My Secret by Marthe Jocelyn
Let’s call her Debbie. I know she had a common white-girl name for a child born in the 1950’s. She was in a grade below mine, which means a lot when you’re nine years old. And she wasn’t white. She had the only brown face out of the several hundred pale ones at Balmy Beach Public School in the east end of Toronto. When I think about her now–and my awful secret–my stomach turns over, impressed by the determination with which she must have marched to school each morning–far, far away from the huge marching events unfolding in Alabama and Mississippi during those couple of years, but maybe all the harder for being the lone dark denizen of an outpost like the Beaches.
My parents were unusually conscientious citizens of their time, open-hearted and fair, believing in recycling, home-grown vegetables, and universal equality. My brother and I took after-school lessons to learn the Ojibwe language (of which about four words remain in my vocabulary). My favourite doll–with the identity-erasing name of Brown Baby–had been especially acquired to provide me with a diverse family. (I still have her.) Despite their well-intentioned efforts the limitations of our cultural experience led directly to my shame.
We lived on the second last street in the district, a mile’s walk that I made with Patty Conkie, among a gaggle of familiar kids. On this day, sudden hoots disturbed the quiet pleasure of walking home from school instead of toward it. Boys we didn’t know were taunting Debbie behind us, circling her in a threatening dance as they chanted names. The kids we were with joined in and suddenly Patty and I did too, saying what I didn’t understand to be an insult, because of the word involved. Chocolate Face! Chocolate Face! I said it only twice and knew, from the look on Debbie’s face and her hot, ferocious reply, that I’d used as bad a word as could ever be said. I went home, sick to my core, and have never told anyone until now.
Marthe Jocelyn is the award-winning author and illustrator of over thirty books for babies, kids and teens, including Hannah’s Collections, which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Illustration. In 2009, she was the recipient of the prestigious Vicky Metcalfe Award for her body of work. Originally from Toronto, Marthe now lives in Stratford, Ontario, after living in New York for 30 years. For more information, visit www.marthejocelyn.com.