When I was just seventeen years old, I watched a teenage boy from Vietnam, being thrown from a window facing a twenty foot drop on the other side. It was an act of casual racism that was exacerbated by the reaction of one of my teachers. I was running along a school corridor, when I literally slammed into one of the more terrifying teachers in the school. I bounced off him and we stood looking at each other for a few seconds. I expected a terrible reaction for my indiscretion. ‘Barney’ as we nick-named him, was not known for anything but a bad temper.
However at precisely the same moment, we both had a distraction. To my left or his right, was an open doorway. It was break time and in the teacherless classroom was a very strange sight. Half a dozen lads from a year ahead of me were trying and failing, to push young a fellow student through the window. Ngo which no one could pronounce so instead called him Tony, was spread-eagle in the open window, legs and arms gripping to the edges of the frame, to prevent being pushed out onto the playing fields below. The six boys were all heaving at once, but couldn’t dislodge him.
They froze when they spotted Barney at the door. Everyone feared Barney. The boys stopped pushing; Tony relaxed and sighed a sigh of relief. Barney looked back at me and I at him and then he turned back to the class and simply said,
The boys reacted quickest and heaved the now relaxed Tony out of the window. Barney side-stepped me and moved on without reprimanding me for running inside. I heard a quickly fading scream as Tony disappeared out of the window. “ Aaaaaaaaaaaaa.”
Tony had arrived in our school along with several other boys, refugees from Vietnam known at the time as the Boat people. Ireland was a very monoculture society back then, we had not yet become a wealthy country and as such anyone with such an exotic origin was a rarity. The only black face I had ever seen at that stage of my life was on the TV. Vietnamese boys were truly foreign to us, but largely welcomed and not generally the subject of any racism that I had openly seen.
The act of throwing poor Tony out of the window, was more in line with casual bullying than casual racism and to a large extent it could have and did happen to plenty of boys regardless of origin. It didn’t excuse them but it certainly changes the context. Weakness was devoured and Tony was a gentle boy. I was fortunate enough to be clever, good at sports and well able to handle myself, which gave me an edge and while I didn’t care to be popular, it certainly meant no one targeted me for such treatment. No it wasn’t the boys treatment that bothered me, it was the teacher’s.
Revisionist thinking often excuses people from their actions. They didn’t know better back in the day, for example. It is largely nonsense; right is right and wrong is wrong. That clergymen in Ireland and elsewhere who abused boys like some in in my school that sat alongside me can’t be excused by ‘those were different times.’ This is a subject I wanted to explore in Little Big Boy.
I recall another of the Vietnamese boys bringing the house down and it marked a sort of acceptance early after his arrival, that we were all the same. We were teenagers with a desire to rebel in a Christian Brothers school. No one challenged the Brothers in religion class. We sat down and shut up. However when we were given a lay teacher, all bets were off. Not to put it too simply, but he was a Gobshite. The man spat morals from a high ground that he hadn’t yet conquered, from the very first day he landed in our class. He didn’t wear a white collar and had to earn our respect, something he overlooked.
We generally ignored him and refused to cooperate, talked over him and acted the maggot at every opportunity. Finally he lost it and shouted at us to be quiet. Then he asked a straightforward question to a class filled with baptised, communioned and confirmed Catholic boys who didn’t want to listen.
“If any of you can give me one, solid, valid reason why you feel you don’t have to attend this class then I will excuse you. If not, shut up and pay attention.”
He didn’t expect an answer but then another boy with an unpronounceable name that we called Vinnie from Vietnam, shot up his hand. He wiggled it vigorously until eventually, the teacher said almost sarcastically,
Vinnie stood up. He smiled a teeth filled grin and looked around at a class full of strange boys in a strange country, where he desperately wanted to be accepted. We held our breath anticipating something stupid, but Vinnie shone in that moment.
“Sir… I no need to be in this class… I can go now.”
His English was broken but clear and he was making a statement, not asking a question. Vinnie was already putting his books into his bag, all the time smiling.
“What? Sit down!” It was an irritated demand but Vinnie was ready to go.
“Sir, you say if I good reason why not stay, I go?”
“Yes, but you can’t go just because you want to, you have to give me a reason and it has to be a valid one. Do you know what valid means?” We all got the nastiness in his last comment and if we weren’t on Vinnie’s side before, we were then.
“I know valid sir and I have valid reason sir.”
“Well spit it out, spit it out.” He put his hands on his hips and raised his eyes to heaven impatiently. Vinnie gave us all one last look and then announced proudly.
Sir… I am a protestant.”
It was genius. He walked out the door to rapturous applause and cheer. Our defeated teacher was gone before the month was out. There was no place for weakness in that place we called school and having been beaten by a smiling, little boy from Vietnam, one he felt superior to and looked down upon, he was never going to last.
Importantly, I figured out somewhere along that point in my life that racism is thought not inherent. On TV, comedians joked about Nig-Nogs and Wogs and no one questioned it. A child I heard the expressions and didn’t actually think they were offensive for two reasons. One I had only really ever met white Irish people and the most exotic or foreign of those came from somewhere outside Dublin. The second reason was that the words were in common everyday use, used by adults all around me and on TV. It was casual and it was normalised. Only when, as a questioning teenager when I came across teachers attitudes to boys arriving in our school was it that I recognised this was coming to me from the world of adults. The words and attitudes came with near invisible stealth. It is the need to question but also the ability to question based on how informed we are that can lead us in one direction or another.
It is on that premise that I largely created the very unique perspective for Little Big Boy. He of course is much younger, but while he has questions, he largely accepts things no matter how bad, odd or sad as they are. Things are what they are indeed in the book and I chose not to answer some key questions that arise specifically to allow the reader to get into that head space of a seven/eight year old boy. Children ask lots of questions, but in a generation where the adults ruled supreme, Little Big Boy simply doesn’t understand or accepts many things that as an adult reader one might question. Racism is not dealt with, but bigotry and bullying, violence, and sexual predators are.
My goal was to achieve a reader’s outside understanding without ever letting the boy telling the story in on all the truths of what was happening. Seven year olds think differently than adults so I set out my stall for the reader to see the big picture, while Little Big Boy only always sees it from a narrow focus. The trick was telling the story in the first person using the voice of a small boy. When in a lighter moment his friend discovers a discarded empty condom box for example, as adults we all understand what they are for while Little Big Boy reveals no such understanding.
I loved writing Little Big Boy but it broke my heart. I shed such tears discovering where I brought this little might and I think the book is all the better for it. As writers it is easy for us to be complacent. I am not a message giver nor do I ever want to pontificate, but we can use what we know top make our stories more real. By looking at my planned story with a tilted head I found a new way for me to tell a story. I am writing the sequel to Darkly Wood now and editing Apollo Bay and I even have the next book started but something tells me I might be drawn back to the world of Little Big Boy or at least to that direction in telling a story. As always I am filled with ideas, but this one I might let simmer a bit, to bring out the full flavour before serving.
Max Power’s books include, Darkly Wood, Larry Flynn Bad Blood and Little Big Boy
You can find more details about Max Power’s books here : – http://www.amazon.com/author/maxpower