Novelist tracy Chevalier recalls an early lesson in bigotry
Tracy Chevalier’s 1970s school photo
Ouch! I am fat and dumpy and a fashion disaster. Who on earth let me out of the house looking like that?
School photos have certain traits in common. a class g rouped for a picture is tr ying to look cohesive, serious but friendly, representative of a specific time and place. often it is anything but. two students who normally have nothing to do with each other may stand side by side smiling. child ren change so fast t hat by nex t year’s photo they could be unrecognisable. Most class photos are formal, stilted attempts that fail to capture a childhood experience.
this photog raph, t hough, is a shock to me because it graphically captures a truth about my childhood that I’d not revisited until recently. there I am, in the middle row, biting my lip anxiously, my hair in pigtails, wearing thick-framed hexagonal glasses, and pairing stripes with plaid. ouch! I am fat and dumpy and a fashion disaster. Who on earth let me out of the house looking like that? Mind you, I’m not the only one. there’s a fair amount of plaid, as well as brown and orange; two boys even wear ruffles. Welcome to the 1970s.
More striking, of course, is that I am a white girl. out of 27 students, only three of us are white, plus a white teacher.
that’s not something you see ver y of ten in american class photos. african americans made up about 11 per cent of the population when this picture was taken (now it’s 14 per cent). It was more likely t hat you’d see a class photo wit h a lone black student among all t he white. But I grew up in an unusually integrated neighbourhood in Washing ton Dc, and so I learnt early what it was like to be a minority, at least during school hours.
I wish I could repor t t hat we a ll got a long swimmingly, that this experiment in diversity was successf ul a nd t hat racia l ha r mony prevailed. It was ok until I was 10, around the year this photo was taken. then suddenly we seemed to become more aware of race, of difference. I had long been teased for being plump and wearing glasses, just as others were for being slow or having a big head or a stupid brother. But aged 10 I began to be called ‘white girl’ more often, with an edge to the words. Maybe that’s why I look so anxious in the photo (though I could have just been worrying about my sartorial choices).
even at that age I knew, though, that whatever hassle I got at school, my fellow students suffered tenfold out in t he world r un by white people. I never complained.
When hogarth press asked me to write a novel inspired by a Shakespeare play, Othello quickly came to mind, partly because, living all my adult life as an american in the UK, I am often drawn to stories about outsiders. My school experience as a minority, sometimes picked on because of my skin colour, made me think a school playground would be the perfect setting for such a retelling.
In my book, a Ghanaian boy walks into an allwhite school playground and all hell breaks loose. at least he is not wearing stripes with plaid. New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier (Hogarth, £12.99), is out now