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Kids@Work

WOOLCOMBER'S HELPER, FRANCE, 1841

I am Norbert Turquin.

Life is hard. My mother is dead and my father is a gambler, unable to provide. When I was seven, he left me with a wool comber as a helper, and disappeared. The wool comber is a old man.

My days are like this: I awake at three after midnight, and fire the furnace that heats the metal combs. Work begins at four. Grease will smooth the wool, and the hot combs straighten it for those who will buy it to weave. After the hot combs have done their best, I stretch the wool between my hands, and pick impurities from it with my teeth. We work until ten at night. I try to stay awake, but sometimes cannot. If I drowse, the old man hits my nose and makes it bleed.

There is just the two of us, and I do other things as well. Each morning, I go to the public fountain for water. In winter I go in my bare feet. Shoes slip on the ice, and if the crock fell and broke, I would be beaten.  I also go to the market and bargain hard for cabbage and vegetables which I boil for our stew. For meat, I buy the small scraps of meat left on the butcher's meathooks, or sometimes a sheep's head. I scrape meat and skin from the head, and pick out any worms. It makes a fine meal.

My master is pious, and I must  pray at the cathedral when I go to market. I cannot take my basket in. Once I left it outside, and it was stolen. When I came back empty handed, the comber took off my shirt and beat me with a leather strap. My clothes are such rags that they would not save my skin anyhow. School children mock me in the street for my clothes. Once, my father brought me new clothes and a watch, and I was very proud.  But later he took them back and hocked them to pay a gambling debt, and I was back in rags.

Sometimes, the comber takes me to the tavern in the evening. He makes me drink wine until I can hardly stand, then makes me dance to amuse his friends.

 At day's end, I go to my bed, a sack in the coal bin under the steps.

Life is hard.

When the wool comber died, Norbert Turquin was about ten, and homeless. For a while he survived as a thief and scavenger. He became a choreboy for prostitutes, and —homeless again when they were arrested—, a ragpicker and begger. As he grew, he worked at many things. Grapepicker, laborer, well-digger, and peddler were a few of his jobs. Eventually he learned skills as a weaver, and married a woman who was also a weaver and they had children.  He could read only a little, but in his forties learned how to read and write well. He wrote his autobiography, from which this account was taken. He moved his family to South America, and disappeared into history.

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