‘Good morning, my little rays of sunshine.”
And we, a class full of smilers, cavorters, cart-wheelers, prancers, dancers, sang out, in distracted unison, “Good morning Mrs Cardoza.”
“Look what I’ve got,” said Mrs C, in her customary tones of jollity. It caused all the smiling, cavorting, cartwheeling, prancing and dancing to cease for one whole minute.
He has a father given to both alcoholism and physical abuse. But we feel with friends around him here, given time, he’ll blossom and learn that not everyone means him harm
“Look what I’ve got,” usually presaged a tin of sweets that, when opened, and handed out, one for each, got all of us distracted ones to sit back again in our little chairs and get ready to engage in one of the most difficult aspects of a five-year-old: Pay attention. For an entire period!
Only, on this particular morning, Mrs C’s request that we looked at what she’d got, presented a five-year-old’s first experience in a phrase he would later come across: A twist in the plot.
For Mrs C, this morning, didn’t hold out a tin of sweets. Instead, she held, by the hand, another child our age — dark of hair and expressionless of face and a stare into the distance that looked through everything and saw nothing.
“I want you all to meet Kannan. He is joining our class today and I want you all to be friends with him. Kannan, say ‘hi’ to all your new friends, darling?”
Kannan looked through his new classmates and saw them not.
By the end of Week One, everybody’s attempts to befriend Kannan came to nought.
He (rather roughly) pushed the girls aside — for it was a coeducational institution — and punched the boys, with disguised stealth, whenever they tried to ask where he was from and what did his parents do and did he like his mummy better than his daddy — a favourite five-year-old evaluation back then, and mummies always won the vote hands down.
Split lips, black eyes, elbows and knees bruised in a schoolyard scuffle as the years went by, were usually explained away in hushed whispers to the parents of those whose children had suffered injuries.
“Please try to be a little understanding. He — the poor child — has issues at home he’s trying to cope with, issues we usually don’t discuss openly, only in this case you have a right to know.
He has a father given to both alcoholism and physical abuse. But we feel with friends around him here, given time, he’ll blossom and learn that not everyone means him harm.”
Echoes of the ‘Kannan’ situation were revived recently when I was told by a teacher colleague about an adult migrant student in their English language classes. Not a child, but a grown person in his early 50s, this ‘migrant student’ was found to be ‘impossible’ to get on with.
Every time an attempt at making friends was attempted it was met with vigorous rebuff — which usually meant insulting the culture and the family history of the person attempting to be friendly.
‘Unfeeling, uncaring, uncharitable’
And then, when eventually nobody wanted any longer to extend a friendly hand, the lot of them were deemed to be ‘unfeeling, uncaring, uncharitable’.
This in turn brought protests from those who’d tried hard to be friends, but the authorities (as with the teachers in Kannan’s case) frequently advised, “Be calm. Allow some space. This person has a history of trauma. Try to understand.”
So, everyone attempted to ‘understand’ from ‘a safe distance’.
And with Coronavirus now virtually dictating ‘social distance’ it was with horror that the entire Class one morning watched helplessly as ‘the traumatised one’ entered the classroom, removed the mask, walked to each of the students seated and coughed ‘once, twice’ in their direction.
As of now, the jury is out, still deliberating the fine line between what’s excusable as ‘trauma’ and what’s ‘criminal’.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.