seat behind her.
Amelie: Amelie smirks a little wickedly as she goes back to her phone.
GM: The remainder of the bus ride through the Garden District passes in comparative solitude. Amelie is barely able to tell when they’ve reached McGehee: the school looks the same as any other picturesque home in the neighborhood. It’s surrounded by the same historic Antebellum and Victorian mansions, the same pristine gardens, and the same thick canopy of live oaks, evergreens, and willows that keeps the district as green as its namesake. The only giveaway that Amelie has reached the school is how long the property’s cast-iron fence stretches.
Unlike other schools, whose sprawling complexes of buildings are obvious from afar, McGehee seems to have been worked into the historic neighborhood as unobtrusively as possible. The only giveaways as to its presence, besides the longer fence and the half-visible tops of a slide and jungle gym, is the presence of two gates into the property rather than just one. A red canopy over the left entrance reads in white font, Louise S. McGehee—Founded 1912—Honor, Service, Leadership.
Amelie: Amelie enjoys the silence and watches the scenery pass her by until they get to the school proper. She’s suddenly glad that she took the bus instead of walking like she did yesterday. It’s a seamless blend into the rest of this historic section of town, and could pass simply for an eccentrically large mansion among other well-to-do houses until one saw the sign itself.
GM: Amelie’s bus stops along the sidewalk for the girls to get off. The bus driver tells them all to have a “super” day, prompting one of the preteens to roll her eyes. A few other buses are parked nearby. Amelie doesn’t see much available space for the older students who clearly drive, but she can spot a number of teenagers walking down the sidewalk who are uniformed in the same plaid skirt, white shirt, and black blazer she also has on. They smirk and whisper among themselves at the sight of the new girl getting off the kiddie bus.
Amelie: Amelie gives a smile and a nod to the driver on her way out of the bus. As soon as she spots her classmates whispering, however, it’s apparent where she’ll be standing in this new school. It’s a disappointment, but her face stays steely. She reminds herself that it’s only for a year. She keeps her blazer draped over an arm, the heat dissuading her from wearing it, and makes her way inside the school. She retraces her steps from yesterday to find her homeroom class, feeling more than a little awkward, but hopes she isn’t showing.
GM: The mass of chattering girls makes their way past the school’s iron gate and the police officer guarding it. The Bradish Johnson House, which serves at the school’s main building, resembles a preserved historic house more than an office where one expects to find school administration at work. Balconies extend underneath the second-story windows, while benches and tables are set out across the carefully manicured lawn. They look like good spots for the home’s residents to sit down at and enjoy a glass of iced tea to cool off a hot afternoon. The ‘office’ itself is built in the Greek Revival style popular throughout many other homes Amelie has seen in the Garden District. Tall Corinthian pillars and a coat of nearly-uniform white paint bring to mind the buildings of ancient Greece. Amelie observes a few girls making their way up the front steps, but even more are heading off towards a single, larger building.
Amelie: All of this is a marvel for the young woman to look at. Many buildings in Quebec are just as old as these, but the styles run counter to each other. Where Quebec has Gothic Revival, New Orleans butts heads with its Greek Revival. It feels more secure and aesthetically pleasing—almost airy—but less ornate. It’s a wonder anyone can get work done here with so much to look at. Amelie puts her thumb and forefinger up into the air in front of her eyes to get a sense of the building’s straightness as she walks.
Then she remembers the scheduled assembly. That snaps her out of her reverie. She quickly turns and heads straight for the site. Much as she’s skipped them in previous schools, they certainly aren’t ‘20 grand a year’ schools.
GM: Amelie finds that the assembly is being held in a proper auditorium rather than the gyms her previous schools hosted them at. The cloth seats look relatively comfortable, and the large space is clean and well-lit.
At least several hundred girls in the same uniform as Amelie are filing into the auditorium. Some of them look around her age, while others are young enough to ride the bus without shame and even be shepherded in groups by adults. All of them are avidly chatting amongst themselves, and the sounds of so many conversations permeate the auditorium with an omnipresent din. Seats swiftly fill up as the students divide into cliques. Everyone seems as if they know one another.
Amelie is left alone.
Amelie: It’s impressive, once again, and she takes a moment to look around the room and take it all in. Plays, announcements, concerts, the venue seems well-suited for everything. Her earlier concerns do not abate, however, as she surveys the divide of the students. Her elders and her betters she can easily work with socially, as well as younger kids, but people her own age are usually more of a problem. Instead of going to join any one clique, she finds a seat near where more of her age seem to be congregating, and sits on her own. Rumors are most likely already spreading about her time on the bus, and accepts her fate in that regard. But damned if she’s going to let the social game stop her from being the best student in the building.
GM: Students continue to file in to the auditorium. Amelie’s proximate position to the girls who look old enough to be fellow seniors soon results in her being approached by a round-faced girl with brown eyes and dirty blonde hair. Like every other student in the room, she’s dressed in the same white blouse and plaid skirt, although unlike Amelie she’s wearing her blazer.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I was hoping to sit by my friends—would you mind scooting back a row?”
Amelie: Amelie sighs internally. This is the part in public school where she crosses her legs and ignores this girl, but with a new start comes new concessions. She stands, fixes her skirt and gives the girl a polite smile, resolving to just be formal and remember whoever she is for later. In case this turns into the proverbial Mean Girls scenario somehow.
“Since you were so polite about it, of course. I’m Amelie, by the way. It’s nice to meet you.”
Instead of shaking hands like she usually would, the taller girl simply gives the interloper a curt nod and slides past her. She finds another seat next to a stranger in the row behind.
GM: “Bless your heart,” the girl smiles as she assumes Amelie’s seat, then begins animatedly chatting with her neighbors. More students continue to file in. Several more sit down in the empty spots Amelie could previously have scooted over to.
She is again left by herself as the auditorium continues to fill up.
Amelie: Amelie makes a mental note after moving into her new position. First new person on her list of people to watch. But she lets it go fast, turning to the new prospects and trying to be brave as she takes inventory of the people in the row with her. She hopes whatever clique she now shares a space with is more accommodating than the plump-faced potential queen bee.
GM: The seats next to Amelie soon fill up with students, but they don’t seem to share her space so much as dwell in an independent space that happens to be adjacent to hers. Like seemingly everyone else in the auditorium, the girls appear to already know one another, and ignore Amelie completely as they animatedly talk amongst themselves about various topics.
“These commencement addresses are so boring…” “I hear public school students have an easier time skipping…” “Have you heard about…” “I think senioritis is gonna hit me pretty hard…”
Amelie: It’s a different atmosphere than she’s used to. She’s only ever changed schools once, but this feels awkward. Before she starts to question the need to make friends at all with these people, she scoots in her seat and clears her throat as she introduces herself to the nearest group.
“Pardon, do you know who that girl down there is?” she asks, pointing down casually at the round-faced girl she’s found herself relocated by.
GM: “Yeah, that’s Mackenna,” one of the girls answers distractedly before turning back to her friends.
Amelie: Its less than she hoped for, but more than she dares expect from these people. It’s becoming more and more clear this place isn’t where she’s going to make friends. At the very least, though, there’s now a name on her shit list instead of just a round face.
Amelie crosses her legs, takes her phone out and fiddles with it, waiting for either the damn assembly to start or for someone to approach her.
GM: None of the other girls approach Amelie. After what seems like an eternity of waiting to the friend-less senior, the din of chatter fades. Amelie looks up and sees that the apparent “faculty” section of seats has filled up to perhaps half a hundred teachers, which looks rather sizable next to a crowd that can’t have more than ten times as many students, if not less. In contrast to the sea of green, white, and black uniforms among the girls, the teachers wear their own outfits, although conservative styles and colors predominate. Some of the faculty are also male. Some are old enough for their beards to be struck through with gray and even white, while a few are just young enough to draw appreciative stares from some of the girls. Most gazes in the room, however, look towards the auditorium’s stage, where a woman standing behind a podium is calling for attention.
She’s of average height and in her later middle years, with prominent lines around her neck and cheeks. Her dark blonde hair is cut relatively short, and she wears an austere black suit and skirt with a pearl necklace, matching earrings, and low-rimmed glasses. “Good morning, everyone,” the woman smiles, her voice clear and audible over the podium’s microphone. “As most of you are likely aware, my name is Catherine Strong and I am the headmistress at McGehee. Our 103rd school year is about to commence and I would like to take this opportunity to welcome all of you bright and lovely young women back to our school…”
Amelie: Amelie spends the time alone on her phone, teaching herself about the area and planning out the rest of her week in the back of her mind. It’s full, but it’s the way she likes it. Once the event begins, she puts her phone away to listen. She feels a small sense of vindication at the title of the school’s leadership, given her discussion with her aunt this morning.
GM: The principal’s greeting does not go on for long before she states that there is a video clip she would like to show the gathered students. The lights dim as a projection booth in the back of the auditorium comes to life, splaying its image across the blank wall behind her.
Amelie: The advert is a small surprise. Abused or lonely geriatrics struggling to show themselves that they’re still alive and achieving their dreams through great effort and strength of character. It resonates with Amelie enough to give her a light swell in her chest, but she swallows it down without much effort.
GM: Principal Strong smiles at the assembled teenagers and younger girls as the clip ends and the lights resume. “This ad has resonated with millions around the world for many different reasons—it’s inspiring, beautiful, funny, foreign, curious, unusual, yet common to us all. What themes from it can you relate to your own lives?”
Hands shoot up throughout the crowd.
Amelie: Seeing so many raised hands is another strange sight for Amelie. It’s a stark shift from the level of enthusiasm and participation in public school, but she isn’t about to let herself be outdone. She raises her hand and watches for the headmistress’ choice.
GM: “Yes, Susannah?” the principal asks with another smile, pointing towards an older teenager sitting close to the front.
“It’s a very sweet ad for sure, ma’am,” the pretty blonde begins.
“Sweet as maple syrup over pancakes,” one of the girls next to her interjects, to the assembly’s light laughter.
“But what really struck me, you know,” the other girl continues, “was how Ta Chong Bank was sponsoring this ad—that’s what the ‘TC’ is short for, my mama has a few overseas clients who do business with them. Anyway, a bank might not seem like they have too much to do with a bunch of old friends reliving their dreams on motorcycles. But just seeing that name at the end, ‘TC Bank’—well, if I were the customer and had to choose between different banks to open a savings account at, I know I’d go with the one whose name I saw in such a heartwarming ad. I’m probably going to go into business after I graduate college, so I’d like to see my company make ads as powerful as this one. I take it as an example of what I should aspire to in my professional career, and another example of what my mama always told me—‘aim for the heart, not the head.’”
“Well-said, Susannah,” the principal replies. “There’s certainly no denying that TC Bank is receiving a great deal of publicity as a result of their ad—including in our very school. Yes, Sadie?” she then asks, pointing towards another face in the crowd.
Many further students, mostly higher schoolers and a few middle schoolers (the elementary-age girls remain quiet) critique the ad and find ways to connect its sponsoring company’s success and brand imaging to the success they’d like to enjoy in their own careers. A few girls comment on how the characters are elderly—“we’re so used to seeing the young and beautiful in the media, that element helps TC Bank further stand out from the competition and appear honest, authentic.” Other girls offer critiques of the ad and what they would do to improve it, or how they would tailor it for broadcasting to different audiences. Amelie is struck by the high level of student participation in the assembly, as well as the fact that the principal knows so many of them by name (though all of them call her by “ma’am”).
Amelie: Amelie waits patiently as she listens, but what strikes her as things go along isn’t just he level of participation but the way other girls are picking apart the ad from a business perspective. There are a few people pointing out the angle of the elderly protagonists in the media vs. the standard of beauty, but she barely pays any mind to them. Each person along the line leading up to her makes her rethink what she’s going to say. The differences between her previous education and what she’s going through right now make her more than a little excited.
GM: Eventually, the principal picks out Amelie among the many still-raised hands and asks, “Yes, over there in the back?”
Amelie: By the time her name is called there’s a faint smile on Amelie’s previously neutral features. Clearing her throat, she makes sure her voice is loud enough to reach the podium. “Thank you. I’d like to first point out that as powerful as this ad is, the reason it’s crossed the borders from Taiwan to the USA is that the core message of the ad is one no one is left out from. That through strength of will, you can achieve your dreams, as long as you’re prepared to sacrifice, and pay in blood, sweat, and tears. While its ultimately a marketing tactic designed to pluck the heart-strings for a profit, I find it deeply endearing and very encouraging that this message of hard work and suffering for your dreams has resonated with enough people outside its consumer base that it’s rung out across the ocean to land in this school. As someone from a life of hard work and harder study, it tells me that many people still respect and aspire to that level of commitment.”
GM: Amelie’s closing mention of being from a life of ‘hard work and harder study’ draws a few amused looks from the crowd. Principal Strong smiles and replies, “Yes, even in our roles as critical analysts and future ad producers, let’s not forget that the core message is still just as applicable to us: follow your dreams. Yes, Hannah?”
Amelie: Amelie already knows that the rumors are starting thanks to being spotted taking the kiddie bus. That piece of information will spread like wildfire after this assembly, what she’s mentioned about being from a life of work is just another piece of a narrative she’s already sure is inevitably going to form about her. With a school this size, it’s guaranteed.
As she sits back down, though, she feels disappointed in both herself and the crowd. The message she was trying to push got misconstrued. ‘The ad is successful for choosing a core value of humanity, in cheering for the underdog and his great efforts to succeed against odds’ instead of just ‘work hard’. Along with a sense of justice and family, it’s something one could say crosses cultural borders into a more widespread audience.
GM: “If the ad is applicable to us,” answers the called-on girl, “and we’re spending this much time talking about it, then you could argue that it’s already successfully influenced us,” answers a voice from the crowd. “Most of us are probably going to remember the school assembly we spent talking about a TV bank ad, and consumers are more likely to buy things from or do business with companies they recognize. We might even be more likely to, since we think the ad is so well put-together. How many of us would might do business with TC Bank now, even if we don’t know anything else about their practices or their competitors? We like to think we’re perceptive enough to see through it all, but their ad probably still made money off of us.”
“My folks would say that’s life,” a voice calls from the crowd to several amused titters.
“Yes, it certainly does behoove us to always keep the big picture in mind—and our roles in it,” Principal Strong replies pleasantly. Something about her seems cross to Amelie, though whether at the comment, the student herself, or something altogether else is not apparent to the new senior.
Amelie: Amelie finds herself agreeing with this student, never having disputed that fact either. Marketing is an art form nowadays. She recalls a similar ad back home in the ‘Prevent-It’ ad campaign in which—after a workplace accident—the victim stands back up covered in blood, as though re-animated from the dead by someone saying it was an accident, to explain that it was negligence. It preyed on another core human emotion, fear. Amelie still remembers being a little girl and hearing the blood-curdling screams of a chef doused in cooking oil and her charred boiling face.
But the headmistress doesn’t seem too happy with something or other. Maybe her? That could mean a call to the office to explain all this. The young woman still pushes it from her mind, leans back and relaxes as she listens to the next speaker.
GM: The principal goes on to compliment the gathered students for their thoughtful analyses and reminds them that for McGehee has graduated young women just like them for over a century now—ones who know what it means to be leading women. “All of you are ready to take charge of your futures thanks to our small class sizes, academic rigor, experiential learning and our focus on the individual girl. At McGehee, we prepare each of you for your unique journey amidst a climate of innovation rooted in tradition.”
Principal Strong relates how Louise S. McGehee, an “extraordinary visionary for her time,” founded their school in 1912. McGehee’s mission was to build a rigorous college-preparatory school for young women that would focus on each girl, fostering self-esteem, encouraging high personal standards, and emphasize active student participation in the learning process. Principal Strong says their program uses traditional and innovative teaching strategies to challenge students and to foster a lifelong love of learning—a gateway to success. Though the concept of single-sex education has come under challenge in recent decades, the headmistress states undeterredly, “We are a school of girls and for girls. Our students understand that they can do anything because here girls fill every role—student body president, math whiz, sports star, lead in the play and valedictorian.”
The principal proudly states that they have never wavered from that goal in over a century. The school’s “extraordinary faculty,” a number of whom hold PhDs in their fields—atypical for a high school—respect the way girls learn and teaches with a curriculum that goes beyond the walls of the classroom. “All of you are encouraged to succeed by harnessing your potential, finding your voice, taking risks and delivering your best. Constantly improving and striving for excellence, our faculty, administration and staff and the Board of Trustees remain committed to ensuring McGehee is as unique and forward thinking as possible.” With that said, the headmistress “turns over” the assembly to “the acting president of our student government, Susannah Kelly!”
Polite applause greets the girl who steps up to the speaker’s podium. Amelie recognizes her as the blonde who was first to offer her thoughts on the TC ad. “How are all y’all doing today?” Susannah asks brightly, then goes goes on to remind the class that as “Abby and her family” have moved to Little Rock, the race for president of student government will not be against an incumbent this year—“much to everyone’s relief, I’m sure, after how remarkable it was for a junior to win last year’s!” she laughs.
Susannah goes on to explain the election’s rules, which most of the auditorium’s faces already look familiar with. There will be a jungle primary where anyone can run in, followed by a general election that consists of two candidates (if a primary candidate isn’t elected outright by receiving 50% or more of the votes). Susannah gives all the relevant deadlines and locations for interested candidates to file the paperwork, and states that she will fulfill “all the functions of the office” as acting president until the election is held. At present, that will include introducing the first of the morning’s guest speakers—all of whom are McGehee alumni, “So let’s all show these fine ladies how tickled we are to have them here today!” Susannah exhorts, prompting a round of enthusiastic applause from the seated girls.
The first speaker is a middle-aged woman with an ugly scar over her face, trailed by a somewhat harried-looking younger woman who sets a water bottle and several speech cards on the podium.
The scarred woman introduces herself as Vera Malveaux and a graduate of the class of 1975. Today she is married to Matthew Malveaux, the CEO and board chairman of Malveaux Oil, a prominent local petroleum company. Vera herself either sits on the board of trustees for or is a regular patron to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Newcomb Art Museum, and a variety of other cultural centers and philanthropic organizations. She and her family are active in a great many further organizations and causes, including the Malveaux Cultural Trust, the James C. Malveaux Charitable Foundation, the William Dyer Institute, the Roman Catholic Church, political advocacy, conservative think tanks, higher education scholarships, cancer and science research, and more. Vera talks about her experiences at McGehee where she served as secretary for the arts club, treasurer for the student government, and sang in choir. She says these experiences helped her to learn to work with others and realize that the world after high school required more than just good grades. “Join, participate, and experience as much as you can in the short time that you’ll spend in high school,” she exhorts the girls, reminding them that every item on their resumes will make them stand out to colleges and better prepare them for their lives as adults.
Amelie overhears several girls near her chatting that “her face looks that way because a voodoo serial killer tried to cut her up.” “No, I hear her own daughter tried to murder her, and got locked up in a convent. Made a nun and everything.” “Well I hear she’s addicted to painkillers.”
Amelie: Scars don’t affect Amelie as much as they might other students in the room. When she sees Mrs. Malveaux, she simply wonders as to the scar’s origins. She feels the ones on her back and arms tingle as well, like they do whenever the subject comes up. As she listens to the woman’s speech, however, Amelie sees its logic and wonders if she herself should run for an open position. Or even shoot for the top. She only shakes her head at the rumors the other students leak out. None of them are probably true if they’re being thrown around this casually.
She claps along with everyone else when the speech is over. Overall, the young woman wonders how effective a speaker like Mrs. Malveaux was supposed to be when she isn’t a success herself, but simply married a major success. Still, it’s incentive to dig into how involved Mrs. Malveaux is with the company, and what money she uses for her local advocacy and agenda, whenever she has time. At the very least, it’s good to learn the name of what she’s assuming is the ‘Rockefeller’ family of Nouvelle Orleans.
GM: Polite if not enthusiastic applause sounds from the students as Mrs. Malveaux steps off the stage and makes her way back among the seated adults. Amelie catches her taking a very long pull from her water bottle before handing it off to her black-haired younger assistant, who also lays an extra cushion down on her seat.
The next speaker is a stern-looking elderly woman with curled iron gray hair. She introduces herself as Payton Underwood and a graduate of the class of 1965.
She is an associate judge for the Criminal District Court of Orleans Parish and is serving her final term before she retires. She credits her participation in the school’s debate team and mock trials with developing her interest in civic affairs. She also attributes a girls-only education with helping her develop what she terms “a solid backbone.” She continues that, “Make no mistake, it’s still a man’s world out there. If you want to go anywhere in it, you’ll have to do a man’s jobs and not take gumption from any man who feels threatened by you. McGehee taught me not to apologize or make excuses for my success. Other girls certainly didn’t expect it.” She finishes her speech by waving to her granddaughter who is present in the crowd. She also states that she occasionally volunteers in various capacities with the school’s debate team, and may see any students who have an interest in joining.
Amelie also catches further gossip among her peers. “I hear she sent a little boy to Gruesome Gertie.” “Oh that isn’t true, the electric chair isn’t even legal anymore.” “I hear it was a while ago. Do you know when they outlawed it?” “Dunno. The ’90s?”
Amelie: The next guest is a bit more Amelie’s speed, a woman in a position of power who takes no shit and does her job with a passion she found in her youth. She’s touched, too, to find that the judge is a mother with a granddaughter among the crowd. But of course the rumors still flow, and the young canuck listens carefully. Gruesome Gertie, the infamous chair used to execute many a man in the South, only fell out of use in 1991. Amelie can’t remember the exact month, but it’s surely 1991. If Judge Underwood is an alumnus of the class of ’65, she had plenty of time to sentence someone to the chair before it was replaced by… whatever they use now. Her country abolished the death penalty a while ago. Extracurricular activities in general and the debate team in particular suddenly seem a lot more interesting.
GM: The last speaker is a white-haired, ancient-looking woman with stick-thin limbs who makes her way up to the speaker’s podium on a cane.
She introduces herself as Patricia Maurier, a graduate of the class of 1946. She works as the clerk of council for Orleans Parish and is responsible for overseeing local elections, managing city council meetings, reviewing legislation, maintaining the parish’s records, and a variety of other duties. She recalls back to her experiences as a yearbook editor and library assistant. It was all so long ago.
“I remember celebrating V-E day as a junior,” she recalls in a voice that’s dry and thin like a well-preserved book. “Everyone took to the streets like it was Mardi Gras. A few weeks later, they let out class early so we could welcome back the first ship of soldiers returning from Europe—New Orleans used to have an important naval base. Now those men, the ones who got to return home first and who didn’t have to re-deploy to the Pacific, were the ones who’d been wounded or earned the most combat points. Every girl wanted her classmates to believe she was welcoming home a war hero and sweetheart who she’d been writing letters to throughout the war. I was too grown-up to do a thing like that, of course,” she laughs self-depreciatingly. “They were all really our fathers and older brothers. And they always told us the real heroes were the ones who didn’t come back.”
“We’d listen to that soberly and remember it for all of five minutes, of course. Every girl wanted to marry a handsome war hero. Most of us, after we graduated, either went to Sophie-Newcomb College—that’s defunct now, it was merged with Tulane University after Katrina—or took out a simple job like secretary or sales clerk, and lived with our folks. We usually got married a couple years after high school, then concentrated on raising families. Everyone wanted to get married at that age. It was embarrassing if you got married too late.”
“I never did, though. I married my work. I started working for the clerk’s office as a secretary with a typewriter, and I’ve worked there for over sixty years. I’ve kept track of so many records. So many births and deaths. I don’t recognize most of your faces—except for my great-great-niece’s, hello there, Rachel—but if I heard your name, chances are I’d know something of your history if you were born in this city. Many of your families have lived here for generations. They’re like the great trees just outside. Faces change like leaves over the seasons as they pass from young to old. Generations grow and flower like branches. Your families are the roots—and they run strong and deep.”
“I remember Katrina and how so many people said the city was finished. Ten years later you can hardly tell it was once half-underwater. I remember the Depression, and the floating Hooverville people built on sad little rafts along the Mississippi. My mother and grandparents—my father wasn’t from New Orleans—told me stories about the influenza and yellow fever epidemics. They made everyone jealous of the colored folks for once—people believed blacks couldn’t get sick from yellow fever.”
“Our city has faced so much adversity, but our roots—your roots—have grown stronger after every storm they’ve weathered. Why, the canopy over some parts of this neighborhood is so thick you could swear it’d stop the rain.” Mrs. Maurier gives a dry chuckle before her wrinkle-lined expression grows sober.
“But times are changing. Things aren’t like they used to be. Girls like you are scattering every which direction across the country instead of staying where you grew up. We have so much history here… my great-grandmother, in the few years I remember her, would tell me stories about the Yankee occupation of the city. Yes, you heard that right, the Yankee occupation—I was half your age when she was as old as I am now. And she was about your age when she remembered one of the doughboys hitting her in the face with a closed fist, like you’d hit a man, because she emptied a chamber pot over his head from her window. Beast Butler, the occupying general, told his men they could treat the town’s ladies like they were prostitutes plying their trade, because of how hostile they were. I suppose we could almost take it as a compliment.” There’s another thin chuckle and wistful look.
“We have so much history in this city. But my generation, the so-called great generation, aren’t your grandparents anymore. We’re great-grandparents, and we’re dropping like flies. I’m going to retire in three years—twenty-five years past the date I started collecting social security. I fear for how much history will be lost after I’m gone. Part of me is sad, but I have to remind myself that your generation also has opportunities which mine never did—as my father once said, ‘You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore’.”
“Spread your wings and fly far, but remember where you come from. Always remember where you come from. Remember your families’ pasts, for their future lives on in you.”
Amelie: Amelie slowly uncrosses her legs as she sits up and listens intently to the current speaker. While history is certainly her passion, it’s not just Mrs. Maurier’s recollections that have her so interested. If anyone can help her track down the sword’s family line, it’s the city clerk who knows everything about the city’s roots and history.
After that realization passes, Amelie allows herself to be taken in by the aged woman’s words. She nods along and feel the pain that every historian feels at one time or another. Those who ignore the past are doomed to relive it. Her stories about being a young woman when WWII ended are interesting, but Amelie finds that the further back in time Mrs. Maurier goes, the higher her own interest climbs. Hearing about the ancestor who dumped chamber pots over the heads of Union occupiers makes her grin. She’s an outsider to the politics of the American Civil War, and it makes her chuckle at the actions of people who Northern histories paint as the villains.
When all is said and done, plans and questions are already forming the back of Amelie’s head as she watches the wizened old lady hobble back to her seat. As she sits back in her own, the young woman reflects on all the speakers and ticks boxes in her head. She’s sure that she needs to visit at least one of them about the history of French immigrants to NOLA.
GM: Applause sounds as Mrs. Maurier ambles off the podium. Acting President Susannah thanks each of the McGehee alumni for coming today to share their experiences, and reiterates the scool’s commitment to making all of its graduates as engaged, passionate, confident, and successful as the ones they’ve received today. Susannah welcomes several new faculty to the school, eliciting another round of applause from the students, and proudly announces that McGehee has had some of the highest GPAs and college acceptance rates in the country—rates that “everyone here, student and staff alike” hopes and expects to increase this year.
“Towards that end,” Susannah goes on to announce times and locations for the year’s first college and career fairs, as well as a long list of extracurricular activities that are directly offered at McGehee. Available ones include the usual math, science, and debate clubs, physical sports, band and choir, theater, and a number of miscellaneous clubs such as chess, breakfast club, finance, philosophy, local history, politics, newspaper, yearbook committee, and of course student government. Printed schedules will be distributed during first period. Susannah not only encourages students to sign up for as many extracurriculars as possible, but to independently pursue further activities that are not offered by the school. “I’m working on my grandfather’s Senate reelection campaign, for instance—”Ivy League schools just love that sort of thing, and want students who show they can go above and beyond.
Amelie: Amelie joins the applause of course, and listens carefully for the announcements afterwards. There’s a few clubs that sound interesting. She wonders what physical sports they offer, but resolves instead to seek a school counselor’s aid for making plans for the future. More than one or two clubs might limit her schedule, but if she chooses to go to tertiary school it’s something she knows she has to consider.
GM: Acting President Susannah eventually steps down, and Principal Strong delivers a few closing words with the three principals for the lower, middle and upper schools, the peer counselor advisor, and a few other faculty members. The assembly closes with a full contingent of cheerleaders, song leaders, and mascots (all but the cheerleaders are of varying age, with some as young as grade school) leading a cheer.
Amelie: Amelie smiles calmly throughout. The assembly has smoothed over most the doubts had about the education and the caliber of thinking at McGehee. As she listens to the headmistress’ and varied staff’s last words, she feels as thought it’s about time to stretch her legs before the glee club arrives. Memories of her last school’s cheer clique rears its ugly head as Amelie watches the pompom-waving girls file out and begin a routine she’s sure they practiced over the summer.
The tall girl slumps back in her chair and runs a hand down her face, feeling her earlier swell of confidence drain out her ear as school spirit is shoved back in. Without the typical public school atmosphere, it’s easy to miss the sports banners, but they’re there as soon as she focuses. McGehee Hawks. Travesty. She lays still in her chair and waits for it to be over so she can get to class.
Monday morning, 17 August 2015
GM: The bell rings and Amelie makes her way across the tree- and flower-lined campus to class. The other buildings resemble the “old Southern house”-like Bradish Johnson House, although the hallways are wood-hued linoleum instead of actual wood. Onrushing tides of students head this way and that. Once Amelie has picked up her things from her locker, first period begins with Business and Finance. The class size is very small and there are only nine students besides her. It almost feels more like the small group discussions her old teachers would sometimes have, rather than a proper class, especially when all of the girls already seem to know one another and the teacher skips the ‘introduce yourself to the class’ ritual that characterized some of her old school’s classes (to varying degrees of awkwardness). The girls all take notes on their individual but school-mandated laptops as the teacher lectures from a modern-looking smartboard.
He’s an older, pale-haired man who’s still relatively handsome for his age, and dressed in a light-hued seersucker suit and burgundy necktie. He introduces himself with a lazy southern drawl as Lawrence Thurston (all of the girls call him “sir”) and mentions that he’s a former investment banker at Whitney National Bank. Teaching is a part-time gig for him in his retirement, which he’s doing more for fun and to “keep the old mind sharp” as anything else. He seems to genuinely enjoy the prospect of teaching many of his former clients’ and associates’ daughters how to navigate the byzantine complexities of modern finance (he himself is the grandfather of another McGehee student who isn’t yet old enough to be taking his class). He seems to particularly favor a girl he addresses as “Miss Whitney,” and even mentions with a chuckle, “Your great-uncle used to cut my paychecks,” to which she smiles prettily in response.
Amelie: Nepotism is clear and real here in this school, it seems, but so long as Amelie keeps her mouth shut about it, she’s certain that she can duck any negative effects long enough to graduate. It’s not like she minds them all knowing each other, anyway. She has her laptop out along with the other students as class starts. It’s not the newest thing on the market, but it was when she bought it two years ago, and it’s served her without error ever since.
GM: The day’s lesson is more a course objective overview and summary of what Mr. Thurston intends to cover than an actual lesson, but its tone still feels almost conversational. Mr. Thurston frequently drifts off-topic to relate anecdotes from his work at the bank (much of which involved his students’ parents and other relatives), only to subsequently weave his meanderings back into the lecture like it’s some grand tale in which his students and their families are the main characters.
Just outside the window, meanwhile, it’s a already a witheringly hot August day. The sun shines brightly overhead from a cloudless azure sky, and Amelie can make out the grounds’ drooping azalea bushes and banana trees actually shimmering in the heat. The air-conditioned classroom itself is quite cool, and many of the girls are wearing their identical dark blazers just to stay warm. That odd duality of hot and cold, together with the still-early morning hour and mirage-like (not to mention foreign) scene outside the window make it so easy for the cold-accustomed Canadian to feel drowsy. Especially with the old man’s mellow Southern cadence as a sleep aid…
“…times were tough then, my granddaddy always said. People were down on their luck and desperate. Robbing a bank was much, much easier in the ’30s than it is today. No cameras, no criminal databases, no ready means of tracing stolen bills. Why, if you could manage to duck the bulls—that meant police—and split town, you could start over with a satchel of money and brand new life in the next state…”
“…like your mother did, I suppose, Amelie. She never did love you.”
Amelie: Amelie takes quiet notes from the start of class, keeping her back straight and her notes in bullet points for now. She jots down the outline of the semester’s topics as well as other interesting bits like ‘Miss Whitney’ having an old family connection to the teacher. Even with the AC going, Amelie keeps her blazer off, unphased by the cold like many of her classmates are. But the outside view somehow feels like she’s on vacation in some tropical dreamscape. Just the existence of trees besides those found in a ‘normal’ forest line draws her attention every so often. But she’s too serious a student to allow it to bother her.
When the sudden curveball hits her in the jaw, her first reaction is a flash of annoyance at the mention of her mother. But she pushes it down as she always does, maintaining a polite smile at the teacher as she wonders if she heard him right. She glances at the students to see if they’re looking at her, if she hasn’t gone insane. Maybe a daydream got the best of her with how drowsy it is. She pinches the space in between the knuckles on her pinky finger to help wake herself up. But she keeps her mouth tightly shut and listens all the same, her heart throbbing slightly in her chest.
She’s sure she didn’t fall asleep, but… maybe she did.
GM: “…it was ironic. My granddaddy made it through the Great War without near so much as a booboo, but that fool bank robber put him in a wheelchair. All those robberies sure blew up a storm, though, and were one of the main reasons the Bureau of Investigation was reorganized into the FBI.”
Mr. Thurston glances up at the clock.“All right, girls, we don’t have too many minutes left. Y’all can use that time to sign up for extracurriculars. Miss Savard, if you’ll be a dear and pass along those sheets…”
The other students are looking at Amelie as Mr. Thurston hands her the sign-up sheets, though their gazes don’t otherwise seem to be regarding her as insane.
Amelie: Amelie lets off a small sigh at herself, wondering if it’s the pressure of being in this school or the hell of a summer she’s had coming up to this point. She stands and gives Mr. Thurston a quick and polite, “Yes, sir,” and hands out the pages when asked, keeping the final copy for herself as she sits back down. She resolves to ask the teacher if he knows about the Roberts family after the bell rings instead of using class time. That’ll settle it in her head, she hopes.
GM: Amelie doesn’t find it necessary to stand as the teacher hands her the sheets. She merely needs to take one for herself and pass the remainder to her nearest peer, a black-haired girl whose name she picks up as “Miss St. John” and who probably speaks the most during the class after Miss Whitney. Once the bell rings, Amelie finds that both girls briefly stick around after class to share a few friendly words with their teacher. Once they’re gone he finds time for Amelie, though it’s not a lot, especially as other students from next class begin to file into the room.
“Roberts? There’s a Christina Roberts I’ve met at a few socials. Probably a few others. It’s a common enough name. What has you asking, my dear?”
Amelie: Amelie smiles at the man and breathes an internal sigh of relief. “I must be fighting traveler’s sickness from the sudden change of climate. I could have sworn I heard you mention a member of my family. That’s all. My mother was from New Orleans, and Roberts is her maiden name.”
GM: “Maybe you were daydreaming, dear. You are listening to an old man drone on about finance and even older family stories during first period,” Mr. Thurston chuckles. “Get a full night’s sleep if you aren’t already doing that. It’s the best thing you can do for yourself, in school or real life.”
Amelie: “Seven hours a night, every night, sir. Thank you. I should hurry to next class, but thanks for taking the time for me.”
GM: “Old buildings can play tricks on hot days, Miss Savard,” Mr. Thurston smiles as he waves her off.
Amelie: If that’s the case, Amelie cannot wait for fall to finally hit. With a little nod and another thank you, she slips out of the class and strides to the next.
GM: Amelie’s next class is History of the Late Middle Ages. It’s in the same building as her last class and equally small, with only ten or so students. The teacher, Mr. Bill French, is a trim-looking man with balding gray hair and a salt-streaked goatee who also serves as the golf instructor.
Amelie: Amelie remarks to herself once again about how different it is to have such a small class. Though another thing that doesn’t escape her notice is another teacher being male, along with the last—Amelie stops in her mental tracks as the teacher mentions… golf coach? The stony look she’s had on her face the whole day breaks for a moment as the sides of her mouth curl up, a small stifled smile on her face as she barely keeps down a laugh at the idea of a girls’ school golf team.
GM: Amelie draws a few glances from her peers, but Mr. French either doesn’t notice or merely chooses not to acknowledge as he goes on, “The Late Middle Ages were a pivotal time period that witnessed Europe’s transition from feudalism to centralized nation-states,” he lectures, and informs the class that, among other topics, they will cover the Black Death, Hundred Years’ War, Great Schism, War of Roses, Ottoman conquests in Europe, flowering of the Italian Renaissance, and discovery of the New World. Students will choose one of those topics to write fairly long-sounding term papers on, “As this is a college-level course aimed to prepare you for doing college-level work.” As there are fewer topics than students, even in a class as small as the ones at McGehee, the remaining students will write their papers on how the period’s changes impacted one of the following modern nations: Britain, France, Spain, Germany, or Italy.
“Broadly, the Middle Ages can be defined as the period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the fall of the Byzantine Empire…” the teacher starts, then goes on to give a brief synopsis of the major historic events that occurred between Rome’s fall and 1200 AD. “Far from the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ commonly stereotyped, 13th century Europe had reached heights of civilization that rivaled if not surpassed many of ancient Rome’s achievements. Europe’s population was over 30 million higher during the 13th century than the 1st, but roughly 1 in 3 people will be dead by 1400.”
After reiterating the many societal changes that both caused and were caused by by this calamitous population drop and its related events, he informs the class that “Those of you wishing to more fully explore the consequences of Europe’s socio-political transformation can do so in Mrs. Bradford’s Early Modern History class next semester. Those of you taking History of New Orleans next semester with Ms. Perry will also find our class a useful frame of reference, as she likes to pick up at the Age of Exploration. Columbus’ search for new trade routes to India was prompted by the fall of Constantinople, so it’s possible that without the Turks, none of us would be be here today.” Mr. French smiles. “History is a great wind and we are but motes swept along its path.”
With those final words, he calls on the girls to list what topics they would like to research before the bell rings.
Amelie: Amelie calms down a few moments after the golf coach mention and takes a seat, starting her notes for the class on her laptop and wondering which of these subjects she should choose. More than one sound appealing to her, though of course her smith’s mind flashes through the rise of Gothic plate armor, masterwork weapons, the invention of the blast furnace, the Hundred Years’ War, and of course the Ottoman conquests’ sharing of military ideals. She nods when she hears about the-tie in with the Local History class and makes a special note of this, a bit of excitement building in her chest. Between this class and the one next period for New Orleans history, she’s already bouncing in her seat in anticipation.
When the call goes out, she of course raises her hand to say her two cents, wanting to touch on ‘the rise of artisan-ship during the rise in technology, especially in western Europe and especially pertaining to metallurgy’ as well as ‘how gunpowder changed Europe’ and of course ‘the life and death of Jeanne d’Arc, the Maid of Orleans’.
GM: “Does that mean you want to choose the Hundred Years’ War for your paper, Miss Savard?” Mr. French asks.
Amelie: Amelie rues a bit that she has to make a choice right now, but nods. “I’ll gladly take it, yes.”
GM: The bell soon rings again. Amelie makes her way down the halls to her next class. Third period is with Ms. Anna May Perry, a slender black-haired woman in her late 20s with half-rimmed rectangular glasses. She wears a floral-printed skirt and darker blouse.
After greeting the perhaps ten-girl class with, “How y’all doing today?” she has the students “break the ice, not that it’s very thick with so few of us” by sharing facts about themselves. Some of Ms. Perry’s include that she was born in Lafayette, earned her master’s in Miami, likes cats, has a skull tattoo on her lower back, and got engaged to her boyfriend two weeks ago. The class offers various iterations of “why, congratulations, ma’am,” which she thanks them for.
Amelie: Amelie notices again how small her class is when she enters and sees just a few others. It’s something that’s going to take some getting used to, but it’s very encouraging that the pamphlet was not fibbing about class sizes. Another surprise quickly surfaces as she takes her seat: the first ice-breaking exercise of the day, something that’s been a staple of pubic education to pad a first day for her many years as a student. When it’s her turn, she remarks that she’s Canadian Quebecois, has only been in New Orleans for the lesser part of a week, is an advanced fencer in the schools of French saber and German messer, been a ‘historical artisan’ making weapons, armor, and jewelry since she was a young girl until last year, and that this is her first experience with private education.
GM: Amelie’s introduction draws pleasant smiles. Her mention of this being her first foray outside of the public school system draws ones that are particularly wide… if not pitying. Once everyone “feels ready to get down to business,” Ms. Perry starts with a brief overview of the time periods the class is going to study. They will cover the colonial period under French and Spanish rule, the Antebellum years before the War Between the States, the Postbellum years after the war, the comparatively calmer 20th century, and “recent history, which really begins with Hurricane Katrina.” Today, however, they will cover a truncated history of the Caribbean and continental Europe during the Age of Exploration. New Orleans’ history is a product of the centuries-old and conflict-fraught relationships between France, Spain, and England, and “That all begins, good or ill, with the 1469 union of the Catholic Monarchs in Iberia.”
Iberia was not yet modern Spain, and Aragon and Castile retained distinct laws and languages despite their sovereigns’ marriages. But they were united in their desire for gold and silver from the New World—as much of it as possible. Columbus’ search for new trade routes to India, spurred by the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks and followed by the Spanish conquest of the Americas, brought an enormous influx of wealth that tripled Europe’s monetary. At least a third of this silver went to China to purchase silks and spices, from whence it would never return. Havana became the chief embarkation point for these precious metals on their way back to Europe. The fleets of transportation ships could take months to assemble, and bored sailors required entertainment, leading Havana to become a city known for its rollicking good times (a reputation it would carry well into the 20th century).
Times were good in Europe, too, at least for Spain. Thanks to generations of inbreeding, Carlos I (better-known as Charles V) ruled the largest empire in Europe since Charlemagne. He inherited Castile, Aragon, and the Sicilies from his Spanish grandparents; the Low Countries from Mary of Burgundy; and the Holy Roman Empire after bribing the electors not to vote for other contenders (who included the French Valois king Francois I and even England’s Henry VIII). Among other things, this dizzying array of kingships gave Charles one of the most complex coats of arms possessed by any monarch in history. Charles was king during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, but Spain’s activities in the Americas were always of lesser importance to him than his driving goal in the Old World: uniting all of Christian Europe under one banner.
It was Charles’ misfortune to be born several centuries too late, however, for Martin Luther’s Reformation (among other factors) broke the Catholic Church’s hegemony and bitterly divided Europe over the subject of religion. Charles ordered Protestants throughout his kingdoms burned at the stake, establishing the precedent that a person’s religion in Europe would largely be determined by where they lived. He also forbade the importation of Muslim slaves to the New World, and further banned all Protestants and Jews from making the trans-Atlantic voyage: this would result in Latin America remaining strongly Catholic even into the 21st century.
Charles was succeeded by Philip II, who by 1556 ruled over a politically united Iberia that now included Portugal. During this peak of Spanish imperial power, no other country could seriously challenge their empire in the New World. Spain’s greatest rival, France, was consumed with religious civil strife. France executed over 15,000 Protestants during its bloody Wars of Religion: the better-known Spanish inquisition, in comparison, killed a mere 5,000 people. French pirates and privateers plundered Spanish colonial ports and treasure ships, but they could not directly challenge Spain until the Edict of Nantes in 1598. This made Catholicism the state religion while also granting guarantees to over a million Huguenots (French Protestants). France could now turn their energies outwards, and Philip II died only a year later.
Philip II’s son Philip III inherited a kingdom in troubled straights. Spanish culture was flourishing across Europe (Don Quixote was published during this time), but its century-long imperial movement was at an end. Despite a vast income from the New World, Spain had been reduced to minting copper coinage and was nearly bankrupt from its wars in Europe—Charles V’s huge empire had united many enemies against him. Spain consequently made no attempt to develop its American colonies: its interest lay purely in extraction. The world today might look very different indeed if Spain had followed the examples set by France and England. Instead, Spanish colonists in the Caribbean were kept under an extraordinarily tight leash. They were not allowed to engage in commerce with other colonies and could only buy supplies from royally authorized Spanish vendors, which put them at the mercy of monopoly pricing and predatory lending.
The colonists would have starved if they had followed their mother country’s heavy-handed edicts, so they unsurprisingly turned to piracy, smuggling, and barter-based commerce. When royal authorities discovered Bibles—Lutheran Bibles—in Santo Domingo, they were aghast. Protestants were not allowed in the New World. Madrid responded with a spectacularly ill-advised order in 1605 to forcibly relocate the island’s entire population to the central town. Over 100 colonists who objected to their homes and farms being burned were hanged in punishment. The entire island of Hispaniola (the second-largest island in the Caribbean after Cuba), except for its administrative center of Santa Domingo, was left depopulated and abandoned. The results were unsurprising, and ultimately made the founding of New Orleans possible.
The pirates moved in.
Spanish authorities simply did not have the means to let the island sit empty and keep pirates off of it the same time. The western third of Hispaniola soon became effectively independent. Society was free to the point of anarchy. The empty territory became populated by wild cattle, dogs, and men called boucaniers (or buccaneers, from boucan, the brazier in which they cooked their food). This almost entirely male society lived and worked in pairs, with the custom of inheritance upon death for the surviving partner. The boucaniers endured lives of great hardship but total freedom, and were spiritual cousins to the French Canadian coureurs de bois and voyageurs, the later South American gauchos, the Mexican vaqueros, and—last to emerge—the cowboys of the Wild West. The New World thus afforded to some a degree of freedom unknown in the Old, and complete slavery to others.
Off the north coast of the western territory of La Espanola, the small island of Tortuga (popularized by a certain pirate film franchise) became a haven for another kingless society: the freebooters, or filibusters (flibustiers in French, from the Dutch flittboten, or flyboats). The emergence of nation-states saw piracy used practically as a military arm of the state, especially with the advent of privateers, who were pirates bearing letters of marque that allowed them to prey on merchant ships of enemy nations. Spanish ships, groaning under the weight of so much silver, were their richest prizes. Although piracy existed in the Caribbean before Spain’s ill-advised decision to abandon Hispaniola, and would have existed regardless of it, granting the boucaniers their own island base from which to launch attacks certainly helped the practice to flourish. The boucaniers also served a valuable role for France as vanguard colonists. Over time, they transitioned from piracy and cattle killing to agriculture. Their first crop was tobacco. Tobacco’s profits would prove far more enduring than gold (not to mention less susceptible to piracy), for plantations would continue to be profitable economic enterprises well into the 19th century.
Meanwhile in Europe, Spain was exhausted from war and signed the Twelve Years Truce with its rebellious vassals in the Netherlands. Spain would never regain them, nor its sense of empire. The newly-independent Dutch would go on to became a major economic power in the 17th century: they were the most urbanized and tolerant people in Europe, and did not burn witches during the mania of persecutions sweeping the continent at the time (witch-burnings were not actually widespread during the Middle Ages, Ms. Perry also points out). Only a few decades later, the Thirty Years War tore apart the Holy Roman Empire, crippled the power of the Catholic Church by separating politics and religion (Europe was sick of religious wars), and humbled Spain’s military power with the defeat of the formerly invincible tercio (Spanish infantry formation). Europe’s stage was set for a new era of French dominance under their greatest king: Louis XIV, for whom Louisiana would be named.
Louis won many wars, broke the power of the feudal nobility, and remade France into a highly centralized state where he enjoyed near-absolute power. Yet despite these accomplishments, the Sun King showed consistently poor judgment where Louisiana was concerned. “I am convinced that Sieur de La Salle’s discovery is quite useless,” were his words when told of his new territory at the mouth of the Mississippi. In 1685 he revoked his grandfather’s Edict of Nantes, removing civil guarantees for Protestants. France had enjoyed religious peace for 87 years, and it was late in the day for an act of intolerance of this magnitude. The Thirty Years War was long over. Nevertheless, Huguenots saw their property forcibly confiscated, and many more of these French Protestants were brutally tortured and executed. At least 200,000 chose to flee France. Their ranks included many of the country’s most productive and industrious people: artisans, craftsmen, and other professionals, some of whom were quite wealthy (“that Protestant work ethic,” Ms. Perry chides). Many smuggled out their gold and silver with them, further weakening France’s economy. They took that money and their considerable expertise, which would help fuel the Industrial Revolution, to France’s rivals: England and the Netherlands.
The Dutch golden age was already over. But an age of English world power was looming. France, at the time, had much greater wealth than England and a population more than three times as large (some 20 million). But England had a greater navy (partly thanks to its copper-bottomed ships, which were safe from barnacles—a significant advantage) and a more modern political and economic structure than France. England established a central bank in 1694 and had an essential weapon for managing the expense of war which France did not: paper money. This eliminated the need to physically transport heavy chests of coins, a practice far too slow for the needs of modern commerce. Louis never understood this, for Versailles was an inland capital and remote from the forces remaking Europe’s economy. Where Britain taxed consumer goods being brought in through trade, and which brought in predictable revenues from diverse sources, France’s taxation system lagged behind in the Middle Ages: the king squeezed his nobles for money, and his nobles squeezed the commoners below them. England’s religious tolerance created a much wider talent pool for business and industry than France, who had just expelled their most productive workers. The British had a bank and a system of credit: the French did not.
It would take time for economic realities to catch up with political ones. The War of the Grand Alliance, Europe’s latest conflict, ended largely inconclusively in 1697. But as part of its outcome, Carlos II (Spain’s last Habsburg king, mentally feeble from generations of inbreeding), conceded Saint-Domingue (the western third of Hispaniola) to France—making official a fact that had long since been established by the boucaniers. Now that France was no longer at war, more plantations sprang up on the colony, which was well on its way to creating phenomenal wealth. France’s economy had been depleted by Louis XIV’s many wars. It was time for them to make their move in the southern region of North America, where they hoped to duplicate Spain’s success at finding precious metal and establish a new empire. Surely in the vast, unexplored territory of Louisiana, there must be gold and silver!
“We will pick up with the results of that search and the direct settlement of Louisiana tomorrow,” Ms. Perry states, glancing up at the clock.
Amelie: Amelie takes voracious notes throughout the lesson with a content smile on her face. It’s a fun class, though she doesn’t share the titters and group chuckles of her peers. Instead, her mind’s eye gets away from her as she touch-types out the best bits of information she can gleam from the lecture. Right up until it ends, like all good things.
GM: “We’ll also spend the rest of this class in America, or at least most of it,” the teacher continues. “But that doesn’t make European history any less relevant to New Orleans. Let’s trace it along. First, who can tell me the main consequence of the Protestant Reformation?”
“It weakened the Catholic Church and started religious wars throughout Europe,” answers the first girl who’s called on.
“That’s right. Spain took the side of the Catholics and tried to keep Protestants out of the New World. What happened because of that?”
“Spain overreacted, made all the colonists move, and left Hispaniola open to the pirates.”
“Right again. And what’d that lead to?”
“The pirates basically took over the island for France.”
Another girl asks, “What does that have to do with New Orleans, though?”
“That’s a bit of a longer answer,” Ms. Perry replies. “But in short, Saint-Domingue and the buccaneers established French power in the region—New Orleans wasn’t a very livable place in its early years. We have to keep in mind the first American colonies were over 200 years older than New Orleans, and the early city would conduct a lot of its commerce with them. Many Haitians would also flee to New Orleans after the revolution. But we’ll get to all of that later. Who can tell me what consequence the Reformation had for Louis XIV? Yes, Ms. Devillers?”
“’E drove out the Huguenots and weakened the French economy,” answers an actually French-accented girl with clear blue eyes, pale skin, and similarly pale blonde hair.
A thin smile touches her lips. “Louis was a strong king, but mah mother says ‘is success went to ’is head. She says men like that always do ’the most foolish things, once they’ve ‘ad time for their ’eads to swell.’”
“Don’t they ever,” Ms. Perry smiles in response, to amused titters from the rest of the class. “Louis’ ego, if we want to delve that deeply into historical causes, made a mistake that weakened the French economy. That left the Duc d’Orleans, the regent for France’s next king, open to a sweet-talking Scottish gambler who promised an easy answer to France’s financial woes: Louisiana. But we’ll get to that scoundrel,” and there the class titters again when Ms. Perry emphasizes the name with an eye-rolling smile, as if the figure in question were a ne’er-do-well who’d plied his charms on her personally, “tomorrow.”
Amelie: Amelie stays out of the ‘question and answer’ period for the most part. She raises her hand for the question pertaining to a favorite subject of hers, Louis the Sun King, only for someone interesting to get called on first. Her accent is unmistakable, and as Amelie turns to regard her, it’s possible in her mind that the pale girl is a fellow Quebecois. Though it’s impossible to tell unless she gets her speaking French.
GM: “In the meantime,” Ms. Perry continues, “we still have a bit of class left. That will go to your research projects. We live in a city that’s filled with history, including right here in the Garden District. So we have no excuse not to go out and see it. We obviously don’t have time for field trips with an hour-long class period, so y’all will do those yourselves after school—but cheer up, your research projects will also substitute for all but one of your exams.”
“We have two options for research projects, which I’m going to put up for vote: colonial buildings and ghost stories.” Ms. Perry smirks when the class visibly perks up at the second option. “Now you just hold your horses, you haven’t even heard what they are!”
“Colonial buildings will entail you visiting and doing a research project on one building of your choosing that existed between the city’s founding and the coming of the Yanks,” a comment which draws more titters from the class, “in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase. It doesn’t have to still be standing, but you have to be able to at least visit the site where it used to stand. Your building also doesn’t have to be in the Quarter, although that is where most of our city’s oldest buildings are.”
“For ghost stories, you’ll research the life and times of a famous local figure who folktales or urban legends have associated with ghosts—and believe me, we have plenty of those. For instance, you could research Jean Lafitte, whose bar and blacksmith shop is reportedly haunted. You can also research a ghost story that isn’t about a famous figure, so long as you can still connect it to a meaningful piece of history—like a ghost story that’s about yellow fever victims. You also have to include a physical place that you’ve visited in your presentation.”
“So that said,” Ms. Perry smiles as she looks around the class, “what’s it gonna be: colonial buildings or ghost stories?”
Amelie: The class’ interest seems quite a bit more piqued at ghost stories, but either one sounds interesting to Amelie. She’ll get into a building of historical importance either way. She decides to see where the vote leans, confident that any show of hands will be for the second of the two choices, and raises her hand for it when it comes to that.
GM: Amelie finds there to be no show of hands. The class is small enough for the girls to simply all start talking. “Oh, let’s do ghost stories!” “But every class probably does that.” “For a reason, of course!” “The colonial buildings have interesting histories too.” “Not as interesting as the people who lived in them.”
Ms. Perry patiently listens as the class talks things out. The consensus seems to be leaning towards ghost stories, but a strong enough voice may yet tip the balance towards historic buildings.
Amelie: It’s fun to think about both, but it’s a long shot from what the young woman is used to. She wonders about it as the others talk, then turns to the teacher with a question.
“Mrs. Perry, is this an individual report, or would you allow groups or pairings? If we chose ghosts, it may be fun and practical to spend a night in a haunted location as part of the research, though I doubt many of us have the courage to do that alone.”
GM: “Ms. Perry, Ms. Savard. I’m engaged but I haven’t tied the knot just yet,” the black-haired teacher laughs off. “That’s a very interesting idea, for those brave enough to take it up.”
Indeed, despite Amelie’s earlier reception among her peers, the idea gets a few intrigued looks.
“And you’re way ahead of me. The projects will be done in pairs.”
Amelie: Amelie smiles thinly and gives Ms. Perry a light apologetic nod. “I put my bid in for ghosts, then. It may be a bit gauche, but this could be a chance to see a different side of New Orleans, and we get to make an event of it. Maybe even a terrifying one, depending on the locale. I have my eyes set on the LaLaurie Mansion for instance.”
GM: That draws another laugh from Ms. Perry. “Oh, you’d be pretty brave to spend the night there. They say it’s brought ruin to every inhabitant. In fact, does anyone here know who owns it? Last I heard it was a famous Hollywood actor.”
“’E sold it,” answers the pale blonde. “It’s on the market, Ah think.”
Consensus from the rest of the class concurs. In fact, as a search on their phones reveals, the actor in question sold the house to pay off some of his debts. One girl adds that he died from alcohol poisoning not long thereafter.
“Sounds as if the curse is alive and well,” Ms. Perry suggests, arching an eyebrow.
Meanwhile, the class seems sold, and expresses as much. Ms. Perry gives a satisfied nod. “All right, ghost stories it is! Though fair warning, you might not be able to spend the night at all haunts. The LaLaurie House for instance is privately owned.” The teacher gives another smile over her half-rimmed glasses. “Luckily, that should also give any chickens a valid excuse to stay out.”
Amelie: Amelie smiles a bit wider, a plan already forming in her head forming about this project. If there is a curse, best to talk with a priest. Or maybe a Vodouisant, considering the race of the potential tormented souls. The news of a recent death only cements the twinkle of interest in her eye about the house. Only owners have been cursed, it sounds like.
While the class agrees, Amelie turns to the pale blonde. “Vous semblez connaître un peu cette maison. Souhaitez-vous être mon partenaire pour cela?” Speaking French again feels good, really good, as she lets her fluency roll off the tongue.
(“You seem to know a bit about this house. Would you like to be my partner for this?”)
GM: The pale blonde looks confused by Amelie’s words. “Ah’m sorry, what was that?”
Amelie: Amelie looks a bit confused as well for a moment, and switches back to accent-less English. “Oh, I’m sorry! Your accent, I assumed you were French.”
GM: “Oh. Merci. Mah brain’s scattered,” the girl answers. “Ah am French. Ah just don’t usually ’ear the language outside mah family.”
Amelie: Amelie takes a moment to size up the girl before a small smile breaks out on her face. “That’s perfectly fine. I had a similar issue growing up,” she says, trying to put her at ease. “Which are you more comfortable with, so I can speak that around you?”
GM: “Either’s fine. It was just a surprise,” the blonde answers. “Ah’m Yvette, if you didn’t listen to those stupid introductions.”
Amelie: “Amelie. Very nice to meet you. I’ll try not to surprise you too much from now on.” It’s the first real conversation she’s had at this school, of course it needs to be slightly embarrassing. “I was asking if you’d like to be my partner for this paper. You seemed to know a lot about the LaLaurie House.”
GM: Yvette glances across the room. By now all of the other eight girls have since paired up. They do not seem to have taken overly long to decide about partners and are chatting about topics instead, in between glances at the sheets Ms. Perry has handed out.
“Ah don’t think we really ’ave a choice anymore,” she observes. “But Ah’ve ’eard and seen a few things. Mah sister Cécilia lives in the Quarter and pointed it out to me on a walk.”
Amelie: The room had an even number of people, so Amelie knew beforehand there was little chance she’d get to do this on her own. But at least she and her new partner have something in common besides the fact they’re almost forced to work together.
“Well, before we get too focused on it, do you have anywhere else you’d want to do the report on? I fully intend to stay a night where we choose, and I’d hate to expose you to a curse,” she jokes.
GM: “Oh, well, we might ‘ave trouble as Ms. Perry says. Ah wouldn’t want to let a stranger sleep in mah ’ouse if it were me, no?” Yvette smiles faintly. “It maht spread the curse around.”
Amelie: “It’s currently on the market. We have to talk to the bank I believe? I’m not really sure how it’d work here,” she admits. “As for the curse, for dramatic effect, we could ask a priest—or a Vodouisant, since the ghosts were black servants—to come with us. I more meant, if you want to chose another location, I’m happy to hear it.”
GM: “Non, the LaLaurie ’Ouse is fine,” Yvette replies. “Ah don’t think anyone will take it now, after you said you were interested. And it’s not like Ah really believe in curses.”
Amelie: Amelie smiles, though she keeps her own thoughts on curses to herself. “The way I see it, if we ask a priest or Vodouisant to accompany us to ‘protect us’, we’ll get plenty of material from them. While also getting our own experiences there for the report.”
GM: “That’s fair. St. Louis Cathedral is pretty close by. And there are tons more churches if any priest is too busy.”
Amelie: Amelie ticks a box in her head when Yvette doesn’t mention the suggestion of asking a mambo, but continues on, asking what days of the week Yvette is available to study after school. Talking about it only gets them so far after all, hitting the books is how they’re going to get this done.
GM: “And the ’ouse,” Yvette adds with a faint smile. She is currently busy after school for most of the afternoon today, but can meet with Amelie tomorrow an hour after school ends. She provides a few further dates in the imminent future before the bell rings, signaling the start of lunch break. Yvette gathers up her laptop with the other girls and remarks, “It was nice to ’ave met another French speaker.”
Amelie: Amelie nods, mirroring the faint smile back at her new partner before they start organizing the days they can meet to work together on the project. She’s even more glad for the remark. “Same. Bonne journée, Yvette.”
GM: Yvette and most of the students file off into the hallways, though a few remain behind to talk with the teacher, lunch break eliminating the need to quickly get to next class.
Amelie: It’s lunchtime, but Amelie is one of the students who stay behind to speak with their teacher. She plans to ask if they’ll be touching on a favorite figure of hers. Jose ‘Pepe’ Llulla.
GM: Ms. Perry becomes available several minutes later as the other girls head off to lunch. “We’ll be touching on him as part of the dueling culture that was an important part of the city’s larger Creole culture,” she nods. “He was the city’s greatest duelist, after all! You can choose him for your next research project if he’s a figure who grabs your interest.”
Amelie: Amelie gives the teacher a nod. As a fencer, Jose Llulla grabs her interest immensely.
“I’d like that. He was quite the man from what I’ve read. It was written once that three Haitians tried to assassinate him in front of his home. His presence terrified them so much they couldn’t draw their pistols before he’d already killed one with his sword.”
Not wanting to take up any more of the teacher’s time, she thanks Ms. Perry for the affirmation and excuses herself to lunch.
GM: “Yes, there are a lot of stories about him. They say he had a whole cemetery for the losers of his duels, but that he was also unusually merciful for how many of them he spared. They say he was as skilled a shot as he was a duelist, and could blow silver dollars right off his son’s head, with the little boy never once fearing for his safety.” Ms. Perry smiles as Amelie heads off. “Maybe we’ll even hear a few more tall and not-so-tall tales from you.”
Amelie: Amelie feels excitement welling as she talks about the historic duelist. It’s all she can do to hold back from grinning like an idiot and going on and on. “We’ll see! Thank you Ms. Perry, I really look forward to your next class!”
After heading out the door, it’s a quick backtrack through the campus to the cafeteria. Amelie remembers visiting the place during her tour the other day, but worries still flare up about what kind of atmosphere the place has while other students occupy it. She resolves to keep the lunch quick while she browses for the owning bank of the Lalaurie House.
GM: A quick search on her phone as she heads to the cafeteria turns up Whitney National Bank together with the LaLaurie House.
Amelie: Amelie is in no rush as she makes her way over the grounds, but mentally jots down the connection between Whitney National Bank and the speaker at the assembly this morning. ‘Mr. Whitney, your great-grandfather wrote my checks’ or something like that. It’s a good place to start, at least, and the list of who Ms. Whitney is shouldn’t be too difficult with the tiny size of the school compared to her previous public schooling.
GM: Amelie soon arrives at her destination. The school’s cafeteria, Cafe Louise, is a large and well-lit space filled with the sounds of chattering girls and the aroma of surprisingly rich-smelling food. A poster board with pictures of the staff welcomes students to the space.
Another posted overhead menu reads, Potato Sausage Soup; Cajun Caviar; Jumbo Scallop Salad; Fried Creole Marinated Calamari; California Chef’s Salad; Coconut Beer Shrimp; Gumbo Ya Ya. Amelie overhears one girl waiting in line remark, “I read that the menu is longer at Sidewell Friends, the school where presidents all send their kids.” “Thanks, Afumba,” snickers another girl. There are no cashiers, as tuition covers lunches, leaving the students free to simply walk up and ask the lunch ladies for whatever looks tasty. Students who want cold drinks or iced coffee rather than water, lemonade, milk, or iced tea still have to buy it from a vending machine.
While there are the usual rows of occupied tables one expects to find in a cafeteria, many girls eat outside on benches, the grass, or the particularly scenic (and seemingly coveted) tables around the Bradish Johnson House. Most of these students strip off their blazers in the sweltering heat, which is a pleasant change in temperature (at least in brief doses) from the air-conditioned classrooms. Shaded areas under the oaks and banana trees offer a slightly cooler in-between. A few girls walk off in the direction of their cars, presumably to buy lunch off-campus. Students who bring their own cold lunches (or at least find some creative way to eat the cafeteria food without absconding the trays) would seem free to eat anywhere, though they are likely a minority given the free and aromatic-smelling meals.
It also becomes apparent to Amelie that almost all of the girls, whether they are inside or outside the cafeteria, are divided into avidly chattering cliques. The Canadian transplant is free to find peers to socialize with (or at least try to), or to simply pick a secluded spot on the grass by herself.
Amelie: Once it’s Amelie’s turn, she politely asks for the calamari from the lunch ladies, and heads off to sit at a free table with girls who look around her age, not bothering to wonder what clique they are. She sets her bag between her legs, gets a notebook out, and writes down a list of things she needs to start on so far today. Start planning report on Hundred Years’ War, find Ms. Whitney, approach her about LaLaurie House. Amelie underlines the next item very thickly. Think of way to convince her to help. It isn’t enough to just ask, after all.
With that done, she finally starts on her food and turns to observe who she’s sitting with.
GM: Amelie has barely had a chance to sit down, much less write out a to-do list, before her neighbors react to her sudden presence. Like every other student at McGehee, the four girls are dressed in the same plaid skirt, white shirt, and black blazer as she is.
“Oh, I’m sorry—one of our friends was going to sit there,” remarks a blonde-haired girl.
“We’d use a ‘reserved’ placard if there was one, but seems the cafeteria’s fresh out,” laughs a brunette.
“Yes, it’d be a lot more convenient if we could make those things obvious,” comments the first black girl Amelie can recall seeing in the school.
“You wouldn’t think we were being rude if we asked whether you could find another seat, would you?” asks another brunette.
Amelie: Amelie sighs internally and thinks fast as the group of girls make their thinly-veiled attempts at politesse. This seems as though it could be a good chance, at least. She keeps her usual stony face as the last brunette speaks, then offers a light smile to the group.
“If that’s the case, I’ll go, though I wonder if you could do a new face a favor in pointing me to someone first. The girl pointed out during the assembly? Ms. Whitney?”
GM: “Miss Whitney? You mean Sarah Whitney?” asks the blonde.
“There’s only so many Whitneys,” the first brunette laughs lightly.
The black girl rattles off a room number for Amelie. “You should be able to find her there.”
“Yes, that’s where she has sixth period. So she’ll probably still be there for a little bit once school’s out, if you’re fast,” nods the first brunette.
Amelie: Amelie gives a wider smile at the news and slowly stands. “That’s really helpful, thank you. Sorry for the disturbance. I hope we can become friends over this year.” She excuses herself and makes a note of the room number, then decides to head outside. She sits down under the shade of one of the oak trees to dig into her meal.
Mulling it over in the grass, though, it feels like the girls at the table were lying to her. Not that it matters, there is still Yvette to help introduce her. She doesn’t quite shrug it off, but keeps a mental list of their faces and saves it for later.
GM: The flash-fried suckered calamari tentacles are slightly chewy, as all such fish is, and the marinated Creole sauce brings the flavor. Amelie isn’t sure what the sauce is… it looks like orange gravy, and has a buttery, milky taste, with a zesty tang from what might be pepper, paprika, and white vinegar. The calamari tentacles lie over a bed of steamed brown rice that nicely soaks up the runny sauce. There’s a side of thicker tomato sauce with basil and parmesan to pour over the rice for a heartier contrast. A tinier cup of olives provides a saltier, lighter contrast to both savory sauces.
It’s a lot better than most school cafeteria food.
Yet Amelie cannot help but notice that she seems to be the only person sitting by herself. The students not sitting in cliques sit in twos and threes. They chatter away between bites of food, and laugh or exclaim at this or that. Amelie even spots a trio putting their arms around one another while the girl with the longest arms snaps a group selfie with her pink-colored phone. The smiling three exclaim something to the effect of, “BFFs!”
Amelie sits and eats alone.
Amelie: Canada has a ‘wealth of cultures’ in its pocket, meaning quite a varied culinary experience. But one learns quite fast that this only applies the larger cities. Once Amelie moved out from Quebec City, she found herself cooking quick meals. Now that the young woman is sitting here in a place famed for its fine foods, she nearly drools over her meal as she takes the first bite. It’s good enough to take her mind off the solitude for a short while, as she looks around at the kind of people she often scoffed at while slaving away in front of a hot forge. Seeing it this close, though, she can only feel a little jealous. Going to find Yvette would be inappropriate and clingy, and if her last interaction is any indicator, breaking into social circles is going to be difficult without an avenue in.
She sighs and eats alone, spending the last 45 minutes of her lunch break browsing around the area, familiarizing herself with the streets and shops and landmarks she’s interested in visiting. Her next class, if she remembers right, is Inorganic Chemistry. That’ll be another chance for her to show off her practical knowledge.
GM: Amelie finds she has less time than the break’s full 45 minutes after she has gone through the lunch line and finished eating, so the stroll through the picturesque neighborhood is short but sweet. Amelie sees more of the old Greek Revival and Victorian mansions, brick (not concrete or asphalt) sidewalks, tall stiff magnolia grandiflora with their shiny dark leaves, wrought-iron fences with their floral patterns, and sentinel oaks stretching out their mammoth branches like mighty and protective arms. Some parts of the Garden District feel almost indoors, like they exist under a great green leafy done. It’s not unlike a giant, all-natural greenhouse. Summer cicadas are out and singing their buzzing song.
Amelie: Amelie enjoys the walk quite a bit, keeping a brisk pace to keep the air moving through her short thick hair. She tries her best to get used to the sound of cicadas over seagulls and frogs, as well as the perfect silence of winter months. Being in such a different environment is dream-like as she watches the brick walkway and briefly imagines herself as Alice, adjusting to a mad mad world. Beautiful, but oh so foreign. The bliss ends when she gets back to the school gates, and she flips back to the academic frame of mind she always does when she’s ready to learn.
GM: Amelie’s newfound focus proves just enough for her to spot the small, black-haired girl in McGehee’s unmistakable uniform who’s clearly been watching her from a distance.
Amelie: The black-haired girl instantly steals the young woman’s interest. She leisurely makes her way closer.
GM: As the girl sees Amelie coming, she turns and disappears among the mass of identically-attired students on their way back to class. Amelie lasers in like a hawk, and physically keeping up isn’t much trouble with longer legs. In her haste to get away, the younger girl actually bumps head-long into another, taller student. Her wallet falls out onto the ground. She mumbles an apology in response to the other girl’s glare, then looks up to see Amelie. Up close, she appears around middle school age. She’s also very thin, with plain and mousy facial features, and neck-length black hair pulled back into a ponytail. Braces are visible on her teeth and there’s an even more visible red pimple on the bottom of her right cheek.
“Why are you following me?” she glowers.
Amelie: Amelie can barely believe she catches the girl, but long strong legs carry her right to the little middle-schooler in due fashion. She even sees her bump right into the upperclassman, and feels a bit sorry for the mousy little girl, even as she shoots off that hostile look.
“To see why you were watching me so intently,” she answers plainly, kneeling down to pick up the wallet. “I’m sorry if it startled you.”
GM: “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the girl bristles. She then sees Amelie pick up her wallet and exclaims, “Hey, that’s mine!”
Amelie: Amelie takes a moment to size up the smaller girl and slowly offers her a little smile, trying to disarm her. “It’s okay, hun. I followed you, that was kinda awkward too, huh? My name’s Amelie.” Still, she offers the wallet back to her. “We still have some time left on our lunch break. You wanna go sit down?”
GM: The girl looks at Amelie warily, then grabs it back. “Lunch’s over. And you look like a dyke with that hair!” She quickly turns to leave.
Amelie: Amelie gets the first straightforward insult she’s had in America and can’t stifle a bit of smile. She stands back up but doesn’t pursue the girl. Maybe this is a chance to make a little friend. Her first at this school.
“There’s no reason to be rude. I’m trying to make friends. Why don’t you tell me why you were staring and we can start over, okay?”
GM: Amelie’s calm and unruffled response seems to take the wind out of the preteen’s bluster as she looks up at the upperclassman, then looks down at the ground. “I’m not supposed to tell you that.”
Amelie: The girl’s words give Amelie a bit of pause, and she leans down just slightly to get on a more comfortable level with the shorter student. The girl is just scared underneath, she can tell. “Are you okay, hun?”
GM: The preteen’s eyes start to look moist as she stares at the ground.
Amelie: Amelie’s throat starts to clamp as the little girl looks so upset. She leans in a big more, wrapping an arm around the middle-schooler to let her know she’s going to be okay. “It’s okay, hun, you don’t have to say anything if you’re scared. Do you want me to walk you to your next class?”
GM: The bell rings overhead, deaf to such concerns. Chatting students begin trickling back inside to the school’s various buildings. The girl tenses at Amelie’s touch but doesn’t pull away. “I’m already skipping…”
Amelie: The young woman sighs and looks up as the bell rings and people head off to their classes. She resolves to take just a few more minutes. “You don’t like school, then. What’s your name, hun?”
GM: The girl still isn’t looking directly at her. “No, I… Miranda.”
Amelie: “Miranda. That’s a really nice name. Listen, hun, you don’t have to tell me anything, okay? I’m not going to ask you to. And while I’d prefer you went to class, I’m not going to make you do that either. It’s your choice. Can I give you a hug before I got to class, though? Please? I’m really weak to sad faces.”
GM: The preteen starts crying. “You… you weren’t supposed to see… I can’t do anything right…”
Amelie: Amelie swoops in right then and there, pulling Miranda into a full on hug as she cries. There is no greater chink in Amelie’s armor than seeing someone younger than her crying. “Hey hey hey, shhh. It’s okay. It’s not your fault, it was mine. What kind of crazy lady would run after someone like that. It’s okay. Whoever it is that asked you to do this, you can tell them you’ve done one better, okay? That you made friends with me to watch me closer, okay? Would that work?”
GM: Amelie can feel the slight shudders going through the younger girl’s body as she pulls her in. She doesn’t return the hug, but neither does she pull away. “I… I dunno…”
Amelie: Amelie feels awful for making Miranda tense up, but the hug is all she can think to do, and she slowly pulls away to give her some space. “You can try. Okay? I’ll let you. I don’t know what’s going on, but I have some ideas, and none of them are as important to me right now as you, okay? I’ve had dyke hair all my life, so I’m tough like a dyke too, don’t worry about me.”
GM: The preteen wipes her eyes after Amelie lets go. “Okay…”
Amelie: Amelie gives Miranda a little smile and gets out a pen from her bag. She rips a sheet of paper out of her notebook, writes down her phone number, and passes it over. “Do you have a phone, Miranda?”
GM: The preteen looks the piece of paper over. “Yeah.” The pair are now alone, the last of the other upper school students having headed to class.
Amelie: “Text or call me whenever. You’ll be my first friend at this school. I’m going to leave you now and run to class, okay?”
GM: Miranda puts it away and rubs at her eyes again, which now look about as red as the zit on her cheek. “Okay.”
Amelie: Amelie gives her one last smile and hug, then stands and bids her farewell, all but running to her next class. It’s incredibly strange, and bad feelings are ringing every corner of her chest, but the young woman keeps it together. What will come will come, and she’ll face it! There’s just a bit of a throb in her heart at the thought of bashing Miranda’s faceless boss into the pavement with a baseball bat.