Why Do You Speak So Funny?

I hate crèche. I cry and claw onto the car seat every single morning when my mother drops me off. I screech like I’m being kidnapped to be sold on the black market. My protests are ignored, even with real tears in my eyes when I feign a tummy ache or a sore throat. Despite my desperate pleas, she grabs onto my waist, dragging my rigid-as-a-frozen-steak body through the front door of the place that houses my torture chamber. The walls surrounding the building are ironically covered in paintings of joyful Disney characters like Mickey Mouse having a laugh with Pluto, Daisy Duck and Goofy dancing, all smiles and twinkling eyes. I spread my arms and legs into a star as wide as I can to try and reach the sides of the door frame. I want to stop us from fitting through the door, but my attempt fails because I’m just too small.

Teacher Michelle takes me from my mother and tells her not to “worry about a thing; we’re going to have such a lovely day”. Her Pinocchio nose growing longer with every word, eyelash flutter and false smile. Once my mother has left, my teacher is back to her regular, miserable self. She’s an angry, middle aged, stocky woman. The black bags under her eyes made more unflattering by her hyper pigmented patchy skin. Her hair straightened and slicked back, wound into a desperately tight, low bun to hide her chemically damaged and horribly split ends. She spends the day finding reasons to ridicule me. If I colour outside of the lines, she holds my drawing up for the class to see how untidy I am. If the ants find their way to my wax paper wrapped lunch in my pigeon hole against the back wall of my classroom and I cry because I will not have anything to eat until I get home, she points me out for all the other children to see that “cry babies like Nicole won’t be going to big school”. I wear spectacles and have since the age of two. At nap time when we’re all ready and lying on our mats in neat rows, she makes me hand them to her and instructs me to come and find her when it’s time to get up.

I can’t see shit. I am the fourth fucking blind mouse.

I wake up, spend what seems like hours feeling my way around the classroom, tripping over sleeping bodies and walking into walls. I follow her voice, squinting my eyes trying to make out a blurry, fat blob that might be her. When I do find her, she returns my glasses with the lenses covered in her clammy, oily leftover vetkoek fingerprints. It’s impossible to see properly through the splotches, and wiping the lenses on my t-shirt only make them more greasy. Daily, she finds some or other reason to lock me inside the storage cupboard until just before my mother comes to fetch me. It’s usually because she “doesn’t have time for disobedient children”. She says children, plural, but she means singular, me. “Get inside the cupboard!” she yells one day, after I put my shoes on the wrong feet. I am still learning and like time, she doesn’t have patience for me either. “Do as I say,” she continues, her face turning bright red the angrier she gets, “who do you think you are? Do you think you’re white?”

What does she mean? I know all my colours and I’m not white. I draw myself with the peach crayon, I listen when she teaches us that it’s the colour of skin. All skin? I don’t even know anyone whose skin is that colour. I don’t think that people are all the same colour anyway. I tell my grandmother who gives me a list of things I can draw with that peach crayon, like salmon, a slice of melon or even an actual peach. I make my skin orange and sometimes mustard or brown or even yellow because people come in different colours. At a four seater plastic kids’ table covered in crayons is where a child could start questioning their identity, without the words to properly express their confusion. I don’t think I’m white. I don’t think of myself as a colour. I’m me. I’m just a child like all the others here. I’m quiet, I don’t fight or break things, I always pack my crayons away and fold and pack my nap time mat even when I can’t see what I’m doing. Yet here I am. Shoved into the cupboard for making her angry again and she’s angry because “I think I’m white”.

I sit there in the pitch blackness on the cold dusty tiles. It smells like my grandfather’s garage workshop, like grimy old things that have lived there for years in sad solitude. It’s so dark in here I can’t make out what’s actually being stored in the cupboard, even once she opens the door to release me from my cell, I don’t look around. I run straight out without looking back. 

It’s because of these cupboard punishments that I’m petrified of the dark. At night when it’s time to go to bed I beg my mother to read me another story because I don’t want to be left alone. But she always leaves me and I wake up the next morning covered in my own piss and snippets of dreams about a scary, fat, dumpy monster with its hair in a tight bun chasing me in the dark. My relief to see the light of day is short-lived because reality slaps me in the face and reminds me that it’s time to start the cycle of begging not to be taken to crèche, the drama of being dragged kicking and screaming and the inevitable horror of the cupboard.

After crèche, I’m enrolled at McAuley House Convent School for girls in Auckland Park. Its 1989 so a coloured girl in a private school is a big deal for both my parents. My mother is proud and optimistic about how things in South Africa are going to change. My father on the other hand is appalled, he is firmly against the idea of me going private and refuses to help her pay my school fees unless she sends me to a government school in a coloured area where we belong. She decides that she doesn’t need him; using her salary from her bookkeeping job at Mobil Oil to pay for my fees, petrol for her car to get me there and pay the rent for our small one bedroom flat in Mayfair. She can’t afford food so we eat popcorn for dinner every night. She steals our toilet paper from the bathrooms at work- my mother, the toilet stall cat burglar, might be the reason that nowadays the toilet roll dispenser in public toilets are locked and only the janitor is entrusted with the keys.

I don’t always get money for the tuck-shop but it doesn’t bother me, my friends are envious of my left over popcorn lunch which seems to trump any tuck-shop snack. I enjoy going to a private school. The classrooms are so fancy, the teachers are gentle and kind. There are so many different races and skin colours here. I want to be friends with everyone. Whenever my mother asks about my day or wants to know more about a friend that I mention, her first question is always:  “What colour is she?”

I don’t see why knowing if my friends are black, white, Indian, pink and freckle faced or Asian is important or relevant to my adventures at my new school so I start making up colours to answer this question. I ignore her irritation when I say “she’s green, she’s purple, or she’s turquoise”.

When I’m twelve years old, my mother sends me off to St. Theresa’s Convent School for girls in Rosebank because it is closer to her office. I leave one convent for another and old nuns for new ones. There aren’t as many non-white pupils at this school and the most diversity amongst my new classmates are the Jews-for-Jesus who attend the mandatory Catholic mass on Fridays but who aren’t allowed to take Holy Communion. On my first day, Bianca asks me why I speak like that. Unsure of what that is, I listen attentively to how Candice speaks- she’s coloured, like me (I know what that is now and it has nothing to do with crayons) and has been here since Grade One so she’s a pro. Her accent isn’t quite as conspicuous as mine; her words are polished and breathy and she doesn’t speak super fast like I do. When she says “here” she exhales the “h” audibly but gently so it sounds like “he-ya” and not like “y-ear” the way I say it. She speaks slowly and she’s beautifully articulate, inflecting just the right words. From that day forward I start making an effort to speak more clearly too and let my “r” glide off a slippery tongue instead of rrrrolling off of it like an avalanche. It is not just my way of speaking that gets questioned by little arseholes in shin length baby blue tunics, they start making fun of my hair. Naomi, one of the Jews, also has a head full of curls like mine. Her mom straightens it but by the end of the week it’s an oil slick because she plays with it constantly and flips it from side to side like they do in shampoo ads. I overhear the two girls sitting behind her in class call her “mango pip” because they say that her thin, greasy-by-Friday hair pulled back into a low pony tail makes her skull look like a freshly licked hairy mango seed. Despite the possibility of my hair being compared to the remnants of a fruit, I beg my mother to straighten my curls and blow-dry my fringe with a round brush every morning into a perfectly smooth, shiny C shape that just about covers my eyebrows. I want to fit in.

We have an hour long swimming lesson in summer for Physical Education. I discover after one such class of dunking my silicone condom covered head too deep under the water that my hair is completely soaked. As I lift up a piece of my swimming cap to take it off, water comes spilling out all over my face. Shit. How will I fix this without a round brush or a hairdryer? I leave the cap on and wrap myself in my towel, contemplating my options. I purposely walk slowly and pretend to have forgotten something by the pool so that everyone has time to change and hopefully leave before I get back to the changing room. I have to wait for all the girls to go back to class before I can peel my swimming cap off to reveal my drenched head of formerly sleek and straight hair. I need to put my glasses on to assess the damage; my hair has morphed back into its original form of now matted S shaped curls. I hear the toilet flush, I’m not alone. Roxanne walks out of the bathroom stall and, like someone is tickling her, she bursts into a fit of uncontrollable giggles. Tears running. Thigh slapping. The works. It is not that funny, Roxanne.

Once she composes herself, she screams: “Nicole, your hair!” Pointing out the obvious. When she eventually stops laughing so much, she packs her bag and leaves. I spend an hour and a half attempting to straighten my hair under the hand dryer. I section my curly noodles and use my fingers to rake and pull them raw spaghetti straight under the heat. Not even the smoke rising from my hair and filling up the changing room distracts me from my mission. On my way back to my classroom, a nun catches me walking alone from the pool. I smell like burned hair and look like I’m wearing a thatched roof on my head, but she’s none the wiser. Sister Alice believes me when I lie and say that I was bunking class. I would much rather get into trouble for bunking than have everyone know my hair isn’t straight. I’ll apologise to God for lying to one of his nuns at mass on Friday.

I change schools one last time and begin my teenage years at Allen Glen High. My new high school is closer to our home in Florida on the West Rand, and I can get a lift in the afternoon from my aunt when she fetches my cousin, we’re in the same grade. Here, I get my first real taste of racism, not to trivialize the instances of discrimination that I experienced when I was younger; it’s just more blatant at the government school. I’m still teased about my accent because it’s not quite white sounding but not quite coloured, apparently. I don’t fit in with the coloured girls, they’re always heard before they’re seen and after my stint at the convents, they find me too quiet. I don’t quite fit in with the English speaking white crowd because they get off ridiculing Afrikaaners, which for some reason, they think I am. 

I’m teased a lot when I start my first year of high school. They tease because I’m flat chested, my legs look like toothpicks, my skin is too pale, I’m skinny, my freckles look like poo splashes, I have big feet,  I wear glasses, I wear braces and anything else about me that they find amusing until the novelty wears off or they find someone else to tease. The teasing eases when I start smoking and holding hands with a white boy named Kyle every break time. In geography class one day I’m sitting next to Shane, who looks like a laboratory rat, with his almost colorless blonde hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. He is very popular and he is also a very big bully. Shane looks over to me with his beady rodent eyes and makes some comment about my “boyfriend” Kyle. This makes me feel shy, I have never had a boyfriend. Before I can say that he’s not my boyfriend, Shane’s entourage with their tight blonde high ponytails, skinny Nike Swoosh eyebrows and cheap cooking oil lip-gloss, all giggle and twirl their hair. Not to be left out, I giggle, tell him to “staaahp” and simultaneously nudge his hand away from my pencil case as he reaches to take my pen without asking. He turns to me and slaps me hard across the face with his open hand. It stings and feels like he’s ripped my skin from my cheek.

“Don’t ever touch me again, you dirty coloured bitch,” he snarls.

The classroom is silent. No reaction from the teacher. I don’t know if it’s because she’s oblivious to what has just taken place or if she condones it. The girls cackle between themselves, avoiding eye contact with me. Was I in the wrong? I sit at my desk quietly, for what seems like forever and just before the bell rings, I reach over to my plastic pencil case and slowly put my pens and ruler inside it, my hand shaking. I pack it neatly into my bag with my geography book. My cheek still smoldering, I get up and walk towards Mrs. Kleinhans’ desk. I feel ashamed, humiliated, angry and confused. My face stings. I don’t know if I’m blushing or if my cheek is bleeding. My classmates move their feet out of my path and lean away from me, like I’m contagious. I tell Mrs. Kleinhans that I need to go to the sick bay to get a tampon and she excuses me; the more dramatic the reason to be excused, the faster permission is given.

I never tell anyone, and I never ever speak to anyone who was there to witness what happened that day. I never wanted to be white and then I’m shoved into a cupboard after being accused of thinking that I am. I just wanted to speak more clearly and then I’m smacked for being coloured or for having a white boyfriend or for nudging a white arm. I’m just as confused as I was sitting at that crayon covered table at crèche. I stop trying to fit in.

In my twenties, I bump into one of the girls who was part of Shane’s entourage.

“You went to Allen Glen, right? Nicole, you look amazing,” she shrills.

I recognize her immediately.

“Oh, thank you,” I reply, maintaining eye contact.

“It’s me, Jenny, do you remember me?”

“Nope,” I reply, still smiling.

“What do you mean? Everyone knows who I am”. She looks utterly defeated. How sad that she thinks she still renders some sense of power in the world after high school.

“Anyway, take care umm… Jenny, right?” I leave her there. Bewildered. Mouth agape, silicone filled lips unable to close properly, botoxed forehead and under eyes unable to illustrate her shock.

Should I feel bad? Probably. Do I? I think the fuck not.

Seeing Jenny reminds me of that day in Geography class with Shane so I find him on Facebook. In his profile picture he still looks like a rat, dressed in a worn out, grease stained green and gold rugby shirt, holding a Castle beer, standing next to a braai with some chops smoking on the grill, hairline receding, skin weather-beaten. I scroll down to his last status update, Shane is: “nothing without Jesus”.

by Nicole Delabrousse