I recently saw two boys waiting at the traffic light. One of them was peeling paint off the traffic light pole. The other boy said, ‘How would you feel if the pole peeled the skin from your face?’ I guessed that this Mother Teresa of roadsigns had recently been confronted by a parent for doing something bad. Perhaps he’d been told, ‘How would you feel if your sister peed in the bath while you were in it?’ And now this kid was rehabilitated, a bath-pisser no more, spreading the importance of walking in another’s shoes.
When I was that boy’s age, my family lived in Whyalla, South Australia. My dad’s job sent him to fix the BHP factory’s software. When we walked into the creaky, portable house facing the bush I said, ‘It’s cute. Small, but cute.’ It was not, but this was a line from The Baby-sitters Club, which I’d prepared earlier. There were bull-ants and brown snakes in the backyard.
The parents of Whyalla listened to Jimmy Barnes, kids listened to the Tin Lids. Everyone had asthma. On the wall of the supermarket someone had graffitied ‘Piss on the Abos’. This was quite different to the Baby-sitters Club life I strived for, and not only did my parents ban me from forming a club of sassy, adventurous child-minders, they told me I was not old enough to look after kids.
My Grade 2, 3 and 4 class had 60 kids and three teachers (until Mrs Finch won a Mercedes in a raffle and quit). Our class was called ‘The Centre’ because it was in the middle of the school, but you could be forgiven for thinking it was the institutional section. The Centre had all the ADD kids and psychopaths (like William, who I was quietly attracted to, until I accidentally kicked his foursquare ball and he pinned me down and tried to bite my face). We also had the kids with disabilities: Sharni, who had no hands; Colin, who had an intellectual disability and keen interest in sex; Bella, who had Cerebral Palsy and despite not being intellectually disabled, had to do everything with Colin.
Each week one kid from class would do ‘Cooking with Colin and Bella’. This entailed an embarrassing trip to the supermarket with a Special Needs teacher, while Bella lumbered along and Colin tried to erotically engage with shoppers. It culminated in a lunchtime meal, which I didn’t eat, having witnessed Colin’s shoddy hand-washing.
For my birthday, I was having a party at Whyalla McDonald’s. The day I gave the invitations out, Jessica was away. I crossed out Jessica’s name, and wrote Bella’s on the invite instead. It was generous: something a member of the Baby-sitters Club would do.
When I told my mum, she went off at me: ‘How would you feel if you got an invitation with someone else’s name crossed out? Knowing you were a second choice?’ In a flash, I went from feeling glorious to hideous.
I’d given Bella a second-hand invite. I rubbed her face in the fact that Jessica, who got to play foursquare and wasn’t forced to cook with Colin was, in my eyes, better than her. Every time I thought about my callousness (constantly), I wanted the earth to swallow me. I thought about Bella showing her mum the invitation, and it made me cry.
In this photo of the ensuing party, you can’t tell which girl was abused, which one’s sister was teen pregnant, which one’s dad lived in Coober Pedy and struck it rich after finding black opals in his toilet. You can’t tell which of the smiling girls is Bella, who came to the party showing no signs that I’d crushed her spirit. I can tell you that the birthday girl, redeemed, was experiencing acute relief thanks to Bella’s presence.
I had walked in someone else’s shoes, and I felt suddenly so much more mature that the nine-year-old of last week. Perhaps so mature I could be a member of the Baby-sitters Club.