Lucie Quesnel, 

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 ill."
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 maple leaf.
"We’re located between the oncology department and the toddlers’ playroom," says Quesnel, "so, we’re right at the centre of things."
"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 usually works."
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 helmets.
"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 Gauthier.
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 functioning.
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 therapies.
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 spirit."
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 teacher prods.
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 order.
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 esophagus.
"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."

Lucie Quesnel
Le Transit, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario
Conseil des écoles publiques de l’est
de l’Ontario
Grades 7—12, Certified in 1976
Faculté d’éducation, Université d’Ottawa

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