However short a time it has been or felt, the summer holiday is over for us all. Our time away from school, from work and for many of us, I trust, from bleak weather is over, along with even the hope to feel the sun shining down upon us until late into the evening. The sun started its rapid decline from its summer heights in the second week of August, signal enough for the swifts to depart – out from “under the weather” to points far south. For me just now it feels a long time until the second week of February when the rapid ascent begins again.
At least then – even under cold, wet skies – I can begin to anticipate those lovely May and June evenings, however few there actually may be to enjoy in the absence of heavy cloud cover. I can live in hope, unlike the character John Cleese played in the film Clockwise, who said, “It’s not the despair; I can take despair. It’s the hope I can’t bear.”
Well, most of the time anyway, hope works better for me than for that character, even as the dark clouds process just over our heads and we tread carefully through what can feel unrelenting puddles and mud. And I was minded powerfully of that as I was treading just so recently through London to an appointment, while small children and parents and many young people, some together and others on their own, made their way to school – to start for the first time or start again.
I wouldn’t like to suggest it is so for all, but I sensed that for many, as for me when I was in school long ago, amongst the range of feelings in the earliest days of a new school year there was the hope of/for starting again – the new pencil well sharpened in my school bag replaced today in their rucksacks by a new piece of “electronica” (diary, notepad, calculator) that really will make the difference (the child hopes) for a good start to this academic year of 2008/09.
So there can be some hope, and most likely some anxiety too, often about what it will be like and how it will go. In my primary school years in New York our start day was delayed on two occasions by hurricanes (Donna and Diane, only women at that time!). I still recall being impressed by the power of the wind and rain, and the eerie calm as one “eye” passed over us; I also recall being more troubled by what that delay would mean to starting the school year. It felt very strange, being all ready and then not being able to get going. Not that the next day was very different, beyond having the extra fun of climbing over fallen trees on the way there and back before they were cleared from the local streets and railway tracks.
In more recent years, namely last year and this year, I have noticed something else at the start of the new school year (and it does feel a “new year”, regardless of the many other new years of national or liturgical provenance, and this feels so for long after one’s own self and children have moved out of that educational year cycle). I noticed in these two years that at this very time the news broadcasts and newspapers have been full of stories about two particular topics, and I can’t believe there isn’t a connection, even if the intent to raise and cover them is largely unconscious.
The one ‘story’ focuses upon claims and counterclaims about society having broken down and children and young people (or if not all, then far too many) being almost entirely out of control. OK, it’s also the start of the political party conference season, but it’s an interesting topic to prioritise at this very time of fresh starts for most children. There’s certainly little coverage of the hopeful aspects of starting school again.
The second story each year has been about the dramatic and worrying decline in the pool of the population of children(0 – 16) who have been immunized or vaccinated against the major, and dangerous, childhood diseases of measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). For whatever complex reasons, some but not all related to parents’ conscious (if unconscionable) decisions to avoid a loudly proclaimed but unproven risk, it is a fact that immunisation uptake is now at the level of 73% of the childhood population.
As a consequence over recent years there have been increasing local epidemics of mumps, while measles cases are rising rapidly nationally. For immunisation to work across a population at least 92% of people need to be inoculated. At percentage levels in the mid 80s there is great strain, while below that the risk grows ever greater – and the risk of contracting these diseases, which were killers and maimers less than 80 years ago, is not just higher for those not vaccinated, but for any child – because the resistance to these diseases depends on the great majority to be protected in order to keep them at bay from any one. Such resistance is not an individual ‘property’; it is a collective, a social one. We depend on one another, all together, in this respect.
While the increased threat of MMR illnesses is real and warrants addressing, my mind wandered to thinking and linking the two topics as I tried to make sense of what might be happening in our society in terms of increasing senses and levels of fear, vulnerability and risk in the community and social arenas.
Knife deaths are often the most prominent cases reported with painful frequency; but there are many other manifestations if not of social disorder and danger just outside the front door, or even inside, then of an increasingly widespread confusion and suspicion about people and their intentions. It can make for a jumpy or risky atmosphere even before the often ready availability of alcohol and drugs is brought into the mix along with social and governmental responses to their presence and use.
So, I think that one part of the problem we all face is that, alongside the falling levels of immunity against the physical illnesses of childhood, our population of children as a whole – and thus we adults too – are struggling with falling rates of what I can call the ‘BHL vaccine’, the psychosocial and emotional inoculation of our children against the loss of Belief, Hope and Love.
Again, for many complex reasons the capacity of what can feel like ever-growing numbers of children and young people to feel and show these three things strongly enough themselves – largely because of their experience of receiving them in adequate doses from others (family members, adult carers , friends, teachers etc.) – seems to be declining. I don’t mean disappearing totally or irrevocably, but it can feel that these familial and social dimensions to living together, which are the “ties that bind” us socially as well as interpersonally, are diminishing, at least from many areas of community/social living (which themselves are being reduced greatly as ever more public spaces are appropriated by private and commercial enterprise. Look around you).
I do think that overall in this busy world our children and young people can suffer from a deficit in their experiences that would fit them out for healthy personal and social living. With all the expectations and requirements that our adult world can place on them, and the powerful, generalised judgements we can unthinkingly and often unintentionally hold over them, like a modern sword of Damocles, it is little wonder there is insufficient attention paid to what they might really need as the foundations for achievement and genuine social integration (aka citizenship).
So even if just over 70% of our children have had adequate doses of this other important inoculation, on the same principle as reliably protecting the entire population from dangerous physical illnesses many more of our children need psychosocial/emotional ‘booster shots’. They need more good, solid, genuine experiences of adults – in homes, communities and schools – believing in them, hoping for them and showing a mature and responsible loving of them. And having far fewer ‘doses’ of not being trusted, of being unrealistically idealised or denigrated and of being uncared for/about in society’s rush to be doing/wanting something, unencumbered by creatures who won’t simply fit the mould of compliant child or ‘adultescent’.
Then we might be able to strengthen, broaden, deepen greatly the ‘pool’ of healthy, harmonious personal and social living. What we have been losing in the face of other social demands can be found. Equally it has been said, very accurately, “we do not forget our losses…[and these] losses reshape our world.” Paradoxically absences unrecognised will often have a large presence, as we are witnessing in the ‘body social’ today.
Of course we have long known about the risks and realities of what I have said. No doubt, the poets and Shakespeare himself have put it more eloquently and succinctly than I have just done (although in my defence I can declare as the 19th century man of letters, “I’m sorry I have written so long a letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one”!).
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Not long ago, for a reason I cannot remember, I found myself re-reading The Wizard of Oz, a book I had enjoyed reading myself when young and then reading to children – and I love the 1930s film even more. As I read, I remembered that for many years while working at the Mulberry Bush, a residential school for children aged 5 – 12, with serious emotional difficulties, periodically on a Sunday afternoon a group of children, always led by the girls with the boys willing and obedient actors, would choose to practice and perform a play.
Most often it was the Wizard of Oz (with the musical, Annie, a distant second). The children did everything; the adults were utilised merely to source the costume items and props, but otherwise were to stay well away until the performance. Each show was different in its own way. What was the same was the strong interest in the themes of being alone, lost, finding a protector and ‘friends in need’, and ultimately after many adventures finding that way back home. Very obvious stuff in such a setting, so at the time I pondered little on any deeper significance.
Years later now, along with seeing it as a good story (and made up by L. Frank Baum to tell his children while living, not in Kansas, but in the equally unending and isolated Plains of South Dakota in the late 19th century), I also recognise just how deeply it spoke and can speak still to children, especially children struggling to feel they belong, feel safe and are held healthily in a parent’s, carer’s, school’s and/or community’s mind.
Just inside, just beneath that good children’s adventure story is another one – this one about Dorothy as a child in bleak depression. Having lost her mother and father, about whom nothing is said, she is living with her aunt and uncle. They, while not intentionally unkind, were drained of life by the rigours of eking out a living in an extreme, potentially hostile environment. They were grey in colour and spirit, just as was everything Dorothy could see in every direction outside the door to their homestead. Remember the opening of the film? – all in dull black and white (grey) – until her amazing arrival in Oz. Well, I think now, and the film actually hints at this, that Dorothy’s adventurous journey was entirely an internal one. She had to find her way to a happy home by recovering the things she had lost in/of herself when she experienced the unthinkable, the unspeakable loss of her parents.
How did she dare set off on her journey of recovery? Protected by the kiss of the good Witch of the North; now who could she be in a child’s dreaming mind? On her way, as you will know, she meets her companions – in turn the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion – the parts of herself she had lost.
Briefly then, the Scarecrow part of Dorothy needed a (living, lively) Brain. With a Brain we can think and learn from experiences. We come to believe that we can learn, change and grow. The Tin Man part of her needed a Heart. As he himself says, “While I was in love (and loved?!) I was the happiest man on earth; but no one can love (or be loved?) without a heart.” Dorothy’s Lion part needed Courage, which we know is not absolute certainty that everything faced and ventured in life will always turn out well, but is hope – so that we can face life and others even in difficult or dangerous times, and not run away or give up.
You may remember too that while it is not said explicitly in the story, until the Great Oz himself alludes to it, it is implicit from the start that each of these companions seeking something lost and important already possesses it within; they just needed to realise this. Hence the items that the Wizard gives them merely confirms rather than bestows on each what was apparently lost entirely until then. So once more filled with these, the bits of Dorothy can come together not just to be whole again, but to feel wholesome as well – to have colour in her cheeks, so to speak. Then, having recovered and returned, even if the territory where she now feel she belongs may remain at times grey without, she is no longer grey, empty and lost within herself and in her relationships with others.
Somewhere over the Rainbow
Did the author consciously intend this deeper story? I don’t know; quite probably not in the way I have elaborated it. But he must have been in tune with the risk that the greyness of the environment (physical and human) poses to the spirit within us.
That’s the connection to our current time and place. No grey prairies around, and not often entirely lost parents or wholly drained and unavailable carers. However, allowing for differences in time, space, kind and degree, the message of risk and vulnerability of children in the face of potentially hostile environments and not enough people really believing in them, hoping for them and having a loving care (the real meaning of charity from the Latin caritas) for them remains important for us as adults, parents, carers and society.
Let’s not look entirely outside ourselves for the ‘answers’ to troubled and sometimes troublesome youth. Let’s accept what each of us can do to offer the ‘booster shot’ of this important inoculation. I read once that “a thousand people cannot convince by words to the extent that one person can convince a thousand by action.” Imagine what our society would look like if a thousand, or a thousand thousand ‘one persons’ acted in this way. Now that would take us somewhere over the rainbow!