My grandmother, Jean Gosse, wrote poems that reflected daily life and concerns in mid-20th century Newfoundland. At the time “The Little Boy who didn’t pass” was written (the early 1950s), Newfoundland had only recently become a province of Canada. Prior to Confederation in 1949, Newfoundlanders were British subjects; but, to hear my grandmother tell it, they had been largely self-sufficient, with their own currency. Like many of my grandmother’s poems, “The Little Boy who didn’t pass” was originally published in the Evening Telegram, the main newspaper in St. John’s, which is Newfoundland’s largest city. It was inspired by a family with 15 children who lived next door to my grandmother in Buchans, a mining town in the center of the province. This is one of my favorite of her poems because of the way in which she sees behind the veneer of this child and grasps the private humiliation he was going through, in being held back a grade at school. Our task as writers, I am reminded when I read these lines, is to get to the heart of things.
The Little Boy who didn’t pass
by Jean Gosse
He had a belligerent manner, had he.
As if he were saying, “Antagonize me.
And you’ll surely end up in a peppery fight
And if I am tempted I certainly might
K.O. my opponent in any old brawl
For scrapping is something I don’t mind at all.”
He was stocky and short
And his manner was tough
The sort of a kid that a mother calls “rough.”
But his heart was as tender as any wee girl
And the bottom dropped out of his little world
And bitter his tears, walking home with his class–
This little boy wept ‘cause he didn’t pass.
[Selected by David Freeland, author of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure]