By Tracy Morey
Her students include a
graduating 17-year-old who is in chemotherapy and a Grade 10 anorexic
who has to sing loudly when she goes to the bathroom so the teacher will
know she’s not purging.
Lucie Quesnel’s classroom is in a children’s hospital. School here is
more than education — it’s a haven in a high stress environment of daily
drama and pathos.
"It’s hard, yes, and you cry," says the Ottawa native, who sees
herself as "an advocate and a touchstone for students who are
At 7:45 a.m., Lucie Quesnel, married to teacher André, leaves their home in
suburban Orleans to chauffeur 18-year old son Olivier and two of his buddies
to École secondaire Louis-Riel.
A half-hour later, she reaches the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario
(CHEO), a sprawling, state-of-the-art building in an Ottawa suburb. Kids’
art, balloons and lots of playrooms offset the sickly clinical smell.
Youngsters hooked up to IVs and teens, balding from chemo, walk the halls.
For 10 years Lucie Quesnel has been teaching here in the school program
called Le Transit, sponsored by the French-language school board of eastern
Ontario, under Section 19. Last year two teachers schooled 292 francophone
patient-students. Quesnel is meant to have eight students, averages 12 and
can be preparing as many as 20 courses at once. Her mandate is Grades 7-12.
The classroom is smaller than average, lined with books, files, posters, a
life-size Harry Potter cardboard figure, shelves of Scrabble and puzzles. A
big green and white Franco-Ontarian flag hangs high on the wall, next to the
"We’re located between the oncology department and the toddlers’
playroom," says Quesnel, "so, we’re right at the centre of
"What we do is normalize the lives for these sick children, give them a
routine." Short-term patients can bridge the gap with hospital class,
so they’re not behind when they return to school. Children hospitalized
for two to six months become long-term students.
Quesnel checks the files and does paperwork. She makes a call to ensure home
tutoring for a student being discharged tomorrow.
At 8:45 Quesnel starts "rounds." She checks with medical staff and
surveys the patient lists to see if her students are available or gone for
tests or treatment. Along the hospital corridors, she points out the warm
and homey rooms for teenagers.
"Teaching here means knowing how chemo hurts a student’s ability to
concentrate," she explains, "and how marijuana pills may be
affecting a student’s attitude.
"We follow the curriculum and we must, but it’s difficult because
each child’s pace is so different. We have to be open, ready and not at
all intimidating. It is a situation where many parents come to rely on us,
because we’re outside that medical bubble. Sometimes you can be key in the
recovery. It’s a huge responsibility."
Seated at a large table in the middle of Le Transit’s classroom by 9:00
a.m., Quesnel goes over the day’s caseload with the primary grades
teacher, long-time friend Louise Gauthier, and Ginette Letours, a young
teacher hired recently to handle the overload.
"What is also different here is that we often have to convince our
students to come to class," says Quesnel. Her tricks include getting a
quick line on the patient’s interests. Also, she usually knows the
patient’s school and its teachers, well enough to engage a student on his
own turf. "I have about 15 minutes to have him buy the product. It
It works this morning. Janik shows up, a bright Grade 8 farm girl whose
forehead wound is healing. She was knocked off her bike, and into a four-day
coma, hit by a car while bicycling to her grandmother’s house.
"The brain trauma left memory problems," reports Quesnel.
"She couldn’t remember subtraction, but now we’re into division and
problem solving." While conjugating the French verb "to
prepare" Quesnel launches a discussion about the need to wear bicycle
"Janik blames the car driver now, but eventually she’ll come to take
some responsibility for not wearing her helmet," says Quesnel. "We
get so many bike accident injuries in here."
At 10:30, Janik moves into math, while a pyjama-clad teen works on geometry
with Letours. At the same table, a fourth grader in a wheelchair, on
monitors and near blind, is getting some entertaining grammar lessons from
There are weekly multi-disciplinary meetings to do progress reports on the
patients. Quesnel says the teachers bring a different vision to the team.
"You can’t be shy in this job. Sometimes we see an aspect of the
child opposite to what the doctors say."
Quesnel walks up one floor for her next appointment, a quick visit with Ihab,
17, who has leukemia and spent all of Grade 10 in Quesnel’s class. Now in
Grade 12, he comes in for quick treatments so he won’t miss school.
"It wasn’t a normal classroom here, there was more time to fool
around, but it worked for me," he recalls. Today, Quesnel advises him
on how to get the five French credits for his diploma.
At 11:30 Quesnel is scheduled for some play with 12-year-old Natalie,
severely handicapped with cerebral palsy, now in hospital with pneumonia.
They improvise a game of catch with some toys.
"Not everyone can work here because of the pain and the wide range of
tasks required. There are things we feel we must do for the dignity and
well-being of our students."
That means accompanying six students to a Backstreet Boys concert "with
plugs in my ears." Once, she arranged a quick appearance by some Ottawa
Senator hockey players at the bedside of a dying student.
At noon, the three teachers bring their lunches to the big classroom desk.
Lucie Quesnel talks about being a convent girl with dreams of archaeology or
being a school librarian. A University of Ottawa education grad, she worked
at a regular high school, then moved into teaching teen mothers, the
learning disabled and young offenders. "I’m challenged by young
people facing challenges."
Quesnel enthuses about the professional development support provided by the
board. Last year, she took 26 workshops, ranging from computer training to a
study of the relationship between leukemia complications and cognitive
The current political antipathy to Ontario teachers leaves her hurt and
befuddled. There are six teachers among Quesnel and her husband’s
siblings. That tradition has ended abruptly in both families.
"My son has said to me: Mom I see you working at home every night, why
would I want to be a teacher?"
Two students in the day program for eating disorders arrive late for
afternoon class — that’s always a concern with this disease. Mariel and
Joanne take two hours of Grade 10 subjects a day, along with other
Quesnel and Mariel take turns reading from By the Waters of Babylon. The
teacher dwells on the narrator’s musings about "never losing one’s
She describes to Mariel the Ottawa police officer who quit his job last week
so he could take his tracking dog to help recover bodies at the World Trade
Center. "He listened to his spirit instead of his body," the
Mariel asks to go the bathroom and is reminded to sing loudly, so Quesnel
knows she isn’t throwing up. Doctor’s orders. Somehow, the issue is
handled with humour and dignity.
"It’s a good atmosphere here," the 16-year-old says, "the
teachers are fun and they joke around — you can talk to them."
By 4:00 p.m. classes are over. "I only leave on time when basketball
season starts," laughs the teacher. Her other passion is reading,
English or French, never translation. She loves mysteries and "stayed
up all night reading Harry Potter." Officials from the Ministry of
Education are expected tomorrow. Quesnel starts to put the student files in
Annie bursts in — a joyful 16-year-old, selling coupon booklets for her
school. She is clearly a favourite alumna of Le Transit.
"I was here for six months in Lucie’s class," she recounts
openly. "I had a psychosis, that’s like schizophrenia, but isn’t
permanent. I did hear voices and I had a slight eating disorder that hurt my
"Now I’m back at school and on a little medication." She turns
abruptly to her former teacher with a vibrant smile and adds, "and in
math, I’m at the top of my class."
On her way home at 5:00, Quesnel stops in at the Coin du Livre bookstore to
pick up a new Grade 3 math booklet. Young Max, from northern Ontario, is due
back at the hospital for treatment tomorrow. She says, "His math books
date back to the 70s and his mother really hoped for something better."
Le Transit, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario
Conseil des écoles publiques de l’est
Grades 7—12, Certified in 1976
Faculté d’éducation, Université d’Ottawa