Monday, August 16, 2010


Racism. In our own backyards and within the walls of the wartime house.

While racism existed through the North End and into Shaughnessy Heights, I didn’t recognize it for what it was. In those days, the grown-ups would spew out snot in laughing fits over jokes about Bohunks and Indians. Our attitudes were tainted early in life. We had absolutely no understanding of the horrors that had been created by the colonial racial attitudes. We were innocent victims, being fed unhealthy attitudes and grievous scripts, false stories about people of other races, people who weren’t WASPS like us. We would eventually be called to duty, to raise our own kids without these horrible racist assumptions. Families are still struggling to break the cycle of ignorance that has divided our communities.

In grade five, Shaughnessy Park School tripled in size. Kids from the Rural Municipality of Rosser and other kids from the Burrows Keewatin Housing Development had moved into our corner of the world. They had infiltrated through the edges of our little grid of concrete streets and wartime houses. The Rosser kids were farmers and property owners living off the grid. They came to school by bus. The kids from the Development were from families who had qualified for subsidized housing, poor folk. There were single-parent families, immigrant families, and both rural and urban Native families from far and wide. Instantly, the dynamic of the school changed. Some of the Rosser kids didn’t have running water and had farm chores so they would get teased. They smelled different. They were heartlessly teased. The kids from the Development were a mixed bag. Their houses were new and these kids seemed older and braver and smarter than any of us who had been born into the neighbourhood. Rivalries started and our parents became afraid. There were some tough kids around now, kids tougher than us. But it did not take long for the integration, and soon the new gangs of friends blossomed and the trouble we made tripled. It wasn’t the fault of the kids from the Development, but many parents scorned and complained about the new kids, about how the neighbourhood had gone down hill, about how the new families were nothing but trouble. Imagine that, North Enders full of disdain for other North Enders!

But then we lived in a privileged corner of the North End. We knew that the dirtiest poor people lived on Jarvis. That was the street where nobody went and nobody wanted to live. It was past the tracks and past McPhillips, so it was well beyond our borders and we were safe from the likes of that sort of folk, until now. This was exactly the kind of family that had moved into our neighbourhood. Our parents scorned them because of where they’d been. It was a collection of myths, but everyone concurred, so it became truth.

None of our parents found friends among the grown-ups in the Development. Though the neighbourhood expansion was all doom and gloom from the grown-up’s perspective, it was great for me. I was no longer the only hyperactive kid in class.

In grade two my report card read, “Nancy would do much better if she would quit playing with pencils and singing aloud to herself in class.” This did not bode well for my future career as an elementary school student. I got my first whomping from Miss Calder in grade three. Her tactic was humiliation. She made me wear a baby bottle around my neck and drink out of it when I was bad. I was crushed. I was not a smart alec. I was just a chatty little girl with a quick wit and an interest in pretty much everything. My mom intervened, so I didn’t have to wear the bottle again. Then came grade four. I spent lots of time in the hall. I asked all of the wrong questions and interrupted at all of the worst times. I couldn’t sit still. One day, Miss Vickers grabbed my bangs and bounced my head against the pink painted cinder brick of the hallway, outside Room 10, at the end of the long hall. I can’t remember what she was saying to me, but I can still see her orange lipstick and the white crap in the corners of her mouth and the stretchy saliva going up and down inside her mouth as she yelled something into my face.

Then came grade five, and the lovely Miss Vickers with the Betty Boop hair cut and the bright blue Austin Cooper was promoted to grade five with us. The Rosser kids and the Development kids started moving in and our class doubled in size. By the end of the year, there were more than forty of us in that grade five class at Shaughnessy Park. And Miss Vickers had taken to strapping me instead of slamming my head against the wall.

The kids from the Development and from Rosser doubled the population of Shaughnessy Park School. I had been an impossible student for the teachers in the 12-room school, and now it had 30 classrooms. I had been bounced around and humiliated, but by grade five, with all of the other kids pouring in from different parts of the city or province, from somewhere, we never knew where, they would have to deal with me, once and for all.

Give her the strap. Just give her the strap. Never mind that I weighed sixty-five pounds and was three and a half feet tall. I was a never-ending hassle for the grade five teacher and was creating a bad atmosphere in this class of 42 kids. Just give her the strap. And that they did. Time and time again. It started in grade five and followed me over to junior high at Sisler and continued until grade nine. I’m not sure why it stopped. Maybe it was the straight A’s that had been following me all the way through. In hindsight, there was something dreadfully incongruous about it. I remember my face and neck and ears being red with heat as tears poured down my face. I was embarrassed that the teacher might know it hurt. Shrugs.

Our small enclave called Shaughnessy Heights had spawned street-smart kids with the gift of gab, but we were not very worldly beyond our four streets. The kids in the Development had lessons to share from their lives, so far. They had brand new houses complete with basements and an upstairs without slanted ceilings. They had brand new cupboards with fresh white paint. We should have been coveting their good fortune, but underneath the excitement of having hundreds of new houses in our neighbourhood was a quiet hum of dissent.

We were used to nothing being said. Our dads didn’t talk about the war. They went to the Army Navy or the Legion, but we didn’t know about the war. All of the kids on the street knew that our dads played pool or went drinking and we also knew that they didn’t do it together. My dad went to the Army Navy. Shelley’s dad went to the Weston Legion. Legion 141 was the sports Legion. We didn’t know why our dads weren’t friends with each other.

Neighbours weren’t friends. There was a difference for grown-ups.

“You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your neighbours,” my mom would say. I knew this was another nugget of wisdom from my Irish Nana.

The social division between the Development and our part of the neighbourhood started somewhere. Maybe in the school. Maybe in the homes. I think it began with the grown-ups. We would hear them talking to each other and their innocent racism would just spill off their lips into our open ears. They were the poor kids. They were the bad kids. Stay away from there. Even the teachers seemed to have that idea. But we were all just kids. And I was already a bad kid in the school, so where did I belong? I was smart-assed and smart on the tests. By grade six, Mr. Biblow had his hands full.

As the only male teacher in the school, he got the problem kids. He knew I was a problem, just as my brother had been before me. A big-mouthed jokester, but I was still the smallest kid in my grade and the loudest too. And along came Donald Roy. He was just as loud and funny as me, but he was two years older and eighteen inches taller. He became my new best friend ─ in school, at least. Together we tore Mr. Biblow’s class apart. It made me cool. Every day he was strapping either Donald or me. I didn’t give a shit. Yes, I got A’s and B’s and Donald got D’s and E’s, but together we were a perfect team. I was proud to be chirping and laughing with Donald from across the room, disrupting. I had to sit right in front of Mr. Biblow’s desk and Donald had to sit at the back. He was the tallest and I was the smallest. I never knew where Donald lived. On Chudley, I think. In the Development. Outside of school I never saw him.

The next year I went to grade seven at Sisler in a class with kids from way beyond the boundaries of Shaughnessy Heights, kids from King Edward, and Faraday, and Robertson schools. Smart kids. Kids who’d already taken typing, for Christ’s sake. Kids who for years had been told they were smart and special by the teachers. Kids who didn’t live beside the Development and had never heard of Shaughnessy Heights. They had put me into a special class. They called it Major Work. There, I had no notoriety. I became isolated, bra-less in a school of grade twelve kids. I had been stripped of my cool banter and plunked into a sea of show-offs and smarty-pants, smarter than me, anyway. And there was no sign of Donald Roy. Lightly fondly disappear. Just go.

They couldn’t have failed him in grade six; he was already fourteen. He must have been somewhere in thise shiny tiled halls of Sisler High School. Maybe they made short work of him. I noticed his younger brother, Van. He fit in better. He had friends. But I never saw Donald during all of those years. He saw me a few times, but I must have looked through him. Our tight connection built on wit and an intellectual war with Mr. Biblow had vanished and so had our chemistry.

I grew through that school, across the tracks, on the other side of the Northwood wading pool. There were only seven Shaughnessy Park kids in my Major Work class: Rod and Ken, Gary and Michael, Evelyn and Pat and me. So I had no locker partner and was embarrassed about that too. Our grade seven class was in the furthest corner of the school, surrounded by grade twelves. I was in a sea of phase one baby boomers and never spoke to any of them because they couldn’t see me. It took time for me to find my way among these strangers. I ducked the big kids. I cried at home and started to accept my new role in the class as the unknown kid with average grades. Eventually my wit percolated forth within the class and I started to take my strappings from our math and science teacher, Mr. McCullough. He would strap me in his secret back room where he prepared his science labs and supposedly drank his mickey. I chatted in class and took my expulsions to the gym while gradually, my grades started to improve.

I grasped for the fringe of the pretty girls and the popular boys, wanting to be seen near them, aching to fit in. Like most insecure adolescents, all I could see was how different I was. I couldn’t find a way to fit and I had been hitting this wall of insecurity since grade two when I felt the first sting of the big girl from Magnus Avenue, the bully, Donna Wozney. It was recess and the new addition had not yet been built on Shaughnessy Park School, so we could play on the swings and teeter totter which were still close to the school. I was standing by the red painted baby swings, that had chains to keep you from falling out, but I wouldn’t go on them, not during school hours. I think Donna was in grade five. She came over and offered me a rubber chocolate candy while I was playing, and I was thrilled. She watched with glee as I bit into it then laughed really loudly and pointed her finger at me. I think it was a fake laugh or a sinister laugh. She laughed because I had fallen for her cruel joke and I was crushed, not because I was embarrassed about the rubber candy, but because I thought she really was being nice to me when she made the offer.

In our house, the worst offence that we could commit was to hurt someone’s feelings. When I would come running in the front door, letting the spring door slam behind me, howling and talking at the same time, my mom would seem to listen. In hind-sight, I wonder if she did. She would eventually turn to me and say, “Aw, did somebody hurt your feelings? Come ‘ere.” And maybe she’d give me a hug, or maybe not, and she’d just let me explain and cry and shake and weep. And then she’d tell me I was just too sensitive. I got that a lot.

Sometimes I got lucky in my efforts to be one of the crowd and would get to ride in cars and drink. I eventually finished Sisler. I graduated with honours. I took some drugs and painted my weekends with lights and fast-moving opportunities. There was no plan, I just found out what excitement beckoned on a day-to-day basis. Parties and concerts and socials and bars were the main attractions. I usually ran with a pack of the pretty girls so that meant we wouldn’t get turned away at the door. They let me come along because I was the fast talker. I had a job to do and I was pretty good at it.

On one of the trips from Shaughnessy Heights, I found myself in a car traveling south along Main Street, probably to a social in Fort Rouge or a bar in St. Boniface. I didn’t like bennies and didn’t do acid very often, but I liked to smoke pot and hash, and it was pretty strong stuff, usually boasting red hairs or white stripes. We usually had our trendy liquor, maybe Southern Comfort or Molson Old Stock. Despite our imbibing, however, our focus remained on the next party, the place where the best boy was. Or the place where the next bag of pot was. Or the place where we knew we could sneak in.

It had been raining. It still was raining. The neon lights and the streetlights and the head lights and the police car lights were reflected in the wet sidewalk. We had to stop. We had drugs with us. We had to “get the fuck in the car!” Why were we out of the car? Why had we stopped?

“Stop! Someone is hurt!”

The car was stopped and I jumped out. There was a bus in front of me and people were standing around looking at a man lying on the ground hollering.

“He ran over my foot! He pushed me off the bus!”

I went over. Yes. It was Donald Roy. He saw me and I saw him. We read each other’s minds. He saw himself and I saw myself. There we were, the two loudest people in the crowd, again. This time I saw my separation from him. The separation I could not see when I was in grade six. Back then he knew it, but I didn’t. I was just a little girl, but he had already lived much much more than I had. Since then he had, too.

Despite the drugs and despite the liquor, I entered a zone of absolute clarity in that Main Street fiasco.

“Wait!” I screamed. But maybe I only screamed in my head. “Somebody call an ambulance!”

“Get the fuck in the car! Let’s get outta here!”

The world turned to slow motion. I must have had a bag of weed in my purse and probably open liquor in the car.

“Here come the cops! We gotta go! Get in the fuckin’ car!”Maybe someone told me that Donald Roy left this world prematurely. He saw the world with a clarity that is only now seeping into my mind. His memory rests between my shoulders and whispers in my ear. He tells me about my neighborhood and the people that we were. He tells me that we were pitiful in many ways and narrow in scope. But he liked me and I liked him back.

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