Mrs Harvey The Rabbit – How My English Teacher Taught Me To Be Tolerant By Being Very Politically Incorrect
In my first year at Secondary School- the English equivalent of Junior High back in 1980- I had an English teacher called Mrs Harvey. She taught me about racism.
Mrs Harvey was a crusty old dear. She looked like an archetypal uptight librarian. Late fifties, tweed skirts, pinched face and half-moon glasses. The whole smash. She talked a lot, so I called her Mrs Harvey The Rabbit. You know as in “rabbit and pork”- talk. Cockney rhyming slang.
Actually, that’s not true. I made that nickname up for her yesterday. I hadn’t heard of Harvey The Rabbit back in 1980. Though I’m sure if I did hear about Harvey, I would have come up with that nickname given enough time. Which is, in fact, what has happened if you think about it carefully enough.
So, like I say, Mrs Harvey taught me about racism. Not in the way English teachers usually do, by dissecting classic works on the subject. No, she did it by actually teaching me racism. One day, we were doing proper nouns and Mrs Harvey asked an astonishing question. She scanned the class over the top of her half-moon specs and asked : “What do you call a black baby?”
I’m happy to say that none of us knew the answer. In fact, we thought it was a trick question. After a long and awkward pause, one of us- I can’t remember who- said the answer we were all thinking. “A black baby is just called a baby, Mrs Harvey”.
“No,” Mrs Harvey replied triumphantly, “a black baby is called a Piccaninny.” Then she told us to turn to a particular page in our textbook. Sure enough, there it was. A drawing of a mother and baby, their blackness rather bizarrely represented by cross hatching. Presumably to save on ink. And underneath, the word “Piccaninny”.
It wasn’t even an old textbook from The Sixties, as many of our textbooks were. It wasn’t a textbook from that time when it was perfectly acceptable for lodging houses to put cards in their windows that read “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish”. It was a brand new textbook. So new that it still had that weird, sickly sweet “new textbook” smell about it when you turned its pages. This may have been the beginning of the right on, politically correct Eighties, but decades don’t start when the digit at the end of the year flips over to zero. There’s always a bit of a time lag. We were still very much in the horribly bigoted Seventies.
Now, before you get too much of a low opinion of Mrs Harvey, bear this in mind. She also made us read a book called “I Am David” by Anne Holm. This is about a little Jewish boy who escapes from a concentration camp during World War II. It’s a bleak and harrowing read. But Mrs Harvey made us read it. It brought some of the girls in the class to the edge of tears. By “the edge of tears” I mean actual crying. And by “some of the girls” I mean me.
That book taught me a lot. Reading it made me a better person. Not a good person by any stretch of the imagination, bur definitely better. So Mrs Harvey was a product of her generation and made me learn the word “Piccaninny”. She did it out of pedantry more than anything else. She made me and my classmates read “I Am David”. We read it out loud, taking turns and we talked about it in between. For that I will be forever grateful to Mrs Harvey The Rabbit.
© Copyright Michael Grimes 2014