October 9, 2007
by Elaine Park
For a few years, in grades five and six, I went to a small rural school a few miles out of a town that was a few hundred miles out of anywhere else. At lunch and recess we all played marbles and the girls skipped rope. I could manage single-rope skipping, but never double dutch. I was not even allowed to turn the ropes for double dutch. In the winter we played a game that involved tramping out a big circle in the snow, cut into pie-shaped pieces that we had to run around. We played dodge ball, which I was relatively good at, although to this day I am uncomfortable with things flying at my head. The kids teased me for colouring people's hair orange when I was doing art, but I was pretty sure that "red hair" was just a figure of speech and the orange crayon was the way to go.
By seventh grade, I was discovered to be an advanced learner and got sent into town on the bus to Robert Moore Elementary, the biggest school in the area. We had French taught to us by a hip young Quebecois couple who were eventually caught smoking dope and fired. We had music taught to us by the crusty high school band teacher and learned to play recorders.
The students at Robert Moore were contemptuous of "farmers" as they called us kids who came in on the bus. Although some of the kids did live on farms, the label didn't make sense for me. We had moved to the area from an even more remote northwestern Ontario town, but before that we had lived in England, France, and Belgium, as my dad was in the military police in the Canadian Air Force. I had seen the gondolas of Venice, walked among the row-on-row crosses in Verdun, gone shoe shopping in London, and got my first pair of glasses in Luxembourg. I had learned to say "fermez la bouche" courtesy of the rude grandchildren of the lady who lived next door to us in the village of Virton. My parents were both from Toronto, and my mother was painfully intellectual and only listened to classical music and Broadway musicals. She had a lifetime birding list. Clearly it was not I who was the hick.
When I first started going to school at Robert Moore, some of the kids tried to set me up for a prank involving a boy who was overweight. They crafted a pretend love note from him to me. It was going to be a masterful humiliation doubleheader. The girl who sat behind me, who a few years later became quite a nice person, passed me the note. I somehow picked up the wrong piece of paper and opened it up. It was blank. "That piece of paper you passed me was blank," I earnestly told her. Much later I found the pretend love note and realized with some wonder that I had completely messed up the plan basically by confusing everyone too much to proceed.
After a while though, I developed some solid credibility by being compulsively defiant of any form of authority while pulling down some of the highest marks in the school, and also by being a little exotic from having living abroad. I was welcomed to join the bad kids in the back alley while they smoked cigarettes, even though I didn't smoke myself. I eventually became part of a group of girls who liked me as much as I liked them, and we stuck together from then on.
I'm sure I wasn't happy about any teasing I endured during these years, but when I look back, I don't remember feeling that angry or bitter about it. I knew I was an outsider, but I changed school every two years until I got to high school, so I was an outsider for a legitimate reason. I also took my status as evidence of my superiority. I was proud of being different because being different for me meant being better.
Instead, when I think about it all, I feel a softly glowing gratitude for the kids who did befriend me. There was the girl who taught me how to draw a face by making a U and then filling in the details of hair and eyes and nose. The girl who came to my house to make mud pies and act out episodes of The Man From Uncle, and who joined me on a tour of all the town's churches one day when there was no adult around to stop us. The girl who had me over to her crowded, noisy house where the only place to find solitude was on the roof of her porch. The neighbourhood gang who included me in a perpetual travelling game of football that raced from yard to yard on summer afternoons. The tangles of kids who absorbed me as a matter of course into the jumping, swinging, chasing anarchy of childhood fun.
I especially remember with satisfaction the friends who were along with me on the wild ride from grade seven dances to graduation day. It's been a long, long time since I've seen or heard from them. I guess I could find them if I wanted to, find them graying, and matronly, and slightly disapproving of me and my habit of running for freedom whenever obligation got too close. But I prefer to keep them as they were, especially my closest and best friend, who lives forever in my mind with her long, brown hair blowing behind her in overlapping flaps as she bikes ahead of me, sensible, loyal, and kind -- with friends and family intact and the whole glorious future stretching out in front of her -- it's a memory that I treasure and don't want to redeem for the unequal reality of the present. I hold it as a sacred icon -- for me and for her.