During my grade 1 year, I met Brenda. A thin, vulnerable little dark girl with rings around her eyes and a nervous tick. Her slightly elongated head exaggerated her already elephant-like ears. She was a quiet recluse and disappeared into the background during breaks except for the numerous times one of the larger girls picked on her. 

She never spoke up nor reported any of it and never gave them the satisfaction of her tears. Each time, I looked on. Never saying a word. The idea of a daring rescue never crossed my mind. Not because I was afraid but because in my childish judgement, I saw nothing wrong with it and didn’t care. I still carry the guilt today mostly because I didn’t come to her rescue the day she needed it the most.

As was common, our grade one teacher had gone on one of her extended visits to the staff room during teaching hours. She had left the freakishly large class bully and her friend in charge of our class of roughly 30 pupils. As usual, they were charged with writing down the names of those who spoke in her absence. 

So, we sat in absolute silence while the two warders whispered in each other’s ears and patrolled the classroom, stalking us, looking for the slightest peep in anticipation of the monumental beating that would come when our mistress returned.

Quite suddenly, they ordered us to put our heads down, sleep and not make a sound. Having always cherished my sleep, I had no worries about it and immediately booked a trip to la-la land and la-la I did.

I awoke to the abrasive voice of our teacher. I wiped the sleep from my eyes and the drool from my cheeks, sitting up and focusing as best I could in my half-asleep trance and general lack of interest in what this lady had to say beyond the moments she would gratuitously beat us.

She shrieked in her customarily soul-sucking, mind-numbing, five octaves too high voice. Money had been taken from her pears. She had left it on the table as she usually did from time to time. Thinking back, she was particularly unintelligent because what would follow displayed all the intelligence of a bucket of paint. 

She charged her trustee bullies, the only people who were able to move around, with searching all of us when her attempt to coerce a confession out of us failed. They emptied our bags one by one and conducted a prison-cell like raid. It seemed to go on forever. 

Suddenly and rather gleefully, they proclaimed finding the loot and the mastermind of the audacious heist. The R20 Van Riebeck note had been found in the back sleeve of Brenda’s exercise book.

We all knew it wasn’t true but not even one of us spoke up. The relief on the faces of the bullies as the livid mistress snatched Brenda from her seat quickly turned to internalised horror as the beating grew more savage. I swallowed hard with each blow and cringed and winced each time she picked up the tiny girl by her dumbo ears and dropped her on the cold, grey concrete floor on her side. I saw Brenda cry for the first time that day. I saw Brenda cry for the last time that day.

For the next week or so, Brenda did not return to school and never would. Brenda had died but by the time I completed my high school over a decade later, the monster who had caused her death as still teaching. I imagine the internally strong Brenda didn’t say a word. I imagine she sat in the most intimate of solitude and vowed not to let the world break…even until her last breath.

Her story would return in a furious flood to mind when my grandfather died years later.