Recently I saw a child afraid to go into a room, even though he was desperate to join in. I also read a book by a woman who spent years trying to reconcile different parts of herself. Both reminded me of a moment in school when I was twelve.
This is one of my favourite life moments, and a story I’ve only told once. (To the child.)
When I was twelve, I had a drama teacher, Mr B, whom I really liked. As a painfully shy child (someone who could barely speak even to friends) drama posed a terrifying weekly challenge to me, but I did like Mr B.
One week, we were all sitting in a large circle when a little boy (let’s call him Dan) started to cry. One of the other boys had called him smelly. And the thing is, Dan was smelly. Dan was small and a bit grubby, and he smelled of urine, yesterday’s lunch, and unwashed socks. He was the odd one out in a class full of laundered children and we didn’t need to say it to know it. Usually any teasing was met with some throwaway line and a smile, and because he was popular, teasing was unusual. Today, though, wasn’t teasing. The other boy genuinely didn’t want to sit next to the smell and Dan broke a bit. He cried, and ran from the shame of his smell and his crying.
Mr B went after him. A couple of minutes later, they returned, Dan was seated, and Mr B changed our lesson plan.
He spoke briefly on how he would not tolerate any teasing in his class. How it was cruel. How it hurt people. We loved Mr B, respected him, and we all felt the shame because we all knew that we knew that Dan was different and we felt bad for the knowledge. Still we all knew.
Mr B said we all came from different backgrounds. We all faced different challenges. It sounded better for being said aloud. “Being smelly because you can’t wash” sounded so much more accessible than just “being smelly”.
We were told that if we were to remain in his class, we would all refrain from making unkind comments. We all wanted to remain in the class.
“Before we start today, I want you answer one question,” he said, “I want you all to tell me, what right do you have to be here? You, here, now. What right do you have to be here?”
Thirty of us, not one spoke.
We didn’t know what he meant. We were twelve.
“Compared to the other people in this room, what right do you have to be here?” He looked us in the eye. One by one.
“I don’t know.”
You need to know.
“I just am here.”
But what right do you have?
“My parents sent me here.”
Did that give you the right to be here?
“You let us in.”
Do I give you the right to be here?
“We have no right to be here.” A boy’s voice. We all started to nod. It made sense, sort of. It sounded fair, at least. What right did any of us have?
Mr B paused, “Every single one of you in this room has every right to be here. You don’t need me, or anyone else, to give you that right. You have it already; you exist and you have every right to be here.”
We all looked up at him as he scanned our faces, met our eyes, repeated it. Gave us something that four decades wouldn’t take away from me, something that would help me through the most difficult times in my life.
“You have every right to be here.”