Friday, October 29, 2010

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.


franzy said...

Hmm. True.

BUT ...

... there might be slightly different rules for boys. The boys I remember who sat alone were afraid of violence. Taunts and shoves were one thing, choosing to exclude yourself from the reach of one or two thugs who rule the roost with greasy iron fists is another thing. Yes, they'd rather sit with friends, but given the choice between sitting alone and being included in the group where they're the whipping boy, they chose solitude.

But even that gets better ...

Kath Lockett said...

Girls too have 'whipping boys' (for want of a better word) in their groups too. Outright violence was/is rare, but put-downs, sniggering and deliberate exclusion were common.

At age twelve however, just been noticed by some of those nasty girls would have been a ticket to some form of happiness however shortlived.

Kath Lockett said...

...have been outside taking the clothes off the line and re-thought my response to you, Franzy.

What I meant was no child wants to be alone whether it be due to being actively picked on, or ignored. Everyone wants to have friends, feel safe and belong. *That's* what I meant.

River said...

"Sometimes she sees me and my friends and won't come over and just stands there...."

Sapphire the suggestion I was going to make is in your Mum's story.
Here it is.
"Pamela saved me. She took the time to wander over to a lonely broken soul and speak to her."

So, Sapph. next time Joyce is just standing there, excuse yourself from your friends for a moment, go to her, and bring her back to meet your friends and join you all.

Kath, this is awful-"already she could tell that no-one would be asking her what living in Australia was like."
This is so very different from my second High School year when Fiona moved out from Scotland with her family. On her FIRST day, she was surrounded by girls, wanting to know all about her, about Scotland, making friends.
I wasn't one of those girls, they were the popular crowd and I was on the outer watching, but there was no hesitation at all in having her accepted and included.

franzy said...

I knew exactly what you meant, but I wanted to add something.

I think I'm making the point that while it's brave and honourable to save the starving children, sometimes you're pretty hungry yourself. It's difficult to reach out and nothing to be ashamed of if you don't.

That said: Saph is completely generous, golden champion and I very much enjoy your new profile picture.

ps. And in the midst of all this seriousness, I am reminded of Blackadder:
"They do say, Mrs Miggins, that verbal insults hurt more than physical pain ... They are of course wrong, as you will soon discover ... when I stick this toasting fork in your head."

Anonymous said...

I don't comment often, if I have at all before(hmm???) but wanted to say thanks, for any future conversation on this issue I will remember to say to my daughters what you have said today. You put it beautifully!

One daughter is 6.5, and only at the end of her time in reception (SA schooling)- so we have yet to come across any real exclusion issues. The other is only 4 - but I do know it will happen with either one or both of them.

Your post was very moving, and I have not thought about this in such a long time, but I suffered in a similar situation when I was 11 years old and my fathers new Navy career moved us to Canberra for a possible 9 years. While I was 'accepted' I was still ridiculed and made to feel like the newbie, and ignored when it suited them - so I had a hard time knowing if and when they were going to talk to me that day. It so very confusing and hard. Just when I thought I was okay with them all, they turned their backs on me. But wanting so badly to fit in I readily accepted their offer of "friendship" each and every time, only to be heartbroken again! After 8 months of crazyness, I was moved home to live with my grandparents, and went back to my own school. sigh :)

My brothers had the same worries, and my parents too, suffering the same situation with the adults of the community!! My father eventually resigned from the Navy, due to a complete family breakdown and they all moved home a further 9mths later. Tough times for the whole family!

Thanks again, for now I have recalled my own time of loneliness, I feel I am better equipped to deal with the future and help my daughters.


Wally The Walrus said...

Aye to all that.

Kath Lockett said...

River, Sapphire knows. We've talked a lot too about how it's okay to NOT do anything if it means ridicule or bullying heaped upon yourself instead, as Franzy touches upon.

After all, we all know the agonies of seeing someone being treated badly - child or relief teacher - and the agony of feeling sorry for them but too afraid to speak out for fear of having the same scorn thrown back at us by the tormentors. Sapphire is aware that there are many such times and we often talk about her imaginary saucepan.

This saucepan is based on the one Sam carries in Lord of the Rings. In Moria he clangs an ork on the head and says, "I think I'm getting the hang of this."

Sapphire once said that she imagines that she's got a saucepan that she can 'clang' someone on the head with. It might not help the real situation, but it makes her smile.

I told her that I'm going to get me one of those saucepans too.

Franzy, I *love* Blackadder. Except series one - that sucked. Even now I can't see Tony McInerney doing his archaelogical digging show without thinking, "There's Baldrick!"

Thanks for sharing your story - oh so ironically-named-for-this-post DelightfulDayz. Can I call you Lea instead? How lucky (in the end) that your Dad also made the move to quit and head back home: that would have been a very, very tough decision. But you're right - it makes talking to your own child(ren) a bit more real rather than using empty platitudes such as 'Just be yourself' or 'They'll come around eventually.'

Thanks Wally.

Elisabeth said...

It's true, it's sad, for you and for you as a child in Scotland and for Joyce.

As you say no child voluntarily goes it alone. Something's up.

Good for Sapphire that like her mother she struggles to connect with those who won't otherwise be reached.

Anonymous said...

Before some pedant pops in, can I reassure everyone that Kath was just testing our inner geeks and she knew that it was Tony Robinson who played Baldrick (Tim McInnerney played Percy).


Kath Lockett said...

Elisabeth, she's braver than her mother and is going through a process of being excluded herself at school by one particular Queen Bee who has shown herself to be less - far less - than what she promised. Queen Bee is being egged on, I think, by her mother who heartily disapproved of my private school rant in the paper recently and has done her best to avoid me ever since. Such a shame that she has to make my child's life one of confusion right now. I *won't* say 'misery' because Sapphire is aware of the games being played and is, to her eternal credit, rising above it all.

I have lots to learn from her.

BS - you're right! HOW COULD I STUFF THAT UP - it's one of my al-time classic shows! Let's put it down to today's blog being pretty difficult to get down.

drb said...

The 1 years in Scotland was tough for Rob too. School was full of bogans and so bullies were rampant. He was bashed at school one day.

I was ignored and excluded by the whole class one day in year six. Everyone ran away when I tried to talk to them. I was bewildered. By recess time, I managed to grap hold of a girl and realised that I was being boycotted because of my arrogance, sarcasm, elitism etc. I was completely shocked to learn that others didn'tt like to be called idiots. So, after recess before the teacher show up, I stood in front of the whole class and apologised. Luckily, the class accepted my apology.
It felt terrible even to be excluded for just 3 hours. I can't imagine how excruciating it will be if it lasted for days to months.

Since then, I made it a point to interact to a person who seemed to be on his/her own at any function (wedding, party, conference).

Kath Lockett said...

And drb, the person you interact with at a wedding, work function or conference is secretly, very glad that you did.

Anji said...

My best friend died when we were eight and it took me years to feel really comfortable and fit in again at school.

Joyce wouldn't have a problem switching from one language to the other. I wonder if she's confident about how well her hearing aids are working.

Her mum is probably going through the same too.

sapphire is aptly named, a rare gem

lc said...

The problem with either being ostracised or feeling like you're being ostracised, is that you tend to start acting as if you are being ostracised. That's when the trouble begins - acting ostracised is usually interpreted as aloof, disinterested and different. Additionally, it can be used by some that really do want you ostracised to reinforce a negative depiction of you. This just creates a wall that seems to get reinforced with every passing day. And, if you are the type that really does consider these things deeply, you expect that at some point, someone on the inside is going to see the injustice and invite you in (after all, you would....wouldn't you?). You're left with only 2 options either try and pull down the wall and risk confirming that you're not wanted inside; or, you wander off and try and find another village. Sometimes though, there's no other village. That's when you're in a lonely place...

nuttynoton said...

are social animals whether it being interacting with other humans or pets we need someone/thing. When my first marriage broke up apart from music it wa my family and friends who got me through and when my mum dies it was my daughter who helped me cope. I am sure we can all recount how we coped at difficult times. Sometimes people do not realise what they are doing, unless you tell them, but then you do not want to create upset and more isolation, its a double edged sword. Life is for learning and teaching we just need to pass on what we have learned the hard way to support others and soften some of life's difficult experiences.

Plastic Mancunian said...

G'Day Kath,

Great post that reminds me of my shy schooldays (before I did something about it).




Unknown said...

Just read this properly - think you also described most of my school days as well, Brilliantly put.

Vanessa said...

Very touching recount Kath. As you know my daughter is dealing with a "Joyce" at her school and many lessons have been learnt.
What a beautiful soul Sapphire has. I am sure Joyce appreciates her attempts at friendship.

Kath Lockett said...

Anji, that's awful for you - and for your childhood friend's family.... As for Joyce, I think you're right. The language barrier isn't the problem but it's the one she's hiding behind and unable - right now - to get in front of.

LC, the 'no other village' is the scenario and being in that situation whether it be three hours, six months or twelve years of school is excruciatingly painful.

Nutty, when it comes to divorce and death (in your case) there are a lot of us who tiptoe around, hoping not to cause a fuss or bother the sufferer but maybe we should just bowl up to them and offer help or a dry shoulder to cry on loudly and proudly.

Thanks Plastic Mancunian - I reckon it took me five years to get over it once I got back home, feeling 'myself' only when I was about 17 before being thrown back into confusion and shyness at university again for another couple of years. In all honesty it was when I decided to head over to the UK to work and travel (aged 23) that I finally realised that I could talk to whoever I wanted without having to waste needless energy worrying about rejection or fitting in. It was a big relief.

Thanks Queen but I'm so very sorry that your school days had this kind of shit in them. We've all heard the saying 'kids can be cruel' but a moment of ignorance or teasing can effect someone else forever.

Vanessa, there are Joyces in every situation, aren't there? You should be proud that your daughter is also trying to befriend one. They won't ever forget it.

deepkickgirl said...

It is a basic human need, to belong. Some people need it more than others but we all need it. That was a very touching story and I hope that Saphh can break through to Joyce and that the poor girl can find her peer group and enjoy the joy of friendship.

Conor @ Hold the Beef said...

A somewhat difficult but ultimately uplifting read, Kath. I think everyone has experienced at least a little of this feeling at some stage in their life, and although such things get much easier and far less common in adulthood, it is never a nice feeling when you feel out of place or unwanted.

So often these feelings of being unwelcome or unwanted are actually unfounded (particularly in adulthood) and they just come about from incorrect assumptions about situations. It just takes the tiniest action to sort out these wrong assumptions - a smile, a little chat - and it's really quite lovely to know there are people out there actively seeking out to take on these little actions.

mele said...

Because Franzy and I are writers, people assume we have big expectations of our son: do you want him to be an artist/lawyer/doctor/poet/academic etc.

My answer is no. I just want him to have friends at school.

That's it.

Having no friends is the worst scenario for a child. Great post Kath. I'm glad Sapphire has so much compassion for others, especially as she is not encouraged to (the rules of the jungle and all that).

Kath Lockett said...

Deep Kick Girl, I hope that Sapphire makes a difference to Joyce too. It's hard to be the first one to make the move but it's also hard to be so shy and so paralysed within yourself to respond appropriately. I just hope that she keeps trying, regardless of the initial responses.

True, Conor, true. In adulthood however, it's a lot easier to take a chance and start that first chat, or smile or shrug. For most of us, the soul-destroying, gut-wrenching essential NEED to fit in is pretty well gone, so we've got so little to lose by making the first move.

Thank you Mele. LC and I get the same sort of comments. "Ooh Sapphire's doing well at school - is she going to be scientist or a writer?" and I mostly answer with, "Happy, I hope. And loved by someone who deserves her." The response tends to be a nervous backing away though!