I had entered my 10th year of teaching when the albino girl came to Montford Secondary. Cookie Govender was one of a batch of 90-odd pupils who entered high school that year, the majority of them from our sister school, Primrose Primary. I had previously heard about Cookie from one of my colleagues at Primrose; he had said that she could almost pass for white and that she was one of the most popular pupils at the school.
I was sceptical whether her popularity would continue in high school.
Cookie wasn’t the first albino I had encountered during my time at Montford. In my second year I had taught one, a boy, his skin as pale as any white person’s, and his hair blond. His name was Chandra, but almost as soon as he arrived at the school the other pupils began calling him “Bird shit”.
After the name-calling came the beatings; every other week he sat in my classroom with his face covered in bruises. The teachers tried to curtail the bullying, but by the end of grade 9 it had become too much and he transferred.
I had expected it would go much the same for Cookie until I saw her at assembly on the first day of term in mid-January 1988, lined up with her fellow grade 8s in front of the rest of the school. As Principal Singh welcomed the new pupils and spoke at length about the rules and traditions of the school, Kogie Moodley, my closest friend on the staff and a colleague in the English department, nudged me. “Look at her.”
I didn’t need Kogie to point out Cookie to me. In fact, I suspected that most of the staff’s and assembly’s eyes were focused on the 12-year-old. My colleague at Primrose Primary had got it wrong. Cookie could not just pass for white − she was a textbook example of a white person.
Chandra’s skin had had tiny splotches of brown on his arms, neck and face; his blond hair was wiry and thin, almost balding; his facial features were unmistakably Indian; and his eyes were almost open wounds. He was a poor photocopy of a white boy. Nothing about Cookie’s appearance, on the other hand, betrayed her true race.
The girl was willowy, her complexion pale and her long blonde hair was shaped into a loose fishtail plait. It was impossible to not stare at her − a tall, white girl amid a long line of dark brown faces.
I, along with several other teachers, had always disapproved of Principal Singh’s parading of the grade 8s in front of the assembly on their first day at the school. It was a cruel thing to do to the pupils on what was probably one of the most traumatic days of their young lives. But if Cookie was traumatised, she showed little sign of it. She smiled as nervously as the rest of the newcomers, but there was also a certain confidence in her posture. Her eyes didn’t look away from all those who were staring at her.
Two hours after the assembly, the teachers gathered in the staff room for the first lunch break. I sat with the other female teachers, as I usually did, in the small lounge area. The talk had centred briefly on Principal Singh’s annual charade, but it soon shifted to Cookie. We learnt a few more details about the girl from one of the teachers sitting with us, Mrs Reddy, whose husband taught at Primrose.
Mrs Reddy immediately dispelled the rumour that Cookie was not actually an albino. Soon after the assembly, Kogie had visited my classroom to inform me of the gossip that had begun circulating about the pupil. She said that several of the teachers suspected that the girl was really white or coloured and that her parents were making her pretend to be an albino.
Mr Chetty, the boys PE master, had speculated that the girl’s mother, who he said was on the cleaning staff of a Durban beachfront hotel, had had an affair with one of the white guests.
Another teacher, Mr Nair, was of the opinion that the girl was 100% white, and that the Govenders had stolen her from a white family. He recommended that Principal Singh contact the education department as soon as possible with this information. It was better to approach them before a school inspector made the discovery himself, Mr Nair had reasoned.
Kogie and I laughed over the gossip, but, as far-fetched as it all seemed, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something to it. I had heard far stranger stories about Indian families trying to hide their mixed-race offspring from the authorities. One of my own cousins, Satiah, was exceptionally fair-skinned, green-eyed and had very curly hair. It would have been obvious to anyone that he was more coloured than Indian.
Growing up, I remember my aunt always insisting that he wear a peak cap whenever we left the township and went into the city. “They mustn’t see your hair,” my aunt would warn him. If we saw a policeman while we were in Durban, my cousins and aunts would crowd around Satiah, hiding him until they thought it was safe again. As soon as he was old enough to work, Satiah began shaving off his hair.
“The girl is not white or coloured,” Mrs Reddy said, her tea cup balanced on her knee, all of the eyes in the lounge area on her. “She’s got a sickness.”
In between slow and deliberate sips of tea, we learned that Cookie’s father also suffered from albinism. Mrs Reddy’s husband had met the Govenders on numerous occasions at parent-teacher meetings. Mrs Govender, who, as Mr Chetty correctly stated, was a hotel worker, had the regular dark complexion of a Tamil, but her husband’s was a mosaic of brown and white skin. He looked like a white person with grease stains on him, Mrs Reddy said.
She added that Mr Govender’s family had a long history of albinism, and that three of his five siblings had children who suffered from the disease. The children all had the same patchwork skin that plagued Mr Govender.
Only Cookie had escaped it.
A few days later I had my first staff duty of the year and was making my rounds during a lunch break. The volleyball court was usually the busiest area during breaks. The sport was the most popular at the school and the matric boys would play informal games among themselves. Girls and many younger boys would surround the court, watching them.
There was a game going on when I got there, but it was nowhere as crowded as it usually was. Instead, most of the activity was coming from the netball court adjacent to it. I made my way through the pupils; boys and girls from all grades lined the court.
Cookie immediately caught my eye. She was at the centre of the game, calling out instructions to her team-mates, who all looked to be grade 8s like her. The opposing team was made up of grade 10s. The older girls were by far the better players and seemed to be winning by a long margin, but the crowd was firmly behind the younger girls.
I had never seen this many pupils watch a netball game before. The school would struggle to arrange any spectators for the interschool games, yet this one-sided contest between two average teams had the crowd captivated. It was obvious that the pupils were here for Cookie. Each time she had the ball or made a pass, a cheer went up.
When she finally got the ball in front of the net, the pupils went quiet as she balanced on one leg, her knee bent, her arms stretched out gracefully. In her white dress and with her tall white body, she looked like a swan. A second later the ball bounced off the hoop and fell in.
My first real interaction with Cookie came soon after. I was teaching a grade 9 English class when there was a knock on the door. I walked over from the chalkboard and opened.
Cookie stood outside, a polite smile on her face. I hadn’t seen her this close up before and was shocked at how striking she looked.
Her skin was close to perfect. I had interacted with only a handful of white people in my life − a few instructors at the teaching college and some salespeople in Durban. Their skins had a freckled pinkness to it, which intensified in the summer months. “Low-class European people,” my grandmother had called them.
Cookie’s skin, on the other hand, was milky and blemish-free. She was also extremely pretty; any woman, myself included, would have wanted as fine features as her. Her eyes were light brown, their wideness magnified by the glasses she wore.
Almost immediately, the pupils in my class began shouting out her name, trying to get her attention. Cookie waved happily at them, a big grin on her face. I shushed the class and asked the girl what she wanted.
“Mrs Samuels said I must give you this note, ma’am,” Cookie said. Her voice, loud and clear, had the same Chatsworth accent as any of the pupils at the school. It was jarring hearing the accent with which I was so familiar coming from a white face.
I unfolded the note and read it. My car alarm had gone off. This didn’t concern me. It had been malfunctioning on and off for a month. I told the class to continue their reading without me and headed off to the car park.
Mrs Samuels’ classroom overlooked it, so Cookie walked with me. With her long legs she had no difficulty keeping up with my brisk pace.
“I like your dress, ma’am,” the girl said, as we approached her classroom.
“Thank you,” I replied, smiling. The dress, a cotton, paisley print, was new and I was flattered that she had noticed it. No one in the staff room, with the exception of Kogie, had commented on it. “It was on sale at Edgars.”
“I like Edgars,” Cookie said. “They got nice clothes.”
“How are you finding high school?” I asked.
We had reached Mrs Samuels’ classroom. Cookie grasped the door handle and considered the question. “It’s fine,” she replied finally, giving me the same broad smile she had greeted me with. “Bye, ma’am.”
The staffroom talk about Cookie predictably slowed down to a trickle over the following months as her novelty wore off and the grind of the school year took over. Even Mrs Reddy, who for the first term could barely have a conversation without bringing the girl up, would only rarely share an anecdote, usually about something clever Cookie had said in her home economics class.
The initial awe over her appearance may have passed but her popularity among the pupils only grew. Cookie seemed to have rapidly befriended most of the school.
I would often see her during the weekly assemblies or during my staff duty rounds at lunch breaks. She was always surrounded by a group of girls her own age, as well as a number of older girls. They seemed to follow her everywhere, each one whispering to her or trying to get her attention.
By then, any concerns I had had about the girl fitting in at the school had long disappeared. If anything, I came to believe that, considering her good standing with both the teachers and pupils, Cookie had a chance of one day becoming head prefect.
The next time the albino girl and I crossed paths was at the beginning of the fourth term. I, along with Kogie and five other teachers, had volunteered to supervise the annual grade 8 excursion to the Durban Museum. The group wasn’t as much of a handful as the older standards, so many of the teachers actually looked forward to the outing. The morning of the excursion, we quickly divided up the two busloads of pupils into smaller groups of 20, each with a teacher in charge. Cookie ended up in my group.
The security guard approached me in the Early Settlers room of the museum. He was a short man, white and balding, and was dressed in a short-sleeved blue shirt and khakis. The only thing that distinguished him from a member of the public was a walkie-talkie clipped to his belt.
I knew it was the albino girl he was interested in.
He had noticed Cookie as soon as my group reached the third floor of the museum and had followed us quite openly through the Zulu Kingdom exhibit.
The pupils in my group, Cookie included, took no heed of him. They talked excitedly among themselves about the life-sized models of Zulu warriors and giggled about the bare-breasted maidens. I did my best to ask them questions about the exhibition and to read to them from the museum tour brochure, but, in my head, I was preparing what I was going to say to the guard.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry to interrupt you but I think you’ve got a learner from another school with you,” the guard said, pointing to Cookie. “It gets so busy this time of the year. There are three other schools here today. I see it happen all the time.”
We stood below a large photograph of 19th-century West Street. My pupils were a few exhibits away, admiring a model of the British boy hero John Ross. I called out to them to wait for me there.
The guard had a kind face. Beneath his neatly trimmed blonde moustache was a smiling mouth. I could tell he was hoping that it was just a simple mix-up, a mix-up that could be solved by making an announcement over the museum intercom system.
“She’s from my school,” I replied. “She’s an albino. She’s Indian like me.”
This wasn’t the answer he wanted. His smile tightened a little and he glanced quickly at the pupils.
“Indian?” His left hand rested on the walkie-talkie clipped to his belt. “She doesn’t look like an Indian. She looks like she could be my daughter.”
I knew that I had to answer carefully. “I was just as surprised the first time I saw her. Her father has the same sickness. It’s very sad.”
I watched his face as he chewed through the information. He didn’t seem as though he was suspicious, more curious.
“I had a neighbour who had it. He was blind as well. It’s a terrible disease,” he said, his head shaking ruefully. His hand had moved away from his walkie-talkie and was cupping his chin. Now that he was talking to me I didn’t feel as threatened as I was when he was following us.
“It is,” I replied.
“Do you mind if I speak to the girl quickly?” he asked.
Again, I could see that he was asking out of curiosity. If anything I had hoped that he would ask. Hearing the girl’s strong Chatsworth accent would convince him that I was telling the truth.
“Of course,” I replied. I called Cookie over. The girl broke away from the group and walked slowly to us.
The guard looked shocked when Cookie stood in front of us. He made no attempt to hide the fact that he was staring at her. I didn’t blame him. I had reacted much the same way that first assembly.
“Cookie, say hello to the sir,” I instructed. Cookie didn’t respond. For the first time since I had met her, the girl looked scared.
“Don’t be shy. Say hello to the sir. He works in the museum,” I repeated, resting my hand on her shoulder. Again, my request was met with silence. I began to panic slightly. Why wouldn’t she say anything?
“Are you enjoying your trip?” the guard asked. Cookie looked up at him but her lips remained sealed. Tears began to well up in her eyes.
“Can she talk?” the guard asked.
“Talk to him, Cookie,” I said, shaking her shoulder gently. “Talk.”
But the albino girl wouldn’t talk. The tears fell from her eyes and she began to sob softly.
The guard unclipped his walkie-talkie and brought it to his mouth.
Photo: Collage by Gary Cummiskey, I Always Fall In Love Too Easily (2013)