Mrs Harvey The Rabbit – How My English Teacher Taught Me To Be Tolerant By Being Very Politically Incorrect

Mrs Harvey's English Class. See If You Can Guess Which One Is Me. (Clue : I'm Not Wearing A Skirt)

Mrs Harvey’s English Class. See If You Can Guess Which One Is Me. (Clue : I’m Not Wearing A Skirt)

 

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

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About thedailygrime

At that awkward age - too young to be a grumpy old man, but just acerbic and downtrodden enough to have an opinion. Read it here.

5 responses to “Mrs Harvey The Rabbit – How My English Teacher Taught Me To Be Tolerant By Being Very Politically Incorrect”

  1. eden baylee says :

    So, I’ve scanned the class photo and tried to pick you out, Michael. Not easy!

    I’m taking 4 guesses.

    1st: Second row (the one behind the girls sitting) — 3rd in from the right
    2nd: Second row — the first one on the left
    3rd: Second row — the second one from the left
    4th: Third row — the first on the left.

    If none of my guesses is correct. I’m stumped.

    ~~~

    As for your post, very interesting, and extremely insightful. I think it’s possible for people of our generation to know racism because we’ve been exposed to it – personally. And sometimes, as with your teacher, it was taught to them.

    Racism, I believe is learned, and it can be unlearned. Oftentimes, it’s based on stereotypes that we have never come across, but only know of from books, the news, or through word of mouth.

    I don’t take offence too strongly to those who are a generation or more before me when their views clash with mine, unless they are total assholes, of course.

    I have to think about their exposure and what motivates their beliefs. Fear is a big one, ignorance and a general lack of interest in others also play into it. Opening a dialogue with them can reveal why they think the way they do. Unlike people who are religious or political fanatics (whom I rarely want to talk to), I find people with intolerant attitudes about race much easier to deal with. They sometimes don’t even know why they think the way they do. It makes for interesting conversations, if I feel they are reasonable.

    Tolerance isn’t easy, especially when living with intolerance around us. Humour and art in all forms goes a long way to closing those gaps.

    Great post,

    eden

    • thedailygrime says :

      Thanks Eden!
      Racism is most definitely learned behaviour.As Dennis Leary very succinctly put it “I have a two year old. You know what he hates? Naps. That’s it. End of list.”
      I do sometimes encounter racism. I’m as pale as a white man can get and Hayley,my missus of 14 years, is Mauritian, so she’s a beautiful combination of Indian and African. We sometimes get disapproving looks when we walk down the street together. Britain being Britain, disapproving looks is as far as it goes most of the time though.
      Thanks for the note of approval. It means a great deal to me.
      Mike

  2. Ned's Blog says :

    Really terrific post, Michael. The lessons of childhood are often the ones that have the most lasting effect and carry more meaning as we get older. I think because we learn the lessons one way a children, then in new ways as we gain more perspective and life experience with age. Clearly, the message of Mrs. Harvey has become more poignant. Thanks for sharing that so well.

    • thedailygrime says :

      Thanks Ned. I’m thinking of doing more posts about childhood experiences. They always seem to go down well. The power of nostalgia perhaps. That little bubble of time when Mrs Harvey made us read and discuss “I Am David” is a very solid and powerful memory for me. I’m glad that came across. I’m reading the book again now to see how it speaks to me now that I am a cynical and jaded 44 year old rather than a bright eyed and bushy tailed 11 year old. I’ll let you know how that goes.
      Thanks for commenting. It’s nice to get the opinion of actual professional writers like you and Eden. It helps me look my agent in the eye with a straight face when we meet up.
      cheers
      Mike

      • Ned's Blog says :

        I’ll look forward to reading those childhood musings. I think you’re right about the nostalgia; there are certain experiences we all share as kids that transcend generations or geographic location.

        Well done as always, Mike.

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