In the Eyes of the Beholder
Suzy Stewart Dubot
Copyright©April 2013 Suzy Stewart Dubot
Published at Shakespir
An Anglo/American, Suzy has spent the last 30 years of her life in France. She recently spent seventeen months in London, England, caring for an aged relative. An avid reader of three or four books a week, she was baffled as to how writers invented dialogue. A poorly written Regency romance made her feel she could do better, which is how she discovered that people in novels talk without help from the author. She now takes dictation from her own novels’ characters…
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As soon as I was out of the door, away from my mother’s sight, I rolled down my socks. There were other children at school who wore short socks, so perhaps mine would pass for that, although they were not white.
A school uniform has advantages besides that of declaring to which school you belong. One of them is that it eliminates the problem of what to wear throughout the school year.
If you are a girl, you know that each day will require the same grey tunic with white shirt and tie sporting the school colours. Grey or beige knee socks may be replaced with short white socks. Black or brown shoes are acceptable footwear.
If you’re a boy, the only difference is that it is long, grey shorts rather than the tunic, but the same knee socks, white shirt and school tie prevail. Everyone wears the same coloured sweater or school blazer with the school crest sewn on. The crowning of all this is a cap for the boys and a beret for the girls; very smart looking on the whole.
Yet another advantage is that a uniform also avoids flaunting personal, possibly expensive, items to make others envious or to look less well-dressed. It is a levelling of the classes and considered a pretty good system in Great Britain, except… there was I without any of it; no tunic, no tie and only knee socks that were pale blue, eye-catching hand-me-downs. The blue would only emphasize the fact that I was one of the poor ones who would never be able to afford a uniform — the very thing that might have camouflaged my embarrassing social condition.
To add to that humiliating state of ‘poverty’ was the classroom call each Monday morning for school dinner money. I didn’t have a folded paper prepared by my mother with money to hand to the teacher. I shrank as I waited for each child to be called in alphabetical order. They would approach the teacher, who verified the paper’s contents, ticked the register next to the child’s name and then emptied the coins into a metal box. That sound was particularly poignant. When my time came, it seemed the whole room suddenly awaited my contribution with bated breath. I would go to the desk and quietly tell the teacher that my week of dinners would be paid for by social services.
I was never able to determine what the teacher’s look meant as I waited for her to tick the register and add a special mark after my name. Every week I told her the same thing in front of the whole class so that she knew that I would not have money to give, and yet every week she called me up without fail. Perhaps it was to give me the chance to redeem myself with coins in folded paper.
But once that trial finished, I would have a reprieve for another week. Mortification was behind me until the following Monday morning and the dinner money ordeal.
There were other social chagrins to mark a child. The fellow-pupil who quickly hides behind a tree rather than walk home with you. The lack of invitations to birthday parties because it is known that you would not bring a gift. Perhaps kindness on a parent’s part to avoid you arriving empty-handed, dressed in some unsuitable garb for a party. The fact that you would never be giving a party might automatically remove you from that rota anyway.
For me, poverty was never about having small portions of food and drink. It was never about sleeping in a bed with an old feather mattress that sank and became hard after the first half hour, nor about the coats that were thrown on the bed for extra warmth. An old, hard block of Gibb’s dentifrice to use instead of toothpaste, a weekly bath with the same water shared by everyone in the family, damp clothes, all were normal — until compared to life outside.
Poverty became very real when seen through the eyes of others.
This is the third vignette in the non-fiction series of my childhood nearly 60 years ago in London, England. After my parents divorced, there was, apparently, very little money for my mother and us three children. Today, I'm not so sure about the money, because my mother managed to save enough to buy a house...