Canada 1983: Meeting (and Missing) “Miss Jane”

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I had nearly eleven years of living in a bilingual Acadian community under my belt by the time I entered the sixth grade in September of 1983. I had even won the “Gabriel” title twice in a three-summer span in the Evangeline and Gabriel pageant held as part of the annual Festival Acadien de L’Ardoise. (That’s me, second from the right, wearing glasses, in the above picture.)

Yet despite the best efforts of my teachers, my parents, my mother’s side of the family and my community in general, I don’t think I truly understood what it meant to be an Acadian at that stage of my childhood. My Grandpere had an eight-track tape of Prince Edward Island’s Angele Arsenault in his truck – complete with the delightfully tongue-in-cheek tune “Evangeline, Acadian Queen” – but I wasn’t hearing, singing, or learning French music on a regular basis as a preteen boy in Richmond County.

That was about to change, thanks to a woman who would wind up having a lifelong impact on not only my Acadian upbringing but my growth as a Christian singer and worship leader – my French teacher in Grades 6 and 7 at Ecole L’Ardoise, Jane Martell. 

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Now, given the somewhat stern look on Jane’s face in this picture, you probably won’t be surprised that our relationship began as a basic student-teacher dynamic, with the usual French vocabulary lessons and reading and writing exercises that I had come to expect over my first six years of core French instruction.

A few months later, however, “Miss Jane” decided to teach her sixth-grade French students several traditional Acadian songs to perform at the school’s annual Acadian Day ceremonies, which always took place on the last Friday before March Break. Sensing that I had some level of piano ability, she asked me to try accompanying the rest of the students for this presentation.

Which is why, decades later, one of my most treasured keepsakes from my elementary-school years is a cassette that includes Miss Jane somehow coaxing two dozen somewhat-unruly sixth-graders into singing the likes of “Il etait un petit navire,” “C’est l’aviron,” “Le p’tit avocat,” “Au clair de la lune,” the French and English versions of “O Canada,” and the Catholic hymn widely known as the Acadian national anthem, “Ave Maris Stella.”

Most of the songs ended cleanly; one of them finished with Jane gasping, “It’s not taping!” before she realized that her giant boom box was indeed working properly. “Au clair de la lune” collapsed early in the first line when we didn’t start the song together; after the second attempt, before Jane even turned off her ghetto-blaster, her distinctive French-tinged voice cut the silence as she admonished an unknown student: “You mean, you couldn’t stop talking for…” (CLICK)

But when I listen to that tape today, I can still hear, before every song,”Miss Jane” quietly encouraging me to begin playing the piano: “Okay, Adam.” She was occasionally a little too enthusiastic about my musical abilities in front of other students (her long-running nickname for me, “Maestro,” alternately delighted and horrified me), but I was grateful for Jane’s support in those early years of trying to accompany both myself and others on a musical instrument.

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As I began Grade 7 at Ecole L’Ardoise, with Raymond Doary (above, with Jane) as my homeroom teacher, Miss Jane encouraged me and eight other students to form an Acadian folk group called “Les Voix de la Mer” (translation: “Voices of the Sea”).

Inside and outside of the classroom, during what would prove to be the final academic year before her retirement in 1985, she bolstered our personal Acadian songbooks by teaching us such beloved classics as “Partons, la mer est belle,” “Un Acadien errant” (better known in some circles as “Un Canadien errant”), “Tes yeux si bleus” and a then-new tribute to our province by Yarmouth County native Wendell d’Eon, “Nouvelle Ecosse.”

By the time the next photo was taken – on the stage of the Ecole L’Ardoise gymnasium during our Grade 9 year – my classmates Tracey (Clements) Carroll, Shirley (O’Toole) Downey, Jill (Taylor) Carter, Shelly (Peterson) Martell, Wanda Boudreau-Squires, Lisa Johnson, Tanya (Adamsson) Ruppell and Rosie Bona had been encouraged by two years of musical instruction from Jane Martell, as well as two more years of her guidance from outside of the classroom. We would continue “Les Voix de la Mer” in various forms until the end of our first year in university, reuniting for one-shot concert appearances over the following quarter-century. I doubt any of it would have happened without “Miss Jane” leading the way in those early years.

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In the summer of 1985, only a few weeks after her retirement from teaching, Jane loaned me a small organ from her home so I would become comfortable playing a similar instrument at Holy Guardian Angels Parish Church in L’Ardoise during weekend Mass services. She added a number of hymns and Christian worship songs to that cassette tape I mentioned earlier – some performed by professional Christian musicians and others sung by members of the church’s senior choir, for which Jane provided the organ accompaniment for several decades.

So, in that pivotal summer, having not yet turned 13 years old, I found myself leading the congregational singing at the L’Ardoise church. I would carry out that duty many times over the following 32 years, both in L’Ardoise and at St. Joseph’s Parish Church in Port Hawkesbury, and I have both God and Jane Martell to thank for that.

 

 

 

Jane continued to open her home to me and my friends during our teenage and young-adult years. It frequently became a rehearsal space for both “Les Voix de la Mer” and a five-person Celtic-Acadian band that I participated in during my Grade 10 days, Cross-Currents. But she also welcomed us for teenage parties and even small-scale grad events as we made our way through St. Peter’s District High School.

Her role with the senior choir and the various cultural events that took place in L’Ardoise, particularly during the annual Festival Acadien, made her a fixture in the community. She took particular pride in infusing French music within the senior choir’s playlist but her affection and devotion to music ministry ran even farther and deeper. On more than one occasion over the past four decades, she would have her huge boom-box plugged in near the organ, diligently filling cassette tapes with Masses and rehearsals to lovingly preserve and carefully scrutinize the choir’s efforts.

That cassette recorder wound up being part of one of my favourite Jane stories. In 2001, I had borrowed it to record demo versions of some original songs I was testing in my early years as a professional musician, but I promised Jane that I would return the machine to her when I came to help the choir for the Saturday evening bilingual Mass service that always took place during the festival. As usual, she was recording the entire service to give herself a chance to hear how the choir sounded.

I had a gig in Port Hawkesbury earlier that day and was terrified that I wouldn’t make it to L’Ardoise on time, but I got to the church with 10 minutes to spare – not a lot of time, admittedly, but enough of a cushion for me to settle in with the others.

The first person to greet me was Jane. Well, “greet” is a slight exaggeration. Through clenched teeth, this diminutive, curly-haired, 69-year-old woman lowered her voice and snarled, just loud enough for me to hear: “Where the hell is my ghetto-blaster?” 

I felt the colour drain from my face. All of a sudden, I was back in the sixth grade (even though I hadn’t done anything to ever get her that mad at me in the sixth-grade). By the end of the night, all was forgiven and “Miss Jane” was smiling and calling me “Maestro” again. But that night in 2001 played a big role in my description of Jane as “a little Acadian pile-driver” to more than one person over the course of the past month.

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I veer back and forth between gratefulness and sadness as I contemplate Jane’s departure in June, at the age of 85. I will definitely miss her presence and devotion to the church, to our local culture, and to those she encouraged over the years. (She was on an extremely short list of people from whom Cathy and I would accept phone calls prior to 8 a.m. Yes, Jane would make those calls, especially around festival time and the Christmas season.)

Decades after she infused so much confidence in me with the quiet instruction “Okay, Adam” that gave me the signal to start playing my rudimentary piano chords in Grade 6, I credit Jane for the fact that I got to sing “Nouvelle-Ecosse” in front of Wendell d’Eon in Tusket in 2004 and rejoin Les Voix de la Mer for six reunion shows across Cape Breton as part of the World Acadian Congress later that year. (We’re at The Louisbourg Playhouse in the above photo.) Every note I sang at La Semaine Acadienne in Saint-Aubin-sur-mer, France in 2012 is directly traceable to Jane’s patience with us in the mid-to-late ‘80s.

All of this explains why I was grateful to have the honour of playing the organ with the senior choir for Jane’s funeral on June 24. (Cathy and I were held up by construction at the St. Peter’s Canal bridge, so we didn’t get to L’Ardoise until five minutes before the funeral; good thing we weren’t taking Jane’s boom-box with us.)

Fittingly, it was a celebration of all that the choir, and the community, had achieved with Jane’s decades of encouragement. Her niece Carol Martell sang the Angele Arsenault classic “Y’en une etoile pour vous” (“There is a star for you”). The choir sang “Comfort Me, Jesus,” a song written by one of its longest-serving members, Russell Webb. French hymns such as “J’irai la voir un jour” (“I will see Him one day”) filled the church. And the surprisingly-joyful homily delivered by parish priest Father Antolin Asor recalled Jane’s delight in reclaiming her driver’s license following an auto accident in her early eighties, and the thrill she took in enjoying a big piece of cake at a party on the last night of her life.

And when it was over, after I had played the last note at that organ that Jane and I had shared over the years, I looked up and swore I saw her smiling in front of me, quietly saying: “Thank you, Maestro.”

If you are lucky enough to have a Jane Martell in your community, cherish that person and make him or her feel appreciated. Not tomorrow, not next week – right now.

Merci, Miss Jane.

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(Footnote: Many thanks to Theresa Clements – a longtime Holy Guardian Angels Parish Choir member, the mother of Les Voix de la Mer member Tracey (Clements) Carroll, and my Grade 6 homeroom teacher – for providing all but two of the photos that accompany this blog post.)

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