The Headteacher told me I would be getting a new girl in my class after Christmas.
“Bernadette Eileen O’Donnell,” she said as she did battle with the coffee dispenser in the staff room. “She’s from Ireland. Her father is the manager of the new Pet Superstore on the retail park. I know I can trust you to make Bernadette welcome, Kate.”
Poor Bernadette. New in school, with an unusual accent, and to top it off, a fine head of ginger hair.
She was a quiet little thing, better than the average eight year old at reading and writing, but poor at maths and pitifully shy with anything that involved speaking in front of the class. She was totally bemused by our Welsh lessons, not realising that there was such a thing as a Welsh language.
I soon became aware that she was being bullied, and took the ringleaders to one side. Chanelle Lewis and Megan Bates, as usual. I reminded them that bullying wasn’t at all clever or grown-up, but knew full well that my pep-talk was unlikely to have much effect. Chanelle and Megan lacked the intelligence to alter their ways.
Instead I tried to offer Bernadette my support and to encourage her to make friends with others in her class, but her way of dealing with things was to clam up tight as a shell and not let anyone near.
Her classmates started calling her Benny, or Ben. It seemed a shame to shorten such a pretty name, but that’s what happens in Wales. Everyone is eventually reduced to one syllable.
Bernadette bore this stoically, and I wondered what her parents would think. I was only thankful that the little hooligans weren’t calling her Ginger Nut or Carrot Top.
But there was worse to come. Next thing I knew, they started calling her The Gyppo. Many of the Irish in this part of Wales are indeed gypsies, but Bernadette and her family were not of that ilk. I could tell these taunts were getting to Bernadette, and remonstrated again with Chanelle and Megan.
Meanwhile Bernadette withdrew further into her shell. It was difficult to get her to participate in any classroom activities, and I could tell the poor little thing was miserable.
Then one Monday morning everything changed. I asked for a volunteer to read a poem aloud to the class, and was astounded when Bernadette came forward. She held her head high and read the poem in her clear, lilting voice.
“Thank you, Bernadette,” I said. “That was lovely. Now, who can tell me what the poem means?”
During dinner break I heard Bernadette tell Megan and Chanelle to go boil their stupid heads. Then to top it off, she insulted them in Welsh. The two girls were stunned into silence.
At the end of the day I discreetly called Bernadette to one side as the others charged for the door. The difference in her bearing was clear to see. Instead of hanging her head she met my gaze evenly and there was a glimmer of a smile about her lips.
“You seem very happy today, Bernadette,” I ventured.
“Yes, Miss. I am. My cat won First Prize in a cat show in Birmingham yesterday.”
“That’s lovely, dear. What’s your cat’s name?”
“Pinkerton Demelza, Miss. Pinky for short. I’ve got a photo of her.”
Bernadette pulled a dog-eared photograph from her blazer pocket. Pinkerton Demelza posed haughtily for the camera, a Persian with huge eyes and a fabulous, fluffy beige coat.
“What a beauty!” I enthused. “You must spend ages grooming her.”
“Yes, she’s my best friend in the whole world. Well, Miss, I’d better go, if I may. I’m going to stop off at the fishmonger’s on the way home and get Pinky a treat for being a clever girl.”
My heart went out to little Bernadette. I knew life would not always go smoothly, but hoped that winning the prize would help give her the confidence to stand up for herself from now on.
By Karenne Griffin
Last Modified on: 05-11-2015