In the early 50’s an itinerant family moved to Meadow Creek. Father Mother Daughter and Son. Where they came from or what their background was I don’t know. Father was what was called a seasonal worker. This meant he found part time work on local farms depending on the time of year. They moved into a house not far from the school that had been deserted since the war. It had no electricity or running water. They had no car. Neither the father nor the mother drove.
The overwhelming impression their appearance gave was that the whole family were poor. They certainly looked it. Both parents had prominent teeth missing. The father was skinny and the mother was stout. She always wore socks instead of stockings. Their clothes were unfashionable and looked like hand me downs. They had that second hand look. The children’s clothes looked handmade if that. What they were made of was previously used or previously discarded. They were torn and tattered. Their shoes were always scuffed and falling apart.
The girl was in grade 3 and the boy was in grade 2. The boy was white skinned with red blotches and he had large freckles all over his face. He had frizzy red hair. The girl was grey skinned and also very freckled but her freckles were black. She had grey frizzy hair. Neither child was muscular. The girl was shy and introverted. Silent. The boy was more open. He always wanted to be friendly but no one wanted to be friendly with him.
Society at that time was structured in a strictly rigid form. Graziers were at the top of the ladder and seasonal labourers were at the bottom. Society was ruled by a strict class and caste system although no one admitted it. The children at my school followed this class hierarchy with great determination.
The two children came to the school in the middle of the term and on their first few days had to stand out the front because there were not spare desks or chairs for them. When the furniture came the teacher gave definite instructions as to how each should carry and take care of their chairs. This was a sore point with him. Chairs and desks were scarce. He had a thing about furniture being broken. It was a punishable offence. It meant the strap for anyone who broke anything.
These two children were never accepted and they were mercilessly treated by the rest of the school from the start. It was said that their parents were not married. It was also said that the father had a touch of the tar and both these rumours were often expressed by the older pupils as having great importance. Children obviously got these beliefs from their parents and elders. I didn’t really understand what they meant but I did not question it. The statements concerning the two children were made with such authority. What was said seemed very important. It was not uncommon to see a group of girls half chasing the girl around and calling in unison tar baby because of her dark skin. The girl would be in tears but no one cared. This was fun. They knew they would never be stopped doing it because the girl was not liked and she was both unattractive and poor.
The result was the girl spent a lot of time by herself crying and sobbing. Her body would heave with sobs and this only made the mob happier. She was an outsider and was not liked. She was not an attractive girl. She could not defend herself. She had no dignity. It was as if she deserved it.
I cared but of course I said nothing. I did care. I felt sorry for her. My heart went out to this poor girl. I wanted to go and put my arm around her but I didn’t dare. I did not want to be seen as the odd man out. I did not want to be thought of as being sympathetic with this undesirable person. I did not want to be thought as being the same as her. I was frightened I would be treated the same way. No one would talk to me. I hated being teased. I always felt so humiliated when I was teased and was always struck dumb. I could never go against public opinion.
So I stood silent. I was frightened. I did not know what to do. I wanted to be part of the mob. I wanted to be accepted. I felt I could do nothing.
A few weeks after their arrival there was a reorganization at the school. Desks and chairs had to be moved around. Children had to pick up their chairs while the grade 6 boys moved the desks. All the young children were standing holding their chairs. One of the popular boys lifted his chair above his head and attempted to hold it like a circus performer would. He said look at me and tried to swivel it around. He quickly lost control of it. It fell to the floor with great noise. A leg was broken off. The whole class looked to see who it was. It was the son of a prominent farmer who was on the school committee so we all relaxed. He would not be punished. The teacher never punished some pupils and he was one of them. But for some reason the red haired boy spoke out – “look Mr S – he’s dropped his chair – are you going to give him the strap? Look at me. I’m holding my chair properly”. The room of students found this funny and laughed out loud but the teacher found it infuriating and he ran at the boy shaking his fist as if to hit him. The laugh was caught in everyone’s throat. What would happen? The teacher did not hit the boy but went up to his face and screamed at him. Imbecile. Stupid. Idiot. Shut up. Get out of the room. The boy wilted visibly and stepped backwards. He started to cry silently. The rest of the children started laughing again. His sister came to his aid to comfort him. She put her arm around him. Some pupils even jeered at her. The teacher turned around still fuming and strode away.
I did not laugh. I stayed silent. I knew a great injustice was occurring. I knew something terrible was happening but I was powerless to do anything. I could do nothing. I felt sorry for both of them. I wanted to go and stand with them. But of course I did not. I did not know what to do. I stayed in the background. I was one of the crowd. I did not want to be noticed. I did not want to be seen to be connected with their lower class. I did not want to be disliked. I did not want to be associated with these two undesirable children. I did not want to be thought of as being the same as them. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be popular. I did not want to be thought of as being different. I did not want to be the odd man out.
Has the world changed?