Dee is excited when she spots the new boy in the playground. The son of a Ghanaian diplomat, Osei Kokote is the only black child in the school. When their class teacher entrusts her to show him around, their friendship develops an intensity that takes everyone by surprise. But bully boy Ian can’t let that happen. He rules the playground. He knows how to split the couple apart.
The blatant racism of the 1970s, among the teachers as much as the students, comes across as rather shocking to the contemporary reader. But these were the days in which the play would be performed with a white actor blacking up. Yet, although an authentic portrayal of the era, I would have preferred more subtlety. Even Shakespeare is able to show the hypocrisy in which Othello’s race is irrelevant when he remains within prescribed boundaries, but suddenly offensive when he wants to marry a white man’s daughter. Tracy Chevalier’s Osei is more knowing than Othello as, privy to his thoughts, it’s clear he is aware that his acceptance can only be provisional. But Shakespeare’s far more arrogant Othello gives us the tragedy of a great man brought low by his blindness to his own vulnerability.
For another school-set story about children of a similar age, see my review of The Teacher’s Secret.
Before I get to that, let me share some fictional schoolyard memories from my novels. Firstly, here’s Steve, narrator my second novel, Underneath, having his illusions shattered by his more sophisticated female classmates (p50-51):
Who brings your presents, then? says Jason Silcott.
Linking arms, three girls chorus: It’s your mum and dad, stupid!
Daniel Clitheroe stamps his foot: How would your mum and dad know what you want?
Can’t they read? comes the retort. They look at the letter you write to Santa.
I’ve seen him with my own eyes, says a smelly boy with thick glasses and warts.
Howls of laughter: It’s your daddy dressed up.
My skin prickles with the promise of defeat. We’ve got the wrong people on our side, that’s the problem. Not enough girls.
Jason Silcott does five perfect hops. What about the carrot I put out for Rudolph?
Your mum cooks it with your Christmas dinner next day.
I’m all wriggly like when I need the toilet and Miss Fothergill says I have to wait till break. If only I dared snatch the argument, I’d surely kick it straight into goal.
It’s a story for kids, says a girl with Goldilocks hair fastened in a floppy pink bow.
Her friends pretend to yawn, and turn away. Across the yard, Miss Fothergill raises the brass bell. My voice sounds muffled under the hood of my parka, but I know it’s reached them, because they stop and stare.
Michael Foster says: Who asked your opinion?
He says something else, but those words are lost in the clanking of the bell.
All my hopes that school would widen my horizons caved in on me. I didn’t understand that the letters above the stairs spelt out BOYS on one side and GIRLS on the other. That my mother would laugh, then plead, then slap me hard on the legs and carry me up like a sack of coal when I tried to go up the wrong one.
Neither of these is based on my own experience, but there’s a tiny fragment casually voiced by a minor character in Sugar and Snails that is. When Paul, the husband of Diana’s best friend Venus, says (p74):
at my school the girls were kept indoors, sewing pincushions when the boys were out in the yard playing football
he might have been referring to me and my friends, except that we weren’t even making pincushions – which, let’s face it, might have been of some, albeit limited, use – but soft toys made of felt and stuffed with kapok. Let me tell you a little more about that.
On Wednesday afternoons Mr Thompson took the boys at the yard to play football, while the headmistress, a rather scary nun, kept the girls at our desks doing needlework. Although neither sporty nor rebellious, I felt the injustice of this especially as, in the first year at that junior school, the boys had been compelled to embroider “dressing table sets” with cross stitch along with the girls. I wondered, along with my friends, what would happen if we “forgot” to bring our needlework one week. Sure enough, as we’d hoped, without the felt and thread for our giraffes, we were banished into the yard with the boys.
Despite this uninspiring introduction, I became quite adept at needlework in my 20s, making some of my own clothes until it became cheaper to buy them. And I’m sure Sister Eta would be pleased to know that I never developed an interest in football.
Apologies for the length of this post, but I’d reached what I thought was the end when the call came from Charli Mills for 99-word stories involving an outdoor game. Other Rough Writers might be more familiar with the games of kickball and double dutch played in Tracy Chevalier’s schoolyard in Washington DC. After a previous Times Past memoir prompt (on crazes) took me to an outdoor game at home, I’ve looked for renewed inspiration elsewhere:
Ram often dreamt he was a child again, running barefoot across the dusty earth. Amid the singsong voices of the staff, he often felt a child, unable to dress, wash or eat without assistance. But never before had he been led to believe he’d been transported back to childhood, his playmates’ chants ringing in his ears: Kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi …
He opened his eyes. The care staff considered the sports channel invigorating, but Ram wasn’t interested in cricket, rugby: English games. Now TV had stolen his memories, his village roots, taming the ancient game with a court and referee.