Brown Swan

Artwork: Alice Dunkley

CONTENT WARNING: Racism

On my first day of primary school I found myself walk- ing into a sea of white. White walls, white uniforms… white faces. These were the faces of the other children. I looked nothing like them and they knew it. The hairs on my back spiked from the intensity of their stares and their white fingers pointing at me. I examined my own light-brown arms, and I knew right then and there that I wasn’t going to fit in at this school. My heart pounded, and I buried my face into my mother’s chest, my tears soaking her t-shirt.

“I can’t go here,” I cried.

“Don’t be silly, Daisy,” said Mum. “You’re five, and you know that means you’re a big girl now. And where do big girls go?”

I didn’t respond.
“Where do big girls go?”

She pulled away from me and placed her hands firmly on my shoulders.

“Big girls go to school.”

My mum has white skin. I don’t. The darker colour comes from my Sri Lankan dad, but I hardly ever saw him after my parents divorced. No one else I met before I went to school looked like me. As a five- year-old I was so excited to start school and hoped that I would meet different people who might be a little more like me.

“I don’t like home,” I once told Mum when I was four.

“You don’t like home?” Mum laughed. “How can you not like home?”

“Because I can’t see anyone else.”

What I meant was that I couldn’t see anyone else I could connect with. Little did I know that this wasn’t going to change as I got to school.

I went to the local primary school. We lived on the outskirts of a wealthy suburban area. Mum didn’t make much money, so we could hardly be called wealthy ourselves, but I just so happened to be in the catchment area for that school. It was a ten minute walk from home, which meant that Mum could take me there in the morning and back in the afternoon without having to drive.

Someone was giggling behind me. I turned around, and I saw a group of three girls, three very pretty girls with long blonde hair, looking at me and smirking. More tears leaked out of my eyes.

“They’re laughing at me,” I whispered. “Laughing at you?” said Mum. “Whatever for?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

My first day of school was hell. Those blonde girls kept laughing at me, and the teacher did nothing about it. During recess, one of them came up to me and stroked my arm, which made me jump out of my skin.

“What’s your name?” said the girl.

“Um, Daisy?” I barely said out loud.

The girl turned around towards her two friends behind her. All three girls once again erupted into giggles.

“Daisy Duck!” the girl exclaimed. “Um, what?” I said.

“You’re Daisy, like Daisy Duck. You know, Disney?”

“Um, no. Mum doesn’t let me have Disney Channel.”

More laughs ensued. I kept looking left and right, trying to get my bearings as if I were in Wonder- land like Alice (Mum did let me watch that one).

What were these girls trying to say?

The girl at the front moved closer to me and poked me twice in the tummy.

“You’re brown and ugly,” she said.

Her two friends probably started laughing again, but I didn’t know for sure, because at that moment, I buried my face in my hands and ran away, sobbing my eyes out.

That was the first time I remember someone calling me ugly because of the colour of my skin.

From there on in things didn’t get any worse, exactly, but they didn’t really get any better, either. People called me names every once in a while. I cried a lot. I was lonely most of the time, but I kind of got used to it. I accepted that I was always going to be the ‘Ugly Duckling’, the odd one out, the circle that was trying too hard to fit into a square.

Then, at the beginning of Year One, a new girl arrived at my school. Her name was Ashanti. She had long black hair, almond-shaped eyes and brown skin. Like me, and like nobody else. On Ashanti’s first day I kept staring at her, and she kept returning my stares with smiles. She’s pretty, I thought. Girls were giggling at Ashanti like they always were at me, and every time they did I tried to give Ashanti a comforting smile, as if to say, You’re not alone.

Ashanti came up to me after class. She hadn’t spoken very much to the other kids, but she wanted to speak to me.

“Hi, I’m Ashanti,” she said. “Hi, I’m Daisy,” I returned. She looked slightly above me. “You have really cool hair.”

My insides began to warm up like a room after the heater’s been on.

“You have really cool hair too. You have hair like me.”

Ashanti giggled.
“You look like a swan,” she said. “Huh?” I replied.

“You look like a swan,” she repeated. “That’s good. Swans are my favourite animals.”

“But I don’t look like a swan at all!” I exclaimed. “Swans are, like, white. Like, they have white hair, or whatever. I don’t have white hair.”

Ashanti grinned.

“Well, my mummy always tells me that I’m like a brown swan.”

“There’s no such thing as a brown swan.”

“Yes there is, Mummy showed me a picture! It’s like in The Ugly Duckling- you know that one? It’s a fairytale about a duckling that’s ugly, but he finds out that he’s a swan? Like, I don’t know if he’s a white swan, but Mummy says that swans can be any colour, so I guess we can be brown swans.”

I giggled.

“I thought I looked more like a duck or some- thing, because people call me ‘duck’ sometimes, be- cause my names Daisy, which is the name of a duck in Disney, I think,” I said.

“But you’re pretty!” said Ashanti. “You’re a brown swan.”

I’m pretty. I’m a brown swan. Take that, giggly

Ashanti and I only stayed friends until Year Six. Then she and I went to different high schools, and we never really saw each other again. But I’ll never forget the day we met, when I found out that I didn’t have to be the only brown swan in my world.