In 1971 I was one of 12 teachers invited to participate in a five-day international conference on child drama in Northern England. The convenor, Sir Peter S., an upper-class Brit, and I soon clashed. I couldn’t stand his misogyny and racism. Although I tried to be discreet in my responses to him, on the second day, I lost my cool when he started using derogatory terms for minorities. The interchange between us became so heated he said, “If you mind the way I teach so much, you take the group,” and left the room.
More than a little shocked, I took the challenge, and began leading a creative drama session. At home I worked with minority kids in a poor neighborhood. Instead of Sir Peter’s “airy-fairy” drama that my kids would have mocked for all they were worth, I led the group using a prompt about street gangs meeting. The group was so engrossed that no one saw Sir Peter return. He strode into the midst of the group, interrupted what we were doing, and resumed his teaching.
The tension between Sir Peter and me came to a point when he started demonizing me. Three people stood up and one of them said, “We Danes, we agree with Nancy.” A few more people joined, adding their support for me. When they sat down, a woman named Olive, who fawned over Sir Peter, stood up and loudly spoke her approval of him. Sir Peter said it was time for a break and invited Olive to join him. She was a heavy-set woman, built like a tank, with huge breasts, who discounted everything I said or did. I loathed Olive.
The last day of the session, as we entered the room, Olive, screaming she wanted to die, tried to throw herself out of a plate glass window. Sir Peter said, “Oh dear,” and did nothing. The rest of the group staring, unable to comprehend what was happening, did nothing. Maybe it’s because I had worked in a mental hospital, and learned how to calm people down, but without thinking, I went over to Olive and spoke to her as if I were a little girl, “Olive, please don’t hurt yourself.” I gently took her hand, hoping to calm her.
She stopped struggling to get away and looked at me. Unbelievably, she said, “Okay. Will you play with me?”
Still using my little girl voice, I said, “Sure, but let’s sit down and decide what we want to play.” I led her to a floor cushion big enough for both of us. She sat down next to me, quiet and calm.
Sir Peter said, “Right. Well done,” and led the group out of the room, leaving me alone with Olive.
Stunned by their departure, I was soothingly rubbing her back, trying to figure out what to do, when an administrator strode in, and in a piercing voice demanded to know, “What’s going on?” With that, Olive jumped up and hurled herself toward the window.
I ran after Olive and pulled her back as I yelled at the administrator, “I just got her quiet and you come in here screaming. Why don’t you do something to help?” He shook his head and left.
Alone, abandoned by the leader, group, and administrator, I quieted Olive, wondering what to do. She said she was hungry. In my little girl voice I suggested we go to the cafeteria and have lunch. I hoped eating something might help. Wrong! As soon as we got to the lunch line, one of the males in the course came over to ask how she was. Olive immediately jumped on him, hugging him inappropriately. He backed away. She started screaming how much she loved him. Grabbing some fruit and bread, I managed to get her outside and walk her to her cabin.
She said she was tired so I took off her shoes and helped her lie down. Soon, Father Michael, an Irish priest, one of the participants, came to see how she was. She began to hug him, saying how much she loved him, which left him struggling to get away. When he was able to disentangle himself from Olive, Father Michael apologized to me and said he had to leave. I begged him to ask the administrators to call a psychiatrist.
Just as he left, Olive ran out of the room and into the bathroom. Soon I heard water running, loud banging, and raucous laughter. I tried to open the door but it was locked. In my little girl voice, trying not to panic, I kept saying, “Olive. I want to play with you. Please open the door.” When she finally opened it, I gasped. The tub water was pinkish red. There was blood on the walls, her dress, and the floor. She was sopping wet with pinkish red fluid running down her dress, blood running down her legs. “Oh Olive, you hurt yourself. Let me help you.” She allowed me to wipe the blood from where she’d cut herself. I helped her take her dress off and, still talking in my little girl voice, said, “Let’s find you a clean dress.”
The day dragged on. No one came to help. I had been with Olive since 11am and it was now close to 7pm. I was hungry, exhausted, and worried. Where was the psychiatrist? I was about to try to take Olive to the administration office when I heard a knock on the door. Doing what I could to keep her calm, I cooed. “Olive, a friend has come to visit.” I opened the door and a tall man with a tired face asked to come in. I told Olive, “Look a friend has come to see you.”
Olive behaved as if she were a normal person. I was dumbfounded. The man, who was a psychiatrist, looked at me as if maybe I was the crazy person. Desperate, I asked Olive, “How did you get the cuts on your leg and arms and face?”
She lost it. Crying. There were no cuts. They were decorations. Babbling words that made no sense. Her manic behavior left no doubt as to her state of mind. The psychiatrist nodded and said he’d be right back. Two large burly men entered. Olive tried to run away, shouting, “Nancy, help me. You’re my only friend.” My heart lurched. The men tenderly and firmly walked her to the door as she continued to scream. “Nancy, don’t let them take me. You’re my only friend. Nancy. Please.” I tried to tell her they would help her but there was no way I could outshout her. I watched the ambulance men put her into the ambulance, secure her to a kind of bed, and drive away, Olive’s words echoing in my head. “Nancy, you’re my only friend.”
I ran to the administrator’s office, demanding to know why they’d left me with Olive all day. “You seemed to know what to do to help her,” he said, casually as if we weren’t talking about a woman having a psychotic break. He poured me a Scotch, which normally would have knocked me over, but it was like drinking water.
“How could you think that? I just couldn’t stand to watch Sir Peter and you do nothing to help a woman who was obviously in great distress.”
He offered no apology. No acknowledgement of my ordeal or Olive’s emotional instability. I left, too full of anger to be rational. I started to run and kept running until I felt myself calm down. How was it that I was the only person who offered to help a person I didn’t even like?
I don’t know why I was the only one who chose to help Olive, or why I used a little girl voice to talk to her, or why it comforted her. Why do you think Olive connected with me as if we were two little girls?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.