Sunday, April 3, 2011

London Child

When I was four, my father, a jurist in Jamaica, was granted "long leave" for a year, a sabbatical with passage paid for him and his family to England. This was a clause in the employment contracts of some civil servants in what had until recently been a British colony, and my parents had decided just what to do with the year. My dad had studied law in England. He and my mother had moved there right after they were married, and spent their first years together in a small flat in London. My mom worked as a secretary while my dad went to law school, and that period of their lives remained a sweet memory for them.

My brother was conceived in England, and his godparents became the older white English couple who lived upstairs and were my parents' landlords. This couple, the Dixons, were surrogate father and mother to my parents during their years as a young married couple in London. A decade later, when my father qualified for long leave, the plan was to return to their old flat on the ground floor of the Dixon's home at 22 Studdridge Street. They would enroll their children in school and while the Dixons watched over us, my parents would travel the continent, visiting countries they hadn't be able to afford in their student days, and also spending some time with a dear friend of theirs in Ireland.

As I recall it, my parents came and went and were never away for more than a couple of weeks at a time. And I had my older brother with me, who was six years old to my four. But the loneliness I felt when they were gone was abject. The Dixons, so dear to my parents, were strangers to me, so formal and mannered and foreign in their ways. I became a shy, locked in girl, unable to find her voice, dreaming in the cold front parlor and peering out the corner of the heavy brocade curtains at people passing on the street.

Imagine taking a four year old used to running in the yard after school and climbing trees and using a capsized wheelbarrow as an armchair as I chatted at the fence with the Azan children next door. Then take that child and deposit her for endless months in a dark, narrow English townhouse filled with uncomfortable Queen Anne couches and claw foot antiques. And on the walls, portraits of somber-faced men and women who looked nothing like my sprawling, exuberant Jamaican family. I remember the bathroom was freezing cold and everything tiled and white and fluorescent bright, and I hated to go in there. To make matters worse, I have barely a memory of anything before that time. There were vague images of laughing aunts and uncles and hide and seek at birthday parties with cousins against which I compared the circumstances in which I now found myself. But those images were blurred and dreamlike, while that year in London remains sharp in all its details, the moment the clock started for me in terms of knowing myself.

And then there was school. Peterborough Primary School, the back gate for which was just up the street from the house where we lived. From upstairs, we could look over the brick wall that marked the end of the back garden and see the expanse of asphalt and the huge, imposing, crumbling stone castle of a building that was the school. And just beyond the wall, right on the other side of it, were the outdoor bathrooms the kids used during recess. I am sure there must have been bathrooms in the school building as well, but I never found them. It never occurred to my four and then five year old self to ask. If I needed to go, I used the ones at the far end of the playground, the ones I could see over the wall from the house where I stayed.

The stalls were on one side of a long stone corridor open to the sky. There were about ten covered stalls with wooden doors that had once been painted blueish green but now were faded and splintered and decrepit, and there were no locks on any of them. Whenever you were inside one of the stalls, you could count on mischievous schoolchildren running down the row and banging open all the doors and laughing maniacally at the fact that they had seen you with your pants down. I never got used to it. I used to slightly wet myself so as not to have to go.

This was the period of my life when I began to feel that something was wrong with me. Everything about me was wrong. I began to notice that I was a fat dark child among fleet blond pink-cheeked children racing around the school yard. I felt ungainly when I ran, which was seldom, because no one asked me to join their games and I didn't know how to find my own way in. In class, there was only one other child of color, a dark-skinned Pakistani boy who did befriend me. The way he did it was in art class one day. The other children at the table had agreed that he and I should be given only the black crayon to color with. This boy kept sneaking other colored crayons from the pile and holding them in his lap. I was sitting across from him, and I realized what he was doing when he started passing me the other colors under the table, until we had most of the crayons between us, passing them back and forth and drawing and coloring to our hearts content, and none of the other children were the wiser. After that, I considered him my friend, though I can't recall ever having a single conversation with him.

I now understand that four and five year old children are at the age when they are classifying things, and this boy and I were visually different from the other children in the class. Their neglect of me may have been based on little more than that, combined with my painful shyness at the time. And yet it left its mark. Especially since my older brother was having none of these problems. He was the prince of his class, the new boy everyone seemed to be fascinated by, the one everyone fell over themselves to befriend. I remember twin girls in pigtails and plaid pinafores who seemed always to be on either side of him, except when he was whizzing past me on the playground, at the center of all the games. Well, my brother was dark complexioned and foreign like me, so that clearly wasn't the cause of my aloneness. Maybe it was because I was fat, I thought. I found all kinds of other reasons, too.

The absolute worst day of that whole year was the morning our teacher handed out a short paragraph and asked us to underline all the verbs. Perhaps it was the English accent in my Jamaican ear, but I thought she told us to underline all the words. The exercise made no sense to me but, obedient child, I did as I thought I had been asked. When she collected my paper, she stood over me and exclaimed, "You stupid girl!" and I don't recall what else she said, just that for the rest of the class I was made to stand on a chair at the front of the room with my face in the corner for my transgression. I think it is no mistake that I grew up to be a writer and an editor. Because as lonely and lost and locked in as I felt that year, in some untouchable part of me, I knew I knew that teacher was just plain wrong.


  1. I don't know what to say,
    this was exquisite and fascinating and heartbreaking all at the same time.
    I marvel at these pieces of your life that you share...
    and I feel in this instance that I want to befriend and hug and mother that little girl you.
    It is interesting how different children can adapt to situations so very differently . I would never leave my children like that , but on paper it all sounds perfectly fine I suppose.

    You reminded me of my own school bathroom terror when I was in kindergarten... I'd forgotten that experience

  2. deb, i wouldn't leave my children like that either, but nor did my parents know of my distress because i never shared it. i really do understand that they thought they were leaving us with two of the most loving people in the world, but no doubt i was too young to be left at all. much later, when i was grown, i finally shared with my mom how i had experienced that time, and she cried. what can i say? parents trusted the extended network back then. several of my cousins lived with us during different periods when i was growing up, some of them for a year or more. i remember a new family moved in across the street from us at one point, this was in jamaica, and there were so many children of different ages and appearances at our house they thought we were a boarding house. i don't blame my parents at all. my brother was entirely fine and i guess you could say i came through it okay, too. but i appreciate your reading and commenting and feeling. thank you.

  3. Angella, heartbreaking and beautifully described. The loneliness and self castigation we suffer the cruelty of children and adults too knowing or otherwise. I hope you continue your journey here on the page. Do you still have an accent? I have found Jamaican/British accents to be the most melodious I have ever heard.

  4. I share too many similar memories to be able to be objective about this at all.
    Painful. My soul shrivels tight.
    Well. We survive. We go on.
    But still.

  5. you speak beautifully, eloquently to the outsider, which i daresay includes many of us here.
    the memories of being 4 and 5 are the earliest, clear memories for me.
    i suspect that the age, coupled with the dramatic change and emotional impact, embedded those years like amber in the geology of your mind.

  6. Rebecca, thank you. I find that when I write a thing down, put it in front of me and look it square in the face, i give it a life outside of myself, where it can no longer haunt me. so I will probably keep writing things down. and my accent these days is sort of scrubbed of distinctive corners and sharp rises, except when I am talking to another jamaican. my coworkers think i'm bilingual or whatever the word is for being fluent in two accents!

  7. oh ms. moon, don't let your soul shrivel over this. i am fine. it is just a story now. because yes, we survive and it lets us know forever after that we can. love to you, sweet woman.

  8. susan t., you said it exactly, and with such poetry, yes. it is just like that. thank you.

  9. wow. that story revealed so much about so may things in just a few short paragraphs. but, most importantly, it really gave me a peak into your world and how you handle certain situations, even then.

  10. All of your experiences in life, have made you who you are today.
    A wonderful, sensitive, compassionate, gifted, beautiful woman! It just breaks my heart that some of those experiences were as painful and truly sad, as you described in this post.
    I love you, my friend.

    (: ․☆´`'*¸.☆¨´`'*°☆.․:)
    `☆. ♥♥ A HUG ♥♥~ .☆
    ․ ․`'☆.¨´¸☆¨¸.¸.☆¨
    ․ ․ ․ ․ `'*☆.¸.☆

  11. Wow, Angela, this is an amazing piece and I feel quite tearful as I read it. You are an amazing writer and that fact you can transport me - a Kiwi bought up on the beach - right there with you to that school, right beside that fence, looking up to the sky is incredible. I am so glad I found your blog.

  12. First off, sweet Angella, the little girl in me is sending the little girl in you an enormous hug and a fresh box of 64 count Crayola crayons!

    I am glad that you write these stories down because it brings them into the light where the power they once had is somewhat diminished. You should write that teacher a thank you note for showing all that she could never be and bringing out all that you could. As much as I wish things could have been different for you, I am glad that they brought you into your own light where your beauty could shine freely.

    You are wonderful, my friend.


  13. Oh wow. Your writing is so raw, it brings tears, but tears of hope. I see the pain, but I see also the beauty in your life, your loving parents, family.
    How did you do it? How did you become the amazing wife, mother, woman you are today? I understand the hurt, I feel it, I know it so well, but how do you leave it behind?
    I agree with one of your comments, when you write about the pain it can no longer hurt you as much. I am only learning this. Writing, talking and sharing means that I am doing better. Hurting much less. Thanks for reading about my friend David, and thank you for the comment. I do miss and love my beautiful Dave.

  14. I have done therapy, am now pursuing group therapy twice a week (or will be once I come back to NY this week). It's helping a lot. It brought me hope and faith in myself. I am hoping the pain will slowly fade, but despite the sad undertone, I am happier than ever. And I am so psyched to be able to find positive influences everywhere in my life (whether my amazing aunts and family, or the virtual mothers who inspire me: Katie Granju, The girl Who, You, amongst others.)
    Thanks for visiting and stay strong, but keep on sharing.

  15. You are my treasured friend and I am inspired by your words each day. These memories emerge painfully, leaving me teary and a little breathless. Yet, I take comfort from the transformation, hurt becomes creation and allows for growth; and you have a gift for generosity

  16. Hey C., we have to have lunch! Lots to catch you up on.

    Gabriele, thanks for that beautiful heart, my sweet artist friend.

    Jody, a Kiwi brought up on the beach is probably closer to what felt normal to me than anything! It's always so interesting to me the way our lives a world apart can intersect. Thank you for the open hearted comment.

    Debra W, i would just love if the little girl you and the little girl me could sit down together and color with that box of crayons. i think we could remake the world. and yes, that teacher showed me i was strong. so i do thank her. love to you.

    Miss A, thanks for the reminder that no matter what pain we carry, we can be happy, too. it all exists together all the time, doesn't it? keep writing and sharing, my friend!

    Isabella, i cherish our friendship and the way we are always there for each other, no questions or judgements, with our so similar personality structures! i am so glad we found each other all those years ago, fretting over our quiet, watchful girls. Look at them now! Much love to you, dear friend.

  17. Angella, you write so beautifully and with such emotion. This is one of those posts where I felt it so deeply, but can't think of anything worthy to say.

    Poor little tiny you. Even though I know that those sad memories combined with happy ones to make you the wonderful person you are today, I'm still sorry you had to go through that.

  18. Your words allowed us to share every moment of this with you...the chill of such a different geography, absence of the familiar and I would have felt terribly abandoned. When we view these times as you have, stepping back, it is not that the sting is removed but, as you say, they are set in front of us, not left to haunt us from within. I think of a child sensing exile but not knowing why or what to call it. My love to your resilient child self.

  19. I love the way you have recorded the memories brought up by the wooden door. You brought me right back to the four year-old level with the words and images you used and yet, in the end, gave me some of the perspective of your adult self. Really nice essay. Glad I stopped by to catch up today. x0 N2

  20. ellen, that you are here, that you keep coming by to say hey, that is everything. thank you, friend.

    Marylinn, thank you for reading and sharing, and for being here.

    N2, glad you stopped by, too. I am enjoying discovering your blogs. Thanks for the kind words here.

  21. I am gobsmacked by this post, how did I miss it? How long have I been following and reading your blog? It seems like I've know you always, and yet there are so many stories I've missed. I never cease to be amazed by the common threads that bind us here.

    My inner broken child knows the pain and confusion you put to paper. My grown up messed up self continues to write about these seminal events, trying to capture the feel and smell and ache of it all, I guess to exorcise the ghosts, to make it go away, to put it on a shelf and be done with it. And yet, I can't stop wishing to reach out to my little self, to comfort her somehow, to try to pull her out of her painfully observant shell and help her engage in her life not as a passive and unworthy victim, but as a happy child. I was rarely a carefree child, unless lost in a book, and crippling self consciousness and self loathing from my earliest memories are among the culprits. I am fascinated in my later years by the rippling effects these things have had on my life and my life choices, and wondering if those painful years were the price paid for these ones. I'll never know, but I do keep writing about them, trying to sort them out or find a stone unturned, a clue or a snippet I missed, seeking to understand now what I was unable to comprehend then. My most traumatic year was in the third grade, and a few years ago, at a reunion with a classmate, I talked about how damaging the mean teacher was to me, and my friend laughed and said Jesus Mel, it was third grade - let it go! I realized she was right, but she might as well have asked me to cut off a finger, because those years are entwined so tightly in me I wouldn't know where to begin. So I write, and I write and I write. And the best part of all is I read and I read, and I find words like yours to read and I gain so much comfort from the sharing. It's the next best thing to being able to comfort that sad child.