“Did you colour this in?” My mother’s voice was guarded. It was winter and I think she was wearing her navy blue slacks. I looked at the picture in my workbook. It was of a mountain with trees and a mountain pass for roads. It was very well coloured in.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I must have done.” It was my workbook she was holding. Who else would have done a drawing and coloured it in, except me?
“It’s really very good,” she said. I found that I had to agree with her. I glanced at the picture again and it did look nice. I didn’t think about it again but there was something in the way she said it that left me feeling a bit uneasy.
I was right to feel uneasy. I discovered why the next day at school. I was in Standard 1 and it was a very difficult year for me. I struggled to concentrate because I was short-sighted and in need of glasses. But no one had realised it yet. The reports reaching home were that I didn’t concentrate or pay attention in class. My teachers were all at their wits’ end. What was to be done with me? I never coloured neatly inside the lines. I couldn’t cut straight with a scissors. My handwriting was always untidy. I never paid attention. I was always being shouted at and people were always cross with me.
The next day my Standard 1 teacher, Mrs van der Heever, approached me in class. It must have been at about midday. Bad things always seemed to happen at midday. She was furious. It related to the picture in my workbook of the mountain and the trees. It turned out that my desk partner – Ronan Sharkey – had done his drawing of the mountain in my workbook, and I had done mine in his. And Mrs van der Heever was furious because my drawing of the mountain was absolutely appalling. And – to add insult to injury – my ugly drawing was now a permanent feature of poor Ronan Sharkey’s most excellent workbook. When I say she approached me, I’m really putting it very mildly. She shouted all of this at the top of her voice in front of the whole class.
I was utterly humiliated. Nothing was said about the mix up of the workbooks. Whose fault that had been. How it had come about that we’d done our drawings in the wrong book. Was that my fault as well? Continued exposure to Mrs van der Heever’s daily tirade of deriding and belittling the pupils in her class had not made me used to it. And the comparisons with “my five-year old daughter” when it came to my clumsiness with a scissors or my hastily scribbled colourings-in, all came back to me.
By then I had found ways to deal with my hellish life in Standard 1. It all took place at school, and school was a nasty, horrible place with evil villains and wicked teachers around every corner. But at least it all fell under the label “school”. It had never reached home before. Even the comments in red ink in my exercise book written by Mrs van der Heever, such as “I give up?!” scrawled over an entire page were a part of “school”, though my mother could read them at home.
But my mother compromised me on that day. The incredulity in her voice when she saw the beautiful mountain pass, so neatly coloured in, so well-drawn, in my exercise book. The gradual realisation of her disbelief in my ability to do anything well, to produce anything good or to achieve something that one could be proud of. That was the real betrayal. That was the start of the corrosion in our relationship which, ultimately, would develop into a gaping chasm.