Róisín Ingle on ... a good little girl

Sat, Apr 12, 2014, 00:00

Mary wanted to tell someone about Debbie and so she told me and now I’m telling you. She met Debbie when she was helping out at a sale of work. It was for a worthy cause, a hall packed with do-gooders including Mary who was on the cake stall with her sister. She noticed this little girl as soon as she came in.

Aged nine, she was with her two slightly older brothers. She was, and Mary could see it straight away, sure anybody could, a good little girl. This Debbie introduced herself to Mary with a shy smile and said she had €1 to spend. Mary noticed her two older brothers were a bit of a handful, couldn’t sit still. Debbie sat quietly with them eating a bun and a cup of tea she had bought with her euro. She seemed hungry. Mary gave her some more buns and she ate them too.

The brothers were high spirited, Mary reckons that “challenging” would be the politest way of describing their disruptive behaviour. But Debbie didn’t get involved with their antics. She trailed along after them as they moved around because, as she kept telling Mary, her brothers were minding her. They were in charge.

Mary decided to give Debbie €5 to spend. The first thing Debbie did was buy buns for her brothers which they tore into. The buns came to €1.90. Debbie had heard adults at the sale saying “keep the change for the charity” so she gave Mary’s sister on the cake stall 10 cent back and came back to Mary with the €3. But Mary told her to spend the money on herself.

Debbie came back from trawling the stalls with a big grin on her face. She had bought a bag of bracelets for her mammy as a present. And she bought a pen and a notebook so when she went to the shops next time for her mammy she would be able to write a list.

Mary can’t get the day out of her head. A day of contrasts. On the one hand you had Debbie’s eagerness to please and all that pure, little girl goodness and on the other hand you had the people at the stalls, apart from Mary and her sister and one other lady, treating these children who were there alone, without a parent, with casual disdain.

She heard criticism from other stall holders of the way the children were dressed, the way they looked. People made rude comments about Debbie as she passed, referring to the children as “them”. They saw the children’s unkempt clothes and the boys’ challenging behaviour but ignored any signs of neglect or the world weariness in a little girl’s eyes. It was, Mary thought, the worst side of humanity. A hall full of do-gooders with little or no empathy to spare for the kind of children who, anyone could see, needed it most.

Mary tried to compensate for the others, praising Debbie loudly. It made no difference. One of the organisers eventually said he would have to throw all three children out because of the brothers’ behaviour. Debbie stood with her head bowed in shame and Mary knew she couldn’t let it happen.

She spoke up and said that Debbie should be treated on her own merits, that she had behaved perfectly well all morning. She said that if Debbie was put out of the hall then she would be going too and they could get someone else to run the ruddy cake sale. Debbie was allowed to stay, the brothers had to leave. A victory of sorts.

It’s been weeks now but Mary can’t get Debbie’s face out of her head. She’s hoping for the best for her little friend but she can’t help thinking of the poem she was given 20 years ago at the first holy communion of her own child. Some of the lines keep coming back to her;

If a child lives with criticism, she learns to condemn . . .

If a child lives with hostility, she learns to fight . . .

If a child lives with ridicule, she learns to be shy . . .

If a child lives with shame, she learns to feel guilty . . .

In Mary’s house, while growing up, her late parents had a mantra: Always treat people fairly and with respect. She used to roll her eyes to heaven at this as a child. But not as an adult. As an adult, Mary wanted to tell someone about Debbie and so she told me and now I’m telling you.


roisin@irishtimes.com

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