Meg was in my year at school. A quiet, lovely child, she had the most beautiful hair imaginable. It was so long that she could sit on it (a feat that I greatly admired because mine was very short). Her hair was golden blond, luxuriously thick, glossy and straight. It really was her ‘crowning glory’.
We were shocked to be told one day, during assembly, that Meg’s mother had died and that Meg would not be in school for a few days. When she did return, she seemed to settle down quite quickly, but that may have been just our own perception because children like the security afforded by normality and routine.
After a few weeks, a rumour began to circulate that Meg had head lice, and we gave her a wide berth as the lice became the subject of conversations both inside and, no doubt, outside school.
Mrs Smith, one of our teachers, was a strict disciplinarian and pretty terrifying. Her voice was so loud that I am sure she could have been heard in the next city. No one would misbehave either in her classroom or when she was on playground duty. Despite this, she was respected because she was meticulously fair. One morning, Meg didn’t turn up at school. Conversely, Mrs Smith turned up in every classroom, and we could easily track her progress as she worked her way around the building, just by her voice. She was incandescent with rage and anguish. She told us that Meg had come to her the previous day in utter distress and told her about her head lice and how she was being bullied as a result.
She had poured out to Mrs Smith that she had been unable to look after her hair properly since her mother died and had no idea how to get rid of the infestation. Meg pleaded with her for help.
Years ago, unfortunately, the only treatment for lice was a dreadfully smelly (and not very effective) greasy liquid that had to soak into the hair and remain in it for a couple of days.
Mrs Smith made it very clear to everyone what she thought of the way Meg had been treated. During her justified tirade, she winced as she reported that Meg would have to have all her hair cut off, and warned us that if anyone dared to make a single nasty comment or be cruel to her in any way, they would have to answer to her. The look on Mrs Smith’s furious face was evidence enough that she wasn’t making empty threats, but, besides her anger, she was obviously deeply upset for Meg.
We all learned a very stark and important lesson that day, about the miserable consequences that thoughtlessness, a lack of charity, gossip and bullying can bring; something which is hard enough for a strong person to cope with, but especially so for such a vulnerable child. We also learned about compassion, kindness, fairness, trust and love, which Mrs Smith demonstrated so perfectly in her passionate defence of Meg.
Despite her youth, Meg had recognised those beautiful qualities in her teacher. She was able to see past a very stern exterior, and find solace in the one person whom she knew wouldn’t let her down and who would care for her and fight her corner, as her own mother would have done.