With the recent crowning of King Charles III of Britain, I think back to his mother Elizabeth’s coronation in June 1953. I was 8 years old and in grade 3 at Sinclair Laird Elementary School in Park Extension, a working class district of Montreal. My teacher was Miss Linger who wore smocks over her skirts and blouses and seemed old. She was probably around 35 and until then unexceptional, just another teacher to listen to so that I didn’t get into trouble.
Though we weren’t allowed to eat in the classroom, we often snuck our snacks and Miss Linger usually turned a blind eye. But that day she was suddenly standing over me pinching my nostrils so that my mouth dropped open and she pulled a wad of chewed fig newtons out of it. It was scary but there was a fairness to it; she’d caught me breaking the rules.
Our desks were bolted to the floor and we sat bolted to them until recess and lunch time when we spilled into the corridor to eat food we brought from home and to play. In Quebec all the schoolgirls had to wear uniforms and our favourite game was to pull each other’s tunic up to expose our underwear, the only clothing that made us different from one another. The game was also a sexual tease between the girls and for the boys who loved to watch.
That recess just as Goldie was yanking up my tunic Miss Linger appeared out of nowhere, grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and dragged her away. When we returned to class Goldie was standing at the front of the room holding up her tunic. Her white panties, with “Friday” on them in pink letters, were on full display.
It felt like forever until Miss Linger told her to sit down and said that she’d have to show us her underwear for five minutes every day for the next week.
At lunch time all the girls gathered around Goldie trying to figure out what she should do. She came up with a brilliant solution, she would wear shorts under her tunic the following week.
In the afternoon the whole school went to the gymnasium for the film of Elizabeth’s coronation which had taken place the day before, on June 2. We sat on grey metal folding chairs and watched, in grainy black and white, long shots of long processions. The only close-ups were of Elizabeth looking very serious and uncomfortable, the crown she wore must have weighed a ton.
The gym was hot and crowded, the Christian service droned on, it was hard to stay awake. Towards the end of the ceremony, when everyone in Westminster Abbey burst into “God Save the Queen”, Miss Linger jumped up dropping her purse to the floor. She stood rigidly at attention with her arms tightly by her sides until the song was over. By now we were all wide awake, our eyes glued to her.
Back in in the classroom, Miss Linger locked the door, sat down and stared out the window. Like wild animals freed from a cage we broke loose. Shrieking we climbed on top of our desks and jumped off them over and over again. It was glorious.
Until there was a knock on the door and we all dove for our seats. It was the principal, Mr. Piebus (we called him “PieFace” behind his back) a mean man. The only times he’d come by was to order a boy to put his hands on the desk so that he could whack them with a hard wooden ruler. God knows what crime had been committed.
Now Mr. Piebus sounded nice as he coaxed ” Miss Linger, Miss Linger, please open the door.” He remained patient and persistent until she finally let him in and he approached her gently saying “You must be very tired. Let’s go somewhere for a rest.” A substitute teacher slid into the room as he whisked Miss Linger away.
My mother had raging depressions several times a year. Something as trivial as an odd sock in the laundry could trigger a storm that lasted for months. She’d hurl “You need to see a psychiatrist” at whoever she fought with but never sought treatment for herself. Nobody dared to suggest to this powerful woman that she needed help. Our family just walked on eggshells.
Miss Linger’s breakdown happened during a rare period of calm at home when my mother sang and joked a lot and was mostly even keeled. She reacted to the news of my teacher’s spectacular departure by becoming sad. A day later she gave me a card to bring to the principal’s office for them to take to the hospital where she said Miss Linger was. We never saw her again.
Of all my memories surrounding Charles’ mother and mine at that time what stands out the most is my mother giving Miss Linger a card. It was my first conscious sense of her compassion and though she’s been dead a long time I’m only beginning to understand her. She must have been terrified of her own lack of control and desperate to be helped. None of us had a clue, the concept of “bipolar” was decades away. She’d been born at the wrong time.
I think back.