I was seven years old, and at primary school in Willesden Green, North-West London. There, my brown skin didn’t mark me out as different, as most of the kids in my class were varying shades of brown.
One afternoon, I was seated next to a boy from Ghana called Kwame. When I say ‘from Ghana’, I don’t mean he was ethnically African but actually from London like me, but that he had emigrated from Ghana recently, and didn’t speak much English.
The teacher handed out pieces of blank white A4 paper, coloured crayons, and misshapen lumps of white wax.
“Today you are going to be making a card for the person next to you,” she announced. “You’re to fold the paper in half, design the front of the card with the crayons, then write a message inside using the lump of wax.”
This seemed a pointless exercise. After all, the wax didn’t show up on the white paper, so it wouldn’t matter what I wrote inside. I could write anything.
And then I smiled mischievously to myself. I had heard other kids talking about something called ‘sex’ in the playground. I didn’t know what it meant, I just knew that it was rude.
The lump of wax was heavy and unwieldy. Inside my card, I wrote:
I hope you are well.
I sat back, pleased with my invisible handiwork.
Then I heard the teacher say, “Now swap cards with the person next to you, and go over the inside of the card with felt tip to make the writing appear.”
I tried to stay calm. It was okay, I told myself: Kwame couldn’t read much English, and even if he did know a little, he wouldn’t know what ‘sex’ meant. I was safe.
Kwame and I swapped cards. I can’t remember what his said. I just remember freezing as the teacher walked over.
“What does your card say, Kwame?”
Kwame read it out haltingly. “Dear Kwame – I hope you – are well. Ariane – PS –”
And then he stopped, frowning.
The teacher looked over Kwame’s shoulder at the card. She silently snatched it from him and strode from the room without a word, the door swinging shut behind her.
“What does ‘sex’ mean?” I asked suddenly, panicked, to no one in particular. “I wrote ‘sex’ in my card. What does it mean?”
“UMMMM!” said the girls in my class. It wasn’t a sound that conveyed uncertainty: in the 80s in Britain, “UMMMM” was a noise that meant “now you’re for it”.
“You better pray, girl,” one of the Caribbean girls said. “You better get down on your knees and pray to the Lord that she isn’t telling your mother right now, girl!”
I started to tremble. Maybe I could say it had been a mistake?
But how could I have written ‘sex’ in error? And now I’d told the entire class that was what I’d done. They were right to say “UMMMM”: I was in big trouble.
But when the teacher came back, she didn’t mention anything about the card, or why she’d left the class for so long. She merely said “I’m going to bring round the box so you can put your materials back in.”
I thought perhaps she’d phoned my parents, but when my mother picked me up from school, she didn’t say anything about the incident either. Nothing was ever said, and for several years after that I was none the wiser as to what sex actually was.
As if not content with writing a rude word in the card, I also stole the lump of wax, as I was going through a kleptomaniac phase. I didn’t want to be discovered, though, so I hid it in my knickers and walked home in a slightly strange way. My mum asked why I was waddling. I said there was no reason, and tried to waddle a little less.
I was a very strange child.
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