she was 8 years old. in grade 3. not the most popular kid in a small school that considered 'religion' of more importance than the 3 r's. kind of skinny, and sometimes a bit of a smarty pants, but she had a lot of friends.
till the fire.
there weren't many kids, or teachers in the building that early in the morning, but her mum had to be @ school herself, on the other side of town, so she was always early. the fire was in the girls' washroom. she'd just come out of the girls' washroom a few minutes before anyone noticed smoke. it was a major incident, of course, because, on closer inspection, after the fire dept left, and the screaming and wailing died down, it was abundantly clear that this was arson.
there weren't a lot of suspects. the teachers weren't even considered. aside from them, just a handful of kids were there at the time, so it couldn't be too hard to nab the culprit. no one who didn't belong there had been noticed entering or leaving the building.
she mentioned there had been a fire at school, over the evening meal. "nobody hurt, i hope." was all mum said. the school hadn't sent anyone home early, or missed much in the line of classes, and they both had homework to do, so, after they ate, they just got busy doing it. till the police officer showed up at the door. he needed to talk to them. it seems there was no question in the minds of the Powers That Be who the little firebug was. Not that the nice young cop seemed convinced. he was just following up on info from teachers and parents and the principal. he wasn't making accusations. he spoke kindly. he listened carefully. he took notes in a little pocket sized notepad.
after official interrogation, mum sat on a chair, took the hands of her frightened girl child, looked her calmly in the eye, and said, "you need to be straight with me. if you did this, then we'll have to deal with the consequenses, together. if you didn't do it, i will do everything in my power to prove your innocence. but if you tell me you didn't, and it turns out that you did, we're both going to look really stupid, so be straight with me. did you do it?"
"no, mum. i didn't."
"ok then. we need to get to work."
the next week or so was a special kind of hell for both of them. the child learned her real friends were extrememely few. two, to be precise. those two, both girls, and very small for their age, who steadfastly stood by her, came close to being beaten up by a gang of righteous vigilantes during recess one day. 2 sisters, we'll call them Willy and Nilly, members of the 'in crowd,' who the child had thought were her friends, claimed to have seen very incriminating things. they basked for a brief moment in the glory light. the pricipal called this frightened little 8 year old woman into his office and told her she might as well confess; everyone knew she was guilty. ostracised and shamed, but not quite alone, she firmly maintained that she had not set a fire in the garbage can of the second floor girls' washroom. she had not run into her classroom and hidden a cigarette lighter in her desk just before the fire was discovered. and she was, most adamantly NOT lying about it.
mum spent hours cornering teachers and students, cross examining those who were there on 'the morning in question'. she felt like a low caste Agatha Christie. teachers didn't actually refuse to speak to her, but answers were terse and often sarcastic. during her conversation with the principal, he straightened his tie and, looking uncomfortably away when she met his eye, said, in a quiet voice like the edge of a knife, "one can have no respect for someone who refuses to admit their child can do wrong. Parents have a certain responsibility to their communities, to the laws of the land, and to their faith."
that comment didn't score the points he'd hoped it would. having begun the school year, due to being a single parent, at just about zero, she knew all about not being respected by parents of 'proper' families. and she knew, without his advice, that she was now working with a deficit, with regards to respect, from any of them. after two weeks, things had settled to a semblance of normalcy, with no resolution. if you can call being an 8 year old pariah normal.
in time, there was another of those conversations, hand to hand, eye-to-eye. "i believe you sweetie, but hardly anyone else seems to, and we can't seem to prove that they're wrong. it's not right, and it's not fair, and i wish i could change it, but i can't. life isn't always fair. i want you to know how much i admire you for how you've behaved through this. you've been more grownup than most of the grownups, and i'm very proud of you."
"it's alright, mum."
it wasn't alright. it was heartbreaking, and unjust, and cruel, and she was ashamed and angry that she had no power to change that. when the nice young police officer appeared at their door once more, she nearly didn't let him in.
he came to tell them that the case was closed. they both stared at him stupidly. well, he said, with a somewhat puzzled look on his face, they'd caught the culprit.
"who is it?"
another quizzical, awkward glance. seems the school administrators and educators had known this for some time. no one had thought it important to tell the students, or the parent of the wrongly accused child. or least of all the injured party. there would be no repercussions, as the perpetrator was the foster child of a ministerial family with prominent positions on the school board. she was a troubled child, who needed everyone's compassion. no 'official' statement was ever made by the school, clearing the name of the innocent. the purjors were never reprimanded, or even corrected. it was, after all, a small thing. not important.
but these things have a long life in impressionable minds.
"do Willy and Nilly play with you now?"
"i'm sorry to hear that"
"it's ok mum. i don't want to play with them. they're not nice people. now i know who the nice people are."