There was a girl I knew at school.
Her name was Karen.
I didn’t know her well – we were in different classes and in different streams.
In an effort to be non-judgemental the streams were named after colours, but everyone knew that Red was the top stream, Blue was the middle stream and Green was the bottom stream.
I was in Red class, Red stream – eventually. During the first few days of my attending secondary school they managed to lose my records and so I was put in Emerald class, Green stream.
Not only that but they put me in the remedial class.
It was quite nice at first. We had our own little room in the old part of the school. We had a lounge area, some tables and a small kitchen area where our teacher – Mrs W – made us warm (but not hot) drinks.
We also had biscuits.
My friends were a bit jealous.
I spent the first day colouring in.
I spent the second day colouring in.
I spent the third day colouring in.
Mrs W could see that I was getting a little bored and allowed me to cut out pictures for the others to colour in. The scissors were blunt ended.
This was when I met Karen.
She had a mop of mousey curls, a squint and her school uniform looked as if it had been made for someone much smaller and older. She was a quiet girl; most of my companions were quiet apart from one girl who rocked in a chair and occasionally screeched.
Mrs W and I learned how to calm the girl down after a few days.
My Mother did not think that I should be spending my formative years colouring in so she went into school with me after my first week.
The headmistress; a large, round woman who wore a lot of pale pink Crimplene, listened to my Mother with a patronising look on her face.
‘I’m afraid all mummies think that their girls should be in a higher set.’
My Mother, red hair sparking, said that she wasn’t moving until the demon headmistress had phoned my primary school and asked for my records to be sent over.
The headmistress phoned and was put through to my old headmaster; a lovely man who was so respected that he had a street named after him many years later. I liked him and he liked me. He told the headmistress about my academic achievements and even said he would drop my records over on his way home.
I was promoted the next day.
Being in the top class of the top stream was hard work and there was very little colouring in.
The scissors had points though.
One of my new classmates knew Karen. She wasn’t very nice to her; sneering at her old clothes, and on one occasion when Karen failed to respond to her teasing, this girl even pulled Karen’s curly hair.
My new best friend Georgina, and I pulled the nasty girl off and I took Karen back upstairs to Mrs W, who was quite pleased to see me.
She even let me make Karen a warm drink.
I wanted to know why the nasty girl had picked on Karen, and I got the answer from another girl who had been to the same primary school.
Karen lived in a children’s home.
That was why her clothes were old and didn’t fit.
That was why no one had sorted out her squint.
That was why she was so quiet.
I am ashamed to say that apart from saying ‘Hi’ in the playground or in the school dinner hall, I didn’t see much of Karen after that.
I was too busy being the school rebel and avoiding the headmistress.
Every morning at assembly (I went through an atheist stage where I pointedly refused to sing hymns and kept my eyes open during prayers), I fantasised about running up the steps to the stage and pushing the headmistress off.
In my fantasy she bounced like a giant rubber ball.
She bounced down the school hall and out of the double doors, finally fetching up against her office door.
It was just a fantasy.
Luckily the deputy headmistress took me for English and had my back when things became awkward – usually about my interpretation of school uniform.
I took my ‘O’ levels and I passed.
I went on to the local Tech to do my ‘A’ levels and I passed again.
After a brief flirtation with drama school, and working in bars, I ended up volunteering in a children’s home.
I began to understand what life must have been like for Karen.
The home was run by an older couple who treated the children fairly well but it was always an institution – never a home.
After three months of volunteering, I got a permanent job as a houseparent at another establishment. The staff team was younger; less rigid and I began to understand how we could change things to make life better for the children and young people we were caring for – and we really did care.
I spent ten years working in children’s homes.
I never forgot Karen and I did my best to make sure that those in my care had clothes that they liked – and that fitted.
I took them to medical appointments and I did my best to sort out issues at school.
Most of the staff I worked with tried to make the children’s lives as close to a home life as possible.
Sometimes we succeeded.
I qualified as a social worker and I watched as the homes were closed down because the current thinking was being ‘in care’ was unacceptable. Children were sent home to parents who didn’t know how to care for them and didn’t really want them anyway.
Some children were fostered and life improved for them. There were others who no amount of good fostering could help.
In those cases the children drifted into disaster and the foster parents became disillusioned.
It was while I was taking time out to raise my own family that the scandal broke in my home town.
The officer in charge of a children’s home was arrested for child abuse.
Physical, sexual, financial, psychological – you name it. He did the whole lot.
He was the officer in charge of the home where Karen was placed.
It wasn’t a life for her and the other children she lived with.
The abuse went on for years until someone had the courage to stand up and shout.
It wasn’t Karen.
The officer in charge was found guilty and sent to jail.
So was his wife and two other members of staff.
I’m sorry Karen.
Sorry that I wasn’t more of a friend to you.
Sorry that I didn’t understand what you were going through.
I never forgot you though, and now I understand.
That was why your clothes were old and didn’t fit.
That was why no one had sorted out your squint.
That was why you were so quiet.