Not a joke, Joyce
Sapphire had caught my bug, plus had a really bad head cold, some diarrhoea, a vomiting session and merciless hay-fever thrown in. Therefore she had to spend three days at home with me.
After enjoying the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (one DVD per day), a snooze and some reading, it was inevitable that we'd get chatting.
She told me about a girl in her class called Joyce, who'd moved over from the Philippines with her family a couple of years ago. "She speaks English pretty well now Mum, but struggles with the schoolwork so I offer to help her sometimes. She's really shy and even when I see her standing at the classroom door waiting for the bell to ring, she won't speak to me unless I talk first. I've tried really hard, Mum but I don't think she likes me."
A few minutes later after I'd given her the pep talk about how proud I am that she's being friendly and trying to include someone and that yes, she should keep doing that; Sapphire revealed that Joyce turned up last week with hearing aids. "Her Mum doesn't speak English and always looks so sad and when I asked Joyce if she'd like to come over to my house after school she said that her Mum won't let her."
We let that sink in for a while before I again said stuff like Can you imagine what it must be like to only speak English at school - a language you only learned two years ago at the age of nine - and then go home and lose a fair bit of what you learned because you then had to revert back to your mother's language? Can you also imagine how lonely and confusing it must have been - for way longer than two years - at wondering why you couldn't always catch what was being said?
Sapphire could imagine it and her eyes filled up with tears. "So what can I do, Mum? Sometimes she sees me and my friends and won't come over and just stands there, staring at the door. I don't even think she likes me."
"Love, she's so lonely inside and doesn't yet have the knowledge or skills on how to change things. She hates being shy and hates not having any confidence. Keep on talking to her, smiling to her, walking over to her. She might not respond the way you'd like her to, but believe me, a year or twenty years down the track, she'll be grateful that you bothered."
"Mum, why are you crying?"
"Because no kid stands alone by choice. Let me make you a cup of honey and lemon tea - I'll get a berry vanilla for myself - and I'll begin."
Same goes for you, dear reader. Get a drink and strap yourself in for a long read.
In South Australia, primary school goes until the end of year seven, so it is year eight that is dreaded and longed-for at the same time; the entry into high school.
My father was a high school teacher, so it held no real terrors for me - most of the secondary teachers were already long-standing family friends and I loved school. I had friends, oodles of confidence and knew I belonged. High school would just be another stepping stone for me.
Towards the end of the year, Dad was offered an Exchange Teacher place. Similar to Rotary Exchange student programs, teachers swapped jobs and homes for twelve months in order to experience life, work and travel in another country. We five Reads were going to Aberdeen, Scotland. We'd never even been on an aeroplane before!
Yes, there'd be snow there - we were leaving straight after our summery Christmas into their mid-winter. Yes we'd be living in a cottage that was over 250 years old and our rooms would be upstairs in the attic. And yes, we'd travel around the UK and Europe every single chance we got.
We had to pack up all of our personal possessions; make sure that Sox the cat would be cared for by the neighbours until the Scottish family arrived; pose for passport photos in front of a wrinkled bed-sheet that Dad had thrown over the line and cram our suitcases full of winter woolies whilst sweating in our bathers.
A week later, this confident, funny kid with sun-bleached hair and golden skin from swimming every spare moment in the neighbour's pool was stared at by her class, 8E, when she stood in front of them, being introduced by the frazzled French teacher. Her blazer was too big, skirt too long and the desert boots and white socks underneath looked ridiculous. For the first time ever, she felt out of place.
Not one of her classmates showed a flicker of interest. Already she could tell that no-one would be asking her what living in Australia was like.
Recess time saw her troop slowly out of maths class, face still blushing from having to answer "Eighty Eight" and hear them laugh and bray at her stupid accent. She followed the crowd to the cloak room and lunch hall and pretended to be waiting for the toilet to be vacant. Little did she know that this was to be her main activity during recess for the next six months.
Lunch time involved a mandatory school dinner. Holding her ticket, she'd patiently line up to be given a plate of mealies, soggy chips and wrinkled peas because it was a relief from standing alone. Everyone had to do it, but she wasn't hungry and wasn't in a rush. With a plate full of half-hearted grey slop she'd sidle up to a spare chair and mumble, 'CanISitHerePleaseThanks' and plonk down, trying to eat and hide behind her fringe.
No one ever said, "No, piss off you loser," as she sat down. She was so beneath their interest and attention that even acknowledging her with an insult or a shove would have been too much effort. The girl felt invisible. No, worse than invisible because she didn't have the freedom to come and go when she wanted, she had to stay there and be overlooked and ignored.
Other kids would finish and run out to play football, table tennis, gossip and flirt, leaving her behind. It was only after three weeks of sitting alone in the cloak room pretending to write in her English journal that the sad girl discovered the Library.
This wondrously warm, quiet and anonymous place was open all lunch time. To anybody at school. The relief was tremendous as she dawdled her way up and down every bookshelf. She loved to read and it was an escape from idle stares and being considered too worthless to befriend.
The Wombles books caught her eye. She'd always thought the TV show was cute and these'd be simple to read and easy to put back on the shelf where they'be be too uncool to be borrowed by anyone else and therefore be resumed the next lunch time.
Sapphire, I read them all at least four times each and, for the life of me, can't remember a single character or storyline and still, writing this twenty nine years later don't want to search them out on ebay and read them again for old times' sake.
The librarian knew. She'd always say 'hello' as the lonely girl wandered in, silent and pale, groping for the book still in its usual place and sitting herself down at the laminated table farthest from the entrance, shoulders hunched. The girl didn't dare get talking to the lady; she knew that she felt sorry for her, but to see or hear that pity close up would just be too much to bear and the girl knew that you must never, ever cry at high school .....
On the bus ride home, she sat by herself, supposedly entranced by the grim and grey view of the outskirts of Aberdeen, the Altens Housing Estate and Cove Bay, where she lived. Her older brother was at the back of the bus with his friends - guaranteed due to his sporting prowess. David was still at the local primary school and had more playdates to deal with than days of the week.
At her stop, she'd trail behind Robert, aware that he wasn't keen to be seen with his daggy younger sister - and who could blame him? She'd wander inside, calling out 'I'm home' to her mother in the most cheerful voice she could manage, hang up her coat and head upstairs.
On would go ABBA's Super Trouper album as she cried and cried and cried, hoping that the thud thud thud of the base would drown any sobbing out. Sometimes she'd stare out of my window to the train track winding further up north and dream that she was back home again. Her real home, in South Australia, where she had friends and certainty and comfort and not this awful, relentless feeling of shame and pain and worthlessness.....
Headaches and stomach aches started to arrive each morning, shaking her out of bed before the alarm clock did. She heard her mother worriedly whisper to her father something about 'psychosomatic' but couldn't lean farther out for a better sticky-beak because the stabbing ache in her side was too great.
The weekends were wonderful. Her family would cram into the Bedford van and explore villages, craggy castles, manor houses, old battle grounds, museums and wilderness. They'd laugh and joke around together and Sunday night saw her try too hard to keep the hilarity going, to wring a few more drops out of the weekend before school and pain and fear and doom set in again.
One day as she sat near the front seat of the bus with several spare seats around her, a beautiful young girl tapped her on the shoulder.
"Er, Hi," she replied, voice croaking.
"Are ye an Aussie, is that right?"
"Aye," I muttered, having learned months ago to tone down my accent.
"Can ye swim?"
"Aye," I replied, lifting up my head and noticing her lovely brown eyes and hair that Kate Bush would have envied.
"I'm Pamela and I'm captain of the Kincorth Swimming Club and we need some more swimmers in year 8. Do ye want tae come?"
She saved me, Sapphire.
Pamela saved me. She took the time to wander over to a lonely, broken little soul and speak to her.
Sapphire, keep doing what you're doing for Joyce. She might not be able to demonstrate yet what it means, but it does mean a great deal, more than I hope you ever have to know for yourself. It means that she's worth something to someone else.
We hugged. And cried. Sapphire got off my knee and said, "It explains something to me, Mum."
"It explains why you always try to talk to people all the time and when Dad and I say 'oh there she goes again' it's always because you're getting to know someone."
No kid stands or sits alone by choice.