Hébert was smart, precocious, shy-and spoke only French-when she
came to Toronto to live in 1966. Her father was transferred from their
home in Hull, Québec.
Today Hébert is the savvy, articulate National Affairs writer for
the Toronto Star, columnist for Le Devoir in Montreal and appears regularly
as a political analyst on French and English-language CBC radio and television.
The transition might have never occurred if it hadn't been for Carol Schofield,
her Grade 10 English literature teacher at École secondaire catholique
Monseigneur-de-Charbonnel in Toronto.
Hébert-who had already skipped a grade or two-entered Grade 9 at
the age of 11. De Charbonnel was a French-language school, but by law
science and English-had to be taught in English even in French-language
first year in the Toronto school, Hébert relied on her excellent
memory to make passing grades in her English and science
"She provided enough context that we would feel we weren't waiting
for the class to end."
Grade 9 English consisted of memorizing
poetry and I can still rhyme off some of the poems I had to learn,"
says Hébert from her Ottawa office, where she commutes weekly from
her home in Montreal. "But I never understood them. I got through
science the same way-I memorized the summaries at the end of chapters."
Hébert isn't sure what would have happened if she hadn't ended
up in Carol Schofield's class. "Perhaps I would have packed my bags
and moved to some place where I didn't have to deal with English,"
she says with a laugh.
But fortunately, Grade 10 English was quite a different experience for
Hébert, who was suddenly exposed to a teacher whose enthusiasm
for her subject overcame the language barrier.
Says Hébert, "Madame Schofield was obviously quite passionate
about teaching English literature, especially Shakespeare. She would read
the plays as though she was the characters. She had records-I think they
were Stratford recordings-and she brought them to class. They were tremendously
interesting and she provided enough context that we would listen to them
and feel we weren't just sitting there waiting for the class to end."
The teacher's love for her subject awakened an interest in Hébert-who
was a voracious reader-for a lot of other authors, as well. "She
convinced me that since I liked to read it would be cheaper to read books
in English, and there seemed to be some fairly good ones. Even though
I couldn't understand the half of what was happening in the story, I remember
Lost Horizon, Macbeth, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Canterbury Tales."
Hébert attributes her ability to write fluently in English today
to Schofield's influence in persuading her to read English literature.
"I just read so many books that I ended up being able to write in
the language." And Hébert is still a voracious reader, she
says, reading three books in English and two in French every week. "And
I still like Shakespeare," she says.
Schofield's enthusiasm even prompted Hébert to volunteer an answer
in class-an occasion so rare she remembers it to this day. "We were
having a class on Macbeth and she asked a question, and lo and behold
I raised my hand and then I thought 'what am I doing? I can't speak that
language.' I probably did answer, but I'm sure it wasn't a very long answer.
By then I was regretting this strange impulse," she says.
Thinking back on those days, Hébert is impressed at what Schofield
managed to accomplish. "I would think that was quite a feat. In hindsight,
I think that teacher was doing extra duty. There were always six or seven
of us who had just moved to Toronto and couldn't speak English well. To
have kept up this level of intensity in her teaching, it was really quite
Schofield's influence made a very difficult experience bearable, says
Hébert. "I was not happy about moving to Toronto. I wasn't
happy that I couldn't speak the language, so that kind of cut me off socially.
And even in French schools in Toronto, people tended to communicate with
each other in English and so that was a major hurdle. I got over it faster
once I started getting interested in Madame Schofield's English class."
"It sure helped to break the isolation and once you don't feel isolated
by a language, your outlook changes. And so from that point on, the world
looks different, it opens up and it's more fun."