When I was nine years old I had to spend a few weeks at a new school. I felt conscious of being the “new girl” or more precisely the “temporary girl”: friendless and shy. As it was near the end of the year, celebrations were being planned, one of which was a hat competition. I knew I was good at making things so made up my mind to enter that competition.
My mother, always afraid of failure, and not wanting me to be disappointed, did everything she could to discourage me. She told me I could not possibly win, and other girls would have better hats than mine. My grandmother also tried to dissuade me. She said that other girls could have sisters who were milliners who would make hats for them.
We had come down to the city for my father to be admitted to hospital as his serious illness could not be treated in the country. My mother and I with my brothers, Kevin, aged seven, and Rodney, aged two, stayed with Grandma. Difficult is an understatement in describing our lives there, as my mother and Grandma, her mother-in-law, did not get on. Grandma liked peace and quiet and was proud of her perfect housekeeping, but Kevin and I were energetic. The house was tiny, just two bedrooms, and not designed to hold two adults, two children and a toddler.
We jostled around trying to keep out of each other’s way. At night I slept on the floor in the lounge room, Rodney slept with Mum, and Kevin curled up on a lounge chair. Fortunately Kevin and I were at school all day, which eased the crowding but did little to improve the tempers of the two women.
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At school the daily talk was of the hat competition. There were sections such as the biggest hat, the funniest hat, the smallest hat. Because there was a boys’ school and a girls’ school with separate playgrounds, there were separate prizes for girls and boys.
I tried to ignore my mother and my grandmother and told myself that I was determined to win. I knew the word, “determined” but had only read it and never heard it pronounced. Therefore I pronounced it as “DETermined. With DETermine-ation I set about planning how to make my entry for the littlest hat. I knew how to make a soldier’s hat out of newspaper and decided that it would be easy to make a tiny version. It would not be seen if I wore it on my head, so I would wear it on my thumb.
I had a few school exercise books and my favourite doll but nothing else to keep me occupied. We had nothing for sewing or crafts, and my mother lived in perpetual fear that we might make a mess. I took a sheet of paper out of a writing pad and, using my mother’s nail scissors, cut it into pieces and experimented with size. When I had the smallest size I could manage I struck a problem: I had no way of keeping the whole thing together. Mum would not let me have glue, as that might make a mess in Grandma’s house. I was too timid to ask Grandma for some pins, but I decided that pins would be too big anyway and would spoil my hat’s appearance.
Consequently I used the next best thing, spit. With my DETermine-ation, I cut and folded until I was happy with the result. I then carefully applied my spit and placed a heavy book on top of the flattened hat to make sure that it welded together. That night I slept peacefully on the lounge room floor, anticipating my win.
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The next day, the entries in the competition were spectacular. Two little girls wore clothes lines on their heads and carried a basket of washing between them. There were several witches’ hats and many sombreros, all home made, but I suspect by parents more than by children. There was a tall hat decorated with peacocks’ feathers and a tiny hat made from a thimble.
I was not dismayed by all this professionalism. After all, I had DETermine-ation. When it was time for the smallest hat section of the competition, I walked in the ring with my tiny hat held proudly on my thumb. A teacher from the boys’ school asked me who made my hat and took down my name.
Although I was not really surprised when my name was called I felt a glow of pleasure as I walked up to the dais; it was as though the whole playground was shining. A teacher said something to congratulate me then a sixpenny piece was placed in my hand. I was a winner!
That sixpenny piece was more precious than gold. Together Kevin and I ran home to Grandma’s house to tell the triumphant news. That day I learned an important lesson. Never be discouraged; DETermine-ation will get you through, and a little spit could help.
Were you a very determined child? Do you have a similar story? Tell us below.