My mother once told me that when I was less than two years of age, I accidentally knocked over a child during play. I apparently helped the little person to their feet, dusted them off, and then apologized, saying ” Sorry, honey”. This amused my mother as I was much smaller than this child, and a year younger. I also had starting speaking in full sentences before the age of two.
It appears I was born with an extra dose of the empathy “gene” and therefore destined to bear witness to other people’s pain. As a child, whenever I witnessed another child being hurt or humiliated, I vicariously experienced their emotional discomfort. If they cried, I cried. This quirk followed me into early adulthood, and I remember once breaking down at a mall as a teen after witnessing an elderly lady sobbing on a bench. Someone had stopped to assist her, and despite not knowing what had happened to her , her vulnerability and helplessness got to me. I hadn’t yet learned how to erect walls of safety.
I loved the world that I experienced as a child. I loved our large yard and the swing set my father had cemented into the ground in order to stabilize it. I spent long hours swinging back and forth, convinced that if I swung high enough I could clear the roof of our house and keep on going. I loved the rhubarb patch, and the bright hollyhocks that grew against the side of the house. As far as I knew, only good existed in the world.
As I grew older, I began learning that this was not so. People did mean things, and for no apparent reason.
I once watched from the safety of our back-yard swing as an assortment of neighborhood children pinned down a small child and then proceeded to stuff her clothing with handfuls of dried grass, recently cast off by the lawn mower. They told her that they were making her into a scarecrow and despite her tearful protestations, continued with their mean task. They laughed, and I cringed. As I grew older and thought back on the event, I wished I had intervened. A part of me was certain that in choosing to do nothing, I became complicit in their act of cruelty.
When I was approximately eight or so, my mother, five siblings, and myself were waiting to catch a Greyhound bus to whatever remote location my father happened to be flying in that particular summer. It was a long wait in the bus depot, and we were past the point of boredom. We obediently sat on hard resin chairs, swinging our legs and watching the bustling activity around us.
A harried mother was also waiting to catch a bus to a destination known only to herself. She had a child with her, a child still young enough to be in diapers. The child was at the crawling stage, and being the age it was, had absolutely no intention of sitting still. Whenever it managed to wrest itself free from its mother, and begin crawling away to explore a new and interesting distraction, its mother angrily dragged it back to where she had been sitting. When the baby began squirming to get away, she began lashing viciously at its small legs with the strap of her hand-bag while we looked on in shock and horror. Back then, no one dared to interfere in another person’s parenting domain.
Sometimes cruelty came from people in positions of authority. There was a young boy named Lorne. He had followed me from kindergarten into each subsequent new grade, until we reached grade five. By today’s standards, it is unlikely he would have been considered a difficult child. Back then, everyone listened. Everyone conformed. No one challenged authority. Back then, there didn’t appear to be childhood obesity, allergies, autism, or children with severe learning difficulties. Back then, children appeared to rarely get sick, and I have no idea why that was.
Lorne was small in stature and despite having blonde hair, his skin was dusky even during winter months when the rest of our skin had grown sickly pale. I can’t remember specifically what it was that he would either do, or not do that seemed to set him apart from the other children in our class of thirty five students. By the time we had reached grade five, he had been ostracized by both the teaching faculty and student body at large. While the rest of us were skipping rope in the school yard or playing marbles in the dirt, Lorne played alone.
Apparently a behavioral infraction had occurred the day the teacher suddenly chose to move Lorne’s desk off to one side of the room, and away from the rest of ours. What must have already felt like outright rejection, surely must now have been amplified a thousand-fold.
Once his desk had been removed to an area that isolated him from the rest of the class, he sat friendless and alone.
He had developed a terrible hacking cough one winter. He couldn’t have been feeling very well on the particular day when Mr. Davis our teacher decided to engage the entire class in what only can only be described as an interrogation gone horribly wrong, an interrogation that swiftly turned into a vicious free for all.
Mr. Davis had initially set the tone by asking Lorne why he was always so difficult, why he would never comply with directions, and why he never had his home work completed when he arrived at class each morning. He then encouraged the class to join in his query, and the class enthusiastically began to taunt Lorne, until Lorne’s face crumpled, and he began keening like a small broken animal.
While Lorne cried , tears of my own rolled down my face. He couldn’t stop and neither could I. I also couldn’t stop the teacher, nor could I stop the other children from hurling their pencil sharp words with the sole intent of wounding. I wanted to flee, and most of all I wanted to erase the image of this tiny shattered boy, weeping at his desk.
I was at Somerset pool the following summer, and Lorne was there. He was happily splashing in the pool, his shoulder blades jutting out like sharp wings on his thin body. I was wading close beside him when a dark shadow suddenly encroached on our space. The shadow was cast by a large scowling woman with bleached and dry hair, dark roots showing at the crown. For some unfathomable reason, and a reason known only to herself, she seized Lorne by one thin arm, yanking him out of the pool, his bare feet scraping against the rough sides. When he stood trembling beside her bulk, she placed her face inches from his and began shrieking at him.
I suddenly knew what was wrong with Lorne.