Here’s a christmas story for you…
I was just remembering my first christmas in England. I would have been about four and I had just started in the first term of Crawley Green infants in Luton. I was very unhappy.
My parents had just returned to England from Tanzania and Luton was nothing like Mwanza. The faces of the people were different. They didn”t make eye contact in the same way. They didn”t say hello or ask you how you were like the people in Mwanza. The weather was cold and horrible and I had to go to this stupid school were I didn”t know anybody and nobody would talk to me..
I remember bits and pieces of that time, the walk to school, catching the bus, the green school uniform and the silly cap we had to wear. I remember that first christmas, Santa coming round to each classroom and giving us each a little school kit- pencil, ruler, eraser and so on. Mostly I remember sitting at the back of the class and watching the other pupils who seemed so far away, so out of reach. Was I invisible? Could they not see me? Or did they see me and just dismiss me? Was there something about me that they could see, that they could tell, I wasn”t one of them…?
There was one girl in particular I used to watch. Her name was Julia. I guess she was my first infatuation. She seemed older than the rest of the class and she had a maternal air about her. Maybe she had younger brothers and sisters who she used to look after. She was always the one the teacher asked to help out. I was besotted and naturally I had not spoken a word to her all term.
What stands out clearest in my memory from that time, is a very simple thing, so simple it should be trivial and yet the impact of that event changed my life for ever and its repercussions still influence my actions to this day.
It was the last day of term and I remember we were standing outside in the cold playground after lunch, waiting for the register to be read, waiting to get back into the warmth of the classroom. I was standing at the back of my class line, the rabbit fur lined hood of my snorkel parka zipped up all the way. I wasn’t just hiding from the wind and the cold, I was hiding from everything, feeling sorry for myself, on the verge of tears..
And then Julia came up to me and she said "Hi Robin, I got this for you" and she placed a small white envelope in my hand and she smiled and touched my arm, her head tilted to one side, a look of genuine affection and concern. I looked back at her, almost dumbstruck, I said thank you but she had already moved along the line and I was left, mouth open in surprise and wonder. I opened the envelope and there was the card- a picture of a little Robin sitting on a snowy windowsill, sheltering its head under its wing, feathers all puffed up against the cold. And inside, "Happy Christmas Robin, love Julia".
No one else from school gave me a card that year. I hadn’t expected any. But it didn’t matter. Someone had made a gesture, someone had demonstrated to me that I was not invisible, that I had been noticed and liked enough to deserve a christmas card. And if I could reach one person then I could reach another and another. My whole attitude changed and I guess that’s why, when I came back to school after the christmas break I no longer felt like such an alien and I quickly started to make friends and to enjoy school.
I don’t think I ever forgot that lesson: that one simple gesture could mean so much. I was never cruel or mean to the smelly weird kids, the ones everybody else picked on. I tried to find ways to be kind. I was a friend to the rebels and the outsiders, the kids who were laughed at for their race or sexuality, their parentage or their funny little habits. I never forgot I was an outsider too. I never forgot how much a simple act of kindness can mean when your whole world feels like shit and no one is on your side.
I never saw Julia again. When I got back to Crawley Green after christmas I found out she had moved to another school. I tried to find out where she had gone but I never did find out. I never really got to say thank you or to tell her how much that christmas card had meant to me.
But almost 40 years later I still hold the memory of her gift to me, I still see her round face, her dark hair and the freckles on her nose and cheeks. Happy Christmas Julia where ever you are. I love you…