John Bowlby, Russ Conway, Donald Winnicott and Maths

It all began when I heard what one of my grandchildren had said soon after she and her family had moved house. Talking to her older sister she was musing on the first big transition in her life. “I’ve got a new house. I’ve got new friends. I’ve got a new (nursery) school. Who’s going to be my new granny?” So simple, and so elegantly logical and practical!Her thoughts and line of reasoning struck an immediate chord with her parents and with her grandparents (one of whom was the candidate for replacement in the new scheme of things). Of course! Although we knew that some things and people were replaced, we also realised that despite a move of 80 miles or so had taken place, there were relationships that were constant through time and space. The revelation of this little grandchild, aged three, was that she had no way of knowing which was which: who or what was permanent and non-negotiable, and who or what would be replaced.

Now this conversation had taken place in a secure, sensitive and loving context: it was not situated in some emotional or physical war zone. There had been careful preparation for the move, and the grandma in question had been at the new house during the day of the move. Conversations about feelings were common in the household: fears, plans, dreams were listened to and respected. And there was a lot of attention to transitional objects (which is where the association with Winnicott comes in).

So it is reasonable to assume (although with little children one can never know for sure) that the question, “Who’s going to be my new granny?” was not associated with feelings of panic or fear. It was a matter of fact enquiry. Because everyone else had been replaced, why not discover a new granny somewhere nearby?

What dawned on me as I pondered the question was that in little children where the setting and context is strained, tense, chaotic or hostile, they cannot take it for granted that anything will be the same again. It is perfectly possible that they fear everything will be taken away, or lost in transit. Their reactions will depend in part on the quality of their attachment to significant others, and the bonding of these others. (I think you can guess that this is where Bowlby makes his entrance.)

But my guess is that very few will be able to work out how and why Russ Conway the upmarket pub pianist fits into the story. Some with excellent memories may recall that I wrote a piece on a song of his in Children Webmag in January 2009. To save you having to delve into the (very efficiently organised and accessible) archive of this webmag, let me summarise, and provide a more accurate text. The words are by Lionel Bart, and they were set to the music, Concerto for Dreamers by Russ Conway who speaks the lyrics.

“Take away two from three and you’ll be left with one,
But take away you from me, and I’ll be left with none:
to carry in my arms an empty space,
and in my heart the same,
and all the world a lonely place, and all my life alone.”

Take away the moon; take away the stars from the sky…
If you could take away what we have…you and I…

Multiply, or divide, answers must agree, that in the end
Side by side, there’s always you and me.”

For some reason the words are spoken with such conviction that it was always obvious to me that Russ Conway (real name Trevor Stanford) understands the loss of which he is speaking from the inside. His biography bears this out: he lost his own mother aged 14 years, and suffered chronically from anxiety and depression.

The lyrics of Always You and Me led me to the simple deduction that children who have experienced severe disruption and loss, without the supporting context of secure relationships and transitional objects, will have difficulty when it comes to doing subtraction. (Now it is a truth pretty universally acknowledged that children who have suffered traumatic loss of significant others are not good at mathematics generally, but as far as I know, no one had seen the correlation specifically between loss, and difficulties with subtraction.)

It is too soon to test whether my grandchild has any difficulties with subtraction herself, but as it happened I was taking a funeral recently, and at the reception that followed I found myself in conversation with one of the guests. She was a teacher or tutor of ‘looked after children’, and before long we made a connection about children who had suffered loss. Because we were in a group of East Enders for some reason the subject of Russ Conway came up. Most guests were surprised that he had recorded anything spoken or neo-classical, but because I had owned the single as a youngster I was able to convince them that this was one his rare forays into such a genre.

Meanwhile the tutor started delving into her handbag for her diary. She pointed to the right hand page for the day before (Thursday 24th October 2013, for the record) and insisted I read what she had written. I was hesitant, because looking into other people’s personal diaries is something I never do. But she insisted I read the exact words she was pointing out. They recorded that she was teaching maths to a young person in a children’s residential unit, and had set him a series of subtractions. He completed them quickly and successfully, except that he had not subtracted them, but had instead added the twin sets of digits in every case. She explained to him that he got the answers right as long as she changed the sign from minus to plus.

She then tried to get him to do subtraction, but he refused. Instead he wanted her reassurance that she would not leave him. He recoiled instinctively from the conceptual terrors of subtraction (detachment) to his need for comfort and attachment. She was visibly stunned to discover the fact that I had come to the conclusion that for some children subtraction was emotionally too demanding. It was full of the unhappiest and most alarming of associations. At which another teacher commented that this made sense of a lot of the experiences she had had with such children.

It has not been possible since I wrote the piece in 2009 to study the school reports of those who have suffered loss with a view to exploring the correlation between trauma and difficulties with subtraction. But the question is there ready and waiting for an enquiring educational psychologist.

If I am right, the fear reaches into the heart of the young person, and involves every part of the known world (the moon and the stars, for example). It is primal fear: of the Void. No wonder it is a no-go area for many. And if we were more aware and sensitive we would never lightly encourage pupils to the edge of this particular cliff. If nothing else persuades us then perhaps Russ Conway’s voice and music might.

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