We are still at Mike’s family’s cabin for the Canada Day weekend. My nephew, Tyler, and the other Canadian kids are down by the barn playing America’s favourite sport: football. (Don’t worry, most of them play hockey, too.) They are about 10 years old, give or take. My brother and I were about their age when we moved to Canada.
Before then, we lived in California. I’m not sure what it was about my school. Or maybe I don’t know what it was about me. Regardless, it was not a good fit. I missed a lot of school due to stomach aches. Bad ones. My mom took me to doctor after doctor. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure it was a physical manifestation of anxiety, but it was a mystery at the time.
I had neighbourhood friends, but none at school. Before I arrived in grade three, kids had already formed (what I perceived to be) impenetrable social circles. Whether they were actually closed to me or I just saw them that way, I don’t know.
In addition to these tight circles, kids played in groups of skin tone: light, medium, dark, with a corresponding place on the social ladder. Beyond race, though, at the very, very bottom of the pecking order was yet another level: what we called the “retarded kids.”
I didn’t fit into any group. It’s not that I was bullied, though I was a little. It was more that I felt invisible. And so, rather than wandering the schoolyard at recess by myself, I took to playing four-square with “the black retarded girls.” (As I write this I am cringing at these words, but that’s the language we used.)
We knew a lot profanity and tossed around terms like blow job, mother-fucker, and faggot. Teachers shook their head and told us the story about the grade six girl who had gotten pregnant a few years earlier. Sex was just a couple years around the corner.
This was at a time when our babysitters would leap up and turn the channel when a commercial for Tampax came on. In our home, the phrase, caca poo-poo, was strictly off-limits. We knew better than to bring our schoolyard lingo home. Our advanced knowledge was way out of sync with our age. It’s not hard to imagine the schoolyard culture, racial division, and cliques eventually coalescing into gangs.
As a matter of fact, in grade four, the future entrepreneurs and dug dealers of America began soaking toothpicks in cinnamon extract, wrapping them in foil packs of five or ten, and selling them on the schoolyard. A nickel, a dime, a quarter: prices rose. Commerce boomed, and allowances changed hands quickly.
You might think this would have come to an end because teachers saw half the class running around at recess with toothpicks in their mouths. Or perhaps because a parent became alarmed when their child spent his evening at the kitchen table, patiently soaking, drying, and rolling packs of toothpicks. In fact it was ended by what happened to a little girl. Her lips and tongue swelled up during math, and the ambulance took her away. There was a big assembly. The market went into tailspin and within the course of a single afternoon, cinnamon toothpicks weren’t worth the foil they were wrapped in.
I remember all this, and even though I trusted my parents, I was without the tools to fully communicate my reality. I’m going to try to remember this as I relate to my niece and nephew.
I have to stop here because I don’t want to give the impression that my childhood was absolutely awful. I had friends and family who loved me, and we many wonderful times and fantastic adventures. It’s just those two years at that school I hated, and that was a big part of my world at the time.
And then my world changed.
I was extremely anxious on the first day of grade five, my first day of school in Canada. And I remember the very first recess. It was a sunny fall morning. Kids were running and playing tag in the forested park which acted as an extension of the schoolyard. I was walking along the path around the park, trying to appear disinterested.
“Hey, you!” a blond haired boy yelled.
“Yah,” I said, nervously. I specifically remember looking down, avoiding eye contact.
“Hey everyone, the new kid from California is playing!”
That was it. In less than a minute, I was accepted and playing with the other kids.
Acceptance and belonging can make all the difference. By grade seven, I was the student council president and winner of the all-around-student-of-the-year award. There were no racial divides. The closest equivalent to selling toothpicks was tossing hockey cards against the wall. My stomach aches were gone. I had lots of friends. Years later, the blond boy who asked if I wanted to play tag asked me if I would be the best man at his wedding.
I truly marvel at my brilliant luck, moving from one school to another, one country to another. I wonder who I would have become had I stayed in California, knowing that I was being moulded into something far different than I am today. I feel blessed. The kids are down by the barn playing football. Another reason to celebrate Canada Day.