Throughout evolution, ostracism was death indeed. – Helen Fisher
You should read history–look at ostracism, persecution, martyrdom, and that kind of thing. They always happen to the best men, you know. – George Elliot
Pain can be alleviated by morphine but the pain of social ostracism cannot be taken away. – Derek Jarman
Long ago, there was a little boy named Gregory. Thin and frail, pale and poor, he was an outcast. Tall but bent, with clothes too large, cinched at the waist, he seemed like someone you shouldn’t know and so, we didn’t – we didn’t want to know him. We only observed his pointed features, his running nose, his crooked teeth, his blonde hair, cropped short on the sides but long on the top and as dry as straw. His eyes, grey or blue, as transparent as water, were rimmed in red, as though infected. He was older than the rest of us by a year or two, or maybe not, because in grade three one doesn’t know very much about anything at all. We only saw him from the outside. I never shared a word with him, nor heard him speak. If our teacher paid him any attention, his lips may have moved, but we heard nothing.
It was Valentine’s Day and I’d proudly brought cookies my mother had made, shaped like hearts and lined with icing. Earlier that week, we’d all brought shoe boxes to art class and with paint, hearts, stars and glitter, we transformed these into post boxes, each baring our name. We stuck them all together with tape or glue, a three tiered, gaudy grid of hope and popularity: The Valentine Post Office. Set at the back of the classroom, Valentine cards accumulated surreptitiously, and although we were not permitted to open anything, we scanned the piles, guesstimating our numbers among the others. I don’t know if Gregory had a post box, but he must have had. In retrospect, it was unlikely that he’d have had a shoebox but surely the teacher would have supplied one. She was a nice and good teacher, kind and gentle, but these were times before the embrace of inclusivity.
As one of two “postmen” (there were not postal workers then in the age of men) I gathered each student’s mail and delivered it to the front of the class where our teacher sat, not at her desk, but before a long table. Here, stacks of mail arranged by name, shaped a graph from A to Z– showing, with little doubt – who had most and who had least. Even at this point, Gregory was not part of the equation; if we thought about his place among the others, I’ve surely forgotten, discarding discomfort as we all do.
But there is one thing I cannot forget, and not for lack of trying.
Moving from one stack to another, our teacher called our names and one at a time we rose to the front of the class to receive our envelopes. At our desks, we opened these greetings embellished with hearts, cupids and arrows, kings and queens, roses, birds, and butterflies and all manner of goofy characters who whispered be mine, I’m yours, you’re liked, we’re friends. And then, she called my name again.
The card she handed me was not in an envelope. It was not a card as I knew cards to be. A flimsy piece of paper, like newsprint, it had had been torn into the shape of a heart, awkwardly inscribed with a dull pencil, Happy Valentine’s Day, signed: Gregory.
Embarrassment consumed me. Why would he send me this terrible thing? Catching his eye at the back of the room, my feelings twisted into a knot as he sat there trembling and so painfully alone, watching me. But it all happened in milliseconds. With a mind of its own, my hand crushed his card and dropped it into the teacher’s wastebasket.
People often say they’ve no regrets, but I do have regrets, and this is but one of them. I shall regret that moment for the rest of my life. Acts of rejection take many forms. Even in silence their voices scream. And it breaks my heart that in a sweeping motion – but not without consciousness of right and wrong — I so destroyed someone that day.
Now and then, I’ve wondered about Gregory – where he is, what he’s done, how his life evolved, whether he is even alive. His eyes haunt me still, they’ve made me a better person, maybe – an ongoing task. His Valentine card, simple and honest, ugly but beautiful, was without doubt the most meaningful and heartfelt card of the day. It has taught me much.