A bit of truth, a lot of fiction – isn’t that the magic mix, and how most great things come about in the world of literature?! Anyway, enjoy.
When I was quite young, and we were new to this country, there was a particular incident that took place at my primary school which is firmly cemented in my mind, even though many other memories from the time have been erased. In particular, I remember my teacher.
In order to fully understand why the situation arose in the first place, it is necessary to understand my family’s position at the time. My parents had come to this country with nothing but qualifications and me. My father had only just landed a permanent job. Every penny that came into the household was as precious to us as each drop of rain was to desperate farmers in our home country.
Naturally, my parents were saving these pennies scrupulously. This meant that if I didn’t need something – I did not get it. Even now, when I make a purchase based on desire rather than necessity, I still hear my mother’s voice: ‘Honey, but do you really need it?’
As such, I only had a few sets of clothes.
“You were wearing that yesterday!” An accusatory finger accompanied this sentence, and it was pointed at my chest. Bewildered more than anything else, I looked down at my t-shirt. It was a pink t-shirt, with a picture of my favourite Disney princess on it. It was my favourite and best t-shirt, actually.
Failing at the tender age of six to even understand that I had committed a crime, I said, grinning, “I know. It’s my favourite!”
The girl grinned back at me, and now I had my first indication that something was wrong. Her smile didn’t match mine. I couldn’t quite understand what the difference was, but things started becoming clearer as she let out a great big ‘ha!’ of laughter, and yet clearer still when others started laughing as well.
My ears started to burn. It’s often the first physical manifestation of embarrassment for me even nowadays, preceding flushed cheeks and gathering tears.
This was all taking place just before story time, at the end of the school day, when my whole class was gathered cross legged in the carpeted section of the classroom. Looking back, I doubt a lot of my classmates even knew what they were laughing at; it was more likely that they were following that seemingly innate human instinct: laugh along and you shall not be laughed at.
Even though my ears were well and truly aflame by the time the fourth person started giggling, I remember a sense of defiance, and I said boldly to the girl, “So?”
“So? Don’t you have any other clothes? My mum says – ”
The teacher, a warm hearted, middle-aged, genuinely lovely woman, had up until that point been silent. Oh yes, she was present from the start – she had been turning the pages of the storybook on her lap to find the part we had left off at yesterday, seemingly oblivious. Now, however, she spoke up, cutting right across the girl. I never did find out what that girl’s mum said, because of the teacher speaking up.
“That’s enough, young lady. We all have our favourite clothes. You were wearing that dress only on Monday! And I was wearing this skirt yesterday. Now, shall we start?” The discourse was short, matter-of-fact, and delivered pleasantly. The class fell silent. The teacher gave me a piercing look, her eyes full of concern, and then a smile that not only cooled my ears down, but also steadied me somehow. I hadn’t realised how shaken I had been until she steadied me with that smile.
I felt thankful to her at the time, for stopping everyone laughing at me. I feel even more thankful to her now, with the famous power of hindsight. It is very likely that I will never see her again, but I hope that she knew how grateful I was then, and am still now.
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