Maurice is strapped to my chest and Briar is glued to my hand. We’re standing in the middle of her new classroom and it’s overwhelming and terrifying. I wasn’t prepared for this. Briar wasn’t prepared for this. We just came in to drop off her enrolment forms and they whisked us straight off to class. I wasn’t expecting that. There are children everywhere and they look big.They’re all dressed in matching outfits, the school uniform, but Briar is dressed head to toe in purple. It doesn’t look as though she belongs. It doesn’t feel as though she belongs. My heart is pumping a bit harder than usual and I know that if I’m feeling like this that Briar must be terrified. My poor, awkward, self-conscious daughter. I hate this.
The teacher claps her hands and calls the children to attention. They all stop and stare and the teacher says that Briar is here for a visit and soon she will be starting school. The children chorus hello and then go back to whatever they were doing. Some are writing, some are drawing, some seem to be wandering around aimlessly. I’m not sure what’s going on.
I convince Briar to take a seat at a table, and I have to kneel on the floor beside her. She doesn’t want to let go of my hand. She holds my hand and she looks at the worksheet the teacher has given her and she tries to write but she can’t manage it while she’s holding my hand. I encourage her and praise her and I slip my hand out of hers and place it on her back instead. I am here, you are safe. I want her to feel safe.
The little girl to our left is friendly and chatty, but she’s hard to understand. Her speech is unclear. It looks as though she was born with a cleft palate. She has a thick scar running from her nose to her lips. She is a nice girl. I like her and I talk to her and I try to get Briar to talk to her too. Briar sits bent over her page. She doesn’t want to look. She doesn’t want to talk.
The little girl on our right must have been coming to school for a while. Her handwriting is immaculate. She is writing a story without assistance. She looks at Briar and she leans over to the girl next to her and they start whispering. They’re whispering about Briar. They’re whispering about my daughter and they’re not being very nice, and I want to tell them to shut the hell up. I hold my tongue. I look at Briar. She’s busy writing her own story. I don’t think she’s noticed. I hope she hasn’t noticed. My heart is heavy.
Briar finishes her work and we show it to the teacher. I tell the teacher that we have to go now, but we’ll come back for more visits later in the week. Briar clutches her school work in her right hand, and reaches out her left for me to hold. I take it, wrap my fingers around it, hold it tightly, and as we walk out of the classroom I remember...
The fifth form dean leads me to the classroom. My new form class. It was my first day yesterday, but when Mum brought me in to school no one was expecting me. They sent me home. Made me come back halfway through the day, and it was the absolute worst day of my life. I can’t believe Mum made me come back today. I cried all night last night and I cried all morning this morning, and she still made me come. I feel so sick. I hate this. I don’t want to be here. I want to go back to Palmerston North.
We walk into the room and it’s pretty dark in here. Everyone is sitting around, talking and laughing and swinging on their chairs. The dean leads me to the front of the room and she introduces me to the teacher and then she claps her hands. Everyone turns and stares at me and I am so embarrassed. I remember what Mum said. She told me to smile and then everyone would think I am friendly and want to talk to me. I hate this so much and I want to run away, but I stand in front of them all and I smile and smile. The dean asks the class if anyone wants to volunteer to be my buddy. I can’t believe she said buddy. This is horrifying. I look around the room and I keep on smiling, but it’s getting pretty hard because everyone is looking away. They’re looking out the window or down at their desk or at the floor. No one wants to be my buddy and I’m still smiling but I feel like a total loser. A freak. A geek. Ugly. Stupid. Embarrassed. I want to cry.
It feels like it’s been forever, like I’ve been standing up the front of the class forever, when someone finally puts their hand up. A girl with long curly hair and a loud voice tells the dean she’ll do it. I know she’s only doing it out of pity and her friends don’t look very happy, but I’m relieved. I am so relieved. Thank god, thank god, thank god. I walk down the pathway between the desks and I sit down next to her. The stupid fake smile is still on my face. Mum told me to smile. I’m smiling.
That curly haired girl became my best friend, until one day, without warning, she decided we weren't friends any more. That was another great day of my wonderful teenage life. Ugh.