Miss Darling’s instructions to the class to be nice to Myra have exactly the opposite effect. The children not only begin to make fun of Miss Darling by imitating her words and actions, but they begin to treat Myra more cruelly, with little regard for her feelings. Before Miss Darling interferes, Myra is excluded from play and ignored, which is a different kind of cruelty, but after the teacher interferes in class dynamics, Myra is treated with contempt. Helen describes an escalation of meanness after the teacher gets involved, in which small groups of girls approach Myra to taunt her about her hair or her smell. The girls engage in a kind of mob behavior. None of the girls approach Myra individually to mock her unless they are in groups of three or four. The ridicule of Myra is so intense that Helen feels a sense of danger in just being seen walking and talking with her classmate. When forced to write a letter wishing Myra a quick recovery and return to school, the girls are oblivious to the fact that they are inviting Myra to return to her position as class scapegoat.
Myra breaks social expectations and traditions in many ways, is excluded from class and recess activities, and becomes a target for ridicule. Myra’s caring for her little brother is responsible for her exclusion from her classmates’ activities. Jimmy is in Grade One, while Myra is Grade Six. He cannot go to the bathroom by himself and so Myra must accompany him. If he has an accident, and it is suggested that he frequently does have accidents, she must take him home, necessitating additional absences from her classmates. Myra must care for her much younger brother, both during class time and also during recess, which requires that she stand on the back porch of the school with him. She cannot join in recess activities with the girls in her class. This is another way in which Myra is isolated from her peers. The very fact that there is a boys’ side and a girls’ side in the playground, with an invisible border that no one crosses, is further evidence of the conformity expected of students, who must adhere to traditions that divide the class.
Helen tells readers that Myra was likely a student in her small school for at least a couple of years before she became aware of her. This suggests that Myra was not always the class scapegoat and target for abuse, even though her appearance is different from that of her classmates. Myra first comes to her classmate’s attention when she asks her teacher for permission to take her brother to the bathroom. Miss Darling corrects Myra’s use of English, which causes the class to focus their attention on Myra as an outsider. Myra does not look or dress like her classmates. Her skin is brown, and she wears dresses of taffeta and crepe that are too fancy for school and are too large for her. They are women’s dresses that have been cut down, but they fit Myra poorly, further setting her apart from her classmates whose appearances and clothing conform to schoolgirl expectations. Myra also appears to be sad and always tired, with the kind of flat look that suggests a piece of art and not a person. Her appearance and demeanor are not understood by her classmates. As a result, Myra becomes an enigma to her teacher and to the girls in her class. When she cannot be decoded as easily as her classmates, they cast her aside. These facets of her appearance and personality, when added to her obligation for her brother, conspire to make Myra stand apart from her classmates, both literally and symbolically.
Myra becomes even more excluded when she becomes ill. She is physically set apart from her classmates when she is unable to attend school and is hospitalized. Myra is forced to celebrate her birthday months early because Miss Darling decrees that she must, and because she is about to die. The event is described by Munro as one of gaiety and excitement, but not for the object of the party. Myra sits apart on a hospital bed, dressed in a hospital gown. She is going to die soon, which is of course, the ultimate act of exclusion from her classmates.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Alice Munro – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.