Who is Nigel Wright? asks the headline. After landing himself as the prime minister’s chief of staff two years ago, there was a bunch of frothy headlines about this man, a lawyer with degrees from U of T and Harvard, captain of Bay Street, friend of Everyone In the Highest Places. Quite a guy is who this guy is.
When I knew Nigel, he was a little twerp. Sorry, we all were, but he was particularly twerpy. From grades 5 through 8, I attended a segregated enrichment program here in Burlington. 60 of us – 2 classes – of kids were bused to the west end for two years, then to Tecumseh Middle School for the final 2. Grades 7 and 8 are a tumultuous time for kids (you’ll know this if you have kids, or have a decent memory), and we were no different.
Except, we were very different. We were segregated for being smart, the nerds, the browners. Our classrooms were up beside the other special classroom, the one for the kids with learning disabilities. Yes, back then, everybody got segregated. We thought we were special. Looking back, we were not that different from the kids next door. We were trouble to teach, and a handful to manage. I started out grade 8 aged 11. Many of us were that young. Most kids in grade 8 are 13 or 14.
For that alone, you can imagine the difference in appearance. Boys often lag behind girls, which meant we had a lot of boys who were small. Nigel was one of them; he was hardly alone. I thought I was tall, but looking back on school pictures, I was one of the smaller kids. I was still taller than Nigel. He jetted between classes with a briefcase. This wasn’t weird; many of the enrichment boys had briefcases. In retrospect, it was pretty funny. No other kid in the general population of the school had a briefcase, but the nerds had one for every three kids. Yeah. We didn’t stand out much. At all.
Grade 8 is already a pretty horrible age. Awkward uncertainty is meeting up with alien body changes surrounded by everyone else going through similar things. Nigel was the sweetheart, the cute-as-a-button teacher favourite, as well as the girls’. Smart, quick, with a big smile, he was a charmer. His stature mattered little; he walked tall and carried a large briefcase. There were many, many kids in those classes who would go on to great things. We knew it then, and it’s proven true. In the past few years, we’ve caught up again, many of us back in touch for the first time in decades.
They weren’t great years for me. I was an artsy, my sole ability even then stirred only by my love for reading and writing. I was surrounded by math and science whizzes, kids who could devour complex ideas in any subject matter; kids who were so politically and historically astute, the teachers had trouble keeping up. It was a cauldron of immense brain power set to full speed ahead. I was not one of them, and aside from a handful of girlfriends, felt marginalized by my lack of analytic ability.
Nigel could move within any group. He led conversations and was born with his hand up, but it garnered no bad feelings; you couldn’t help but like the guy. The girls would huddle and imagine who would be their boyfriend (even at 11 and 12, it was still the name of the game, as it is ever thus), and Nigel was high up the list.
Red Rose Tea used to put small figurines in their boxes of tea. Many kids traded and collected these assorted ceramic animals. Nigel had several lined up on the shelf in his locker. One afternoon at recess (yes, we still had recess), he came up to me and asked me if I’d “go” with him. That was our tender, innocent version of going steady. As I ranked somewhere near the bottom of the popular girl’s list, this was a shock. To seal the deal, he gave me a Red Rose figurine of the three bears and kissed me chastely under the stairwell just before the bell rang. This was heaven, I thought to myself. I’ve found bliss.
Nigel was in the other class of grade 8s, which meant not being able to sit near my new man nor gloat over my conquest except at the lockers and before the bell. I don’t remember how I got through the last classes of the day. Other girls were used to this; it was a foreign language to me. I polished my little win like a diamond, wondering what we’d name our children, or when the next field trip would be so I could sit beside him on the bus. Which ever came first.
As the bell went, I headed to my locker clutched in the sisterhood of several friends. As Nigel walked towards me, I shook. I can still see him setting down his briefcase before he spoke to me.
“Can I have the bears back? I’m giving them to someone else.”
Writing this makes me smile. It was a handful of hours in a young girl’s life. It would be several years before I had a boyfriend, but this was, looking back, one of the less painful breakups I’ve had. Do I know who Nigel Wright is? No, not a bit. But once upon a time he was a smart little boy we all had a crush on.
As the group of us have watched his later moves in the public eye, I’ve frequently taken to Facebook, where the enrichment crew meet up in cyberspace if they are so inclined, and I keep asking ‘why’. A few brave souls will join the discussion, while most skirt the topic either because they don’t care or don’t want to be seen. Nigel himself joined our group when invited several years back, but he’s never played. He’s been busy. He also probably knew acknowledging the invite was the proper thing to do, like putting your name on a sign in sheet to prove you were there. He needn’t have worried; outside of my occasional calls for answers to our sorry political state of affairs, there is little discourse within our group, and even less banter. We are not Facebookers.
Nigel has power, of course. But when he moved to the prime minister’s side – a prime minister I abhor – I had a silly fleeting second of thinking, maybe he can change some of this for the better. I forgot, of course, that power and money don’t move to the left. His latest moves are perplexing to me (and I’m sure many) for one reason: he’s not this stupid. He’s just not.
Years later, someone found me a three bears figurine at a flea market. They’re collector’s items, but I lost it in a move. Doesn’t matter; now I’m more like Goldilocks, anyway, searching instead for something that is just right. Funny how nothing in our world seems just right anymore. Not right at all.