Photograph by istock
Primary school was a terrifying time for redheaded Kate Bradley. But then she discovered her real power…
I hoped they couldn’t hear me. Droplets of sweat beaded on my forehead. My heart pulsated inside my chest, threatening to give me away as I gulped loudly for air. I could hear their voices; I could smell their intent. If I could just stay hidden a bit longer, maybe they would bore of this game. There were times when I had gotten away – not many, but I had done it. Then I heard his voice. Every time I heard it, it struck me down with terror. “We have checked everywhere, she must be hiding in the bushes behind the tank stand.” I heard the pack of thudding feet grow louder. An injection of adrenaline surged through my veins as I realised I would not get away this time. It was “Get the Redhead Day” at my school, and I was once again the victim of Bradley Driver.
Bradley Driver came to my school in Grade 3. I had passed through Grades 1 and 2 with only mild name calling, but everything changed when he arrived. Bradley didn’t understand what it was like to be different. He was a perfect example of your stock-standard, genetic makeup: olive skin that went a lovely golden brown in the sun, brown eyes, dusty brown hair – but a little larger than the other kids.
He also fancied himself a bit of a genius, as on the day he masterfully invented a new fun event for him and the other children: “Get the Redhead Day”.
The children would gather around while Bradley held me tight, a terrified creature awaiting execution. Despite my whimpers he would coldly explain the rules of the game to his eager participants. “Upon my saying, we release the redhead. She will have a maximum of five minutes head start…the aim of the game is to catch the redhead before the bell.” He would then let me go and say, “Better run, Ginger.”
Something about the excitement of the hunt would bring out a sort of blood lust in the children. Kids who moments before were my classmates, would turn ravenous, delirious – like a pack of dogs. I would run, hot and heavy, through bushes. I would crouch in ditches and squeeze my body through and into inhumanly impossible places – all in order to avoid their clutches and the small rocks, sticks and fruit that would be hurled in my direction. Once I was inevitably cornered, Bradley would push through the pack of chanting children – silencing them with a flick of his hand – and then yell, “Pile on!”
Carrot top, bluey, tomato-head. These were the names my fearful father called me from birth. Onlookers would often wonder what perversion caused a grown man to be so antagonistic towards a toddler. But he knew better than any. My father – who shared the mutated MC1R gene – was a concerned parent preparing me for what he considered to be a life of torment and sun damage. He was determined to give me a type of super power he referred to as a “thick skin”. His loud voice would boom against my mother’s objections: “Better we get her used to it early, so she won’t notice the difference once she starts school.” My poor father turned out to be more than right.
But as I grew older, I learned that being a redhead did actually have some benefits – if not many – that I could use to my advantage. It gave me full licence to be fiery, hot-tempered, assertive, a little quirky and a total tomboy. I was almost expected to speak my mind. If I was out of line I was often pardoned with such phrases as, “What do you expect? She’s a redhead.” Eventually, in Grade 5 (perhaps acting on the concessions my redhead persona permitted), I finally stood up to Bradley Driver. I ended his horrific tradition by biting him on the arm and making him cry. No bully can come back from that.
And now I am all grown up. Thankfully, Bradley Driver and the tortures of childhood have faded into mere memories. Today I am a strong ginger woman with the thick skin my father had hoped for and as much bite as I had in Grade 5. Maybe more.
All I have to say to the bullies out there is Ruadh Gu Brath: a Gaelic phrase that translates to “REDHEADS FOREVER”. We are bold, we are proud and we are coming to get you.
» Kate Bradley is an archaeologist and writer who is specialising as an anthropologist in Australian Indigenous studies. She went through a phase of dying her hair black, but is now back to being a proud redhead.
This article first appeared in Ed#511 of The Big Issue.