Nov­el­ist tracy Che­va­lier re­calls an early les­son in big­otry

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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

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