‘Cardboards’. That’s what they were called. Native Americans rounded up in a tiny village and forced to live there for generations. Alcohol and drugs were their only escape, if you could call it that.
Back in the Eighties, a government plan to keep the people on the island gave money to the people in the community. The money was to build new homes or fix up the ones that they had. With a home, the people remain, and the population of the province doesn’t suffer. Trouble was, it wasn’t enough money, and the money wasn’t managed properly. Homes were erected, but without enough money to finish the buildings and renovations, many houses were left unfinished.
The cheapest building materials were used, and a product called ‘Donna Conna’ which was manufactured in Quebec, covered the sides of the homes in the area. A fiber wood by-product with a black waterproof paint applied, was a common sight in the tiny village. Since the product was made mostly of paper, or cardboard, the people living in the community inherited the name of ‘Cardboards’.
Traditionally, ‘Cardboards’ went nowhere. They were mostly uneducated, living in a poverty stricken community without pride or ambition. The kids rarely finished school, often quitting school in their late teens and carrying on the traditions of their parents and grandparents.
In 2006, I took a job in a neighbouring community. I worked as a volunteer coordinator at an elementary school. The students of the school were a mix of kids from several communities, including a few ”Cardboards” who were still in school. They were the tough kids who NOBODY came near. In fact, I was warned by the school officials to stay away from those kids and leave them alone.
Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t always listen to advice. I like to make my own judgements about people. I seen kids. Not black or white or Indian or anything but school kids.
I came up with a plan to unite the school kids. I began working on setting up a spelling bee contest in the school. Teachers and even the principal said it would be impossible, partially due to the fact that spelling was no longer taught in the school system, and even if it was, school work wasn’t important to the kids here. All they wanted to do was to get out of school and do nothing with their lives.
I didn’t listen.
I was fortunate enough to find a few teachers who thought I might have had a good idea. They agreed to have small spelling bee contests in their classrooms, and in neighbouring classrooms, and to present me with a spelling bee winner from each class. I brought this to the principal. He was so amazed that the kids participated that he gave me total control of the project, with the semi-finals and eventually the finals to be held at the schools Assembly, at the end of each month.
One kid who stuck out was a kid named Louis. He came from the tiny village I spoke about earlier. Despite the fact that his home was no longer covered with ‘cardboard’, but with a more modern Vinyl siding, he was still known as a ‘Cardboard’. The stigma was hard to let go.
Louis was the best speller in his class. In fact, I tested him with a list of very difficult words, and he got every word correct. Thing was, he wouldn’t enter the contest. He said that ‘Cardboards’ never went anywhere, and his mother would flip if she found out he was in a contest. He said that he was too stupid to win a dumb contest.
Despite his attitude, I never gave up on him. Out of my own pocket, I purchased a few small prizes, not much, but you have to remember, these kids had nothing. I offered a prize to anyone who participated in the semi-finals. I was amazed when Louis agreed to take part. Apparently a girl told him that she was proud of him and that she liked ‘smart guys’, even if they were ‘Cardboards’.
Louis won every match and took a prize in the semi-finals. That same week, the school held Parent Teacher meetings, to discuss the student’s success. I was asked to take part, and to inform parents about the spelling bee.
I was standing in front of the crowd when I was approached by Louis’s mother. She was a rough looking woman with a scarred face and perhaps a scarred past as well. She angrily approached me, cursing as she headed towards me.
“You son of a bitch. Putting false hope in the minds of those kids. Most of all, you are putting false hope into the mind of my oldest child. Don’t you do that. First thing, he will begin asking to finish school. You don’t know how we live, you don’t understand us, our culture, our life!”
She went on to holler at me, the crowd now silent and listening to what she had to say.
“My Louis is not yours, he is mine. When he turns 15, he will quit school and take care of me. When I wake in the morning and I am dying from the pain of the night before, the sickness of alcohol and the agony of the drugs that run through my veins. Louis will be there for me. This is his place on earth, by my side, caring for me. You cannot take that from me.”
I responded “Louis is better than this. Louis is a smart kid who could go places. He can get out of this place and no longer be called a Cardboard. You should want this for your son. He shouldn’t have to live in a place where drugs and alcohol are the only way.”
I was surprised when the crowd began chanting Louis’s name. Slowly, his mother disappeared into the crowd and out the door. Louis, who seemed confused, joined me on the stage, along with the other kids in the contest. He proudly answered every challenge with the correct spelling of each word. When other kids stumbled on words like Vacuum and Conscience, he ripped out the letters and eventually, he won the contest.
The school had a pizza party for his class, and a trophy for Louis. I have never seen a kid as proud as he was on that day. His teachers cheered and honoured the students with prizes and a big cake. For one day, there were no ‘Cardboards’, only kids.
I had hoped that Louis would go on to big things. He had the brains to go to college and make something of himself. He didn’t. Louis done nothing, and by the time he turned 15, he quit school to care for his alcoholic mother.
You see, Louis ain’t nothing but a Cardboard, and everyone knows that the ‘Cardboards’ never go anywhere.