(What Makes A Child’s View?)
A short while ago I was hearing about how a friend’s young son was still finding his way at his first school and that he was finding it hard to settle in. I had nothing to offer by way of help or advice, but it started me thinking about the whole nature or nurture argument. Do genes or environment determine how people are? Are nature and nurture overlapping, complimentary or competing? I’ve never seriously delved in to the debate. I’m not even sure what I believe on a superficial level. About all I can say is that I guess my friend’s son is finding it hard going at school because one or the other or both of those broad factors is the root cause. And that’s not exactly a stunning insight.
Anyway. So, I ended up thinking about kids.
I’m not a natural around young children – although they often seem to like me. One friend said it’s because I don’t treat them as children. I don’t know but yes, perhaps it’s because there’s more of a meeting of equals in the eyes of the child. True or not (and experience suggests it is), I admit I quite like that possible reality. True or not, it doesn’t change how I behave with children. Of course, their parents enjoy the irony.
And that all led me to think about me as a child. What’s made me as I am now.
A Child’s View (In Two Sections)
Section One: What Makes A Stranger?
As a pre-teen-aged kid, I was moved from the village school I’d only just started out in to a new one 200-odd miles away. As a not-quite-teenager I was moved again, in fact to a town relatively close to the first village I’d lived in but far enough away to ensure that, yet again, I knew no-one. In both cases I was moved just a few weeks in to the first term of the school year. In both cases all the other kids had some friends with them, friends they’d grown up with. I had no-one.
It’s easy to believe those experiences went some way towards making me who I am. To this day, most friends would say I’m something of an outsider, someone who’s almost inherently a stranger. If not ‘inherently’ then naturally.
And yes, being an outsider has always been an easy role for me to fall in to. But let’s be clear – I don’t think I’ve ever felt discriminated against, shunned or excluded. I just easily find myself just a little, somehow, distant. And no, nor was I ever particularly lonely.
But as an adult I’m aware of having been, as it were, forced to be an outsider. After all, being a stranger in the schools I joined wasn’t my personal choice.
Of course, the gift that comes with awareness is the opportunity to do something different in the light of it. Or not. In this instance, maybe, yes, I was forced to be an outsider to some extent. But yes, that reality has been OK for me. I don’t feel I need to change anything.
It’s easy to think happiness is the issue. That you should be judging your life by how happy you are, whatever the reasons behind it. But that isn’t a strong a plank to stand on. Happiness needs to be a fleeting quality. No-one can be permanently happy.
Instead, judging whether you are comfortable with yourself and how you live seems a more viable yardstick. Being comfortable with yourself sounds a more robust and lasting quality than happiness. And to make the step from that comfortableness to feeling that you’re broadly content with your life within its overall context seems do-able.
If that’s all reasonable, then the task to tackle becomes assessing your own life. And the problems come with trying to assess your own assessment.
People far more intelligent than me have identified truly, honestly knowing yourself as the hardest thing of all to do. But if this whole line of thinking ends up with learning to know yourself being your life-long goal, that’s not a bad thing. What’s the alternative? Accidental or deliberate self-deception? All deceptions fail, sooner or later.
Section Two: Yes, But …
But while theory is all well and good, it leaves the question of what do I actually think of my pre-teenage childhood.
If I try to look back, the dominant fact is that I don’t remember much about it. Hence this, below, is a more-or-less random jumble.
Nursery school and an old car in the grounds we could sit in. A long way there with me sitting on Mum’s bike’s seat while she pushed, complaining about the length of the walk.
I don’t remember feeling anything along being a girl/being a boy lines. I just was what I was. Religion didn’t figure beyond the normal, nominal stuff you’d get in a Church of England school.
Cycling everywhere. Falling off, over the handle bars, and breaking my wrist. A green stick break, that’s all. Pelting along head-down in a game of chase and running into a wall. Stitches in my head.
Picking locks and tying hangman’s nooses: the strange charm of small village schools. Learning to swim and swimming outside in water I remember as always cold.
Hating getting wet but falling in – into the sea, into rivers, into mud.
Being fascinated with garden spiders. Playing in the woods, climbing trees, paddling in the stream and having the run of the whole village. A muddy creek to wade in and wellies getting stuck in it. Playing in playgrounds – swings and slides. Brightly coloured? Probably not as bright as I imagine.
The Post Office with its expensive sweets – far too much for pocket money. The little corner shop with all the cheap treats. Playing board games on doorsteps outside. Hiding in bracken. Reading, lots of reading.
A big – physically big – kid, older than me. He wasn’t threatening; I only knew him as odd. He lived in the next street. He was never explained to me. (Brain damage or born impaired or something? I don’t know. I couldn’t understand him when he spoke. I remember learning that he’d been run over by a lorry, right over his chest, but because he didn’t anticipate or respond to being hit, it did him little harm.)
The delight of finding a field mouse, and accidentally scaring my mother with it when I showed it to her. Being accidentally late to get home one afternoon and mother angry and upset at the fact that I’d made her miss a school play or panto or something.
Father, there but relatively distant. If mother ruled the roost he was probably the softer touch; I don’t remember him as the embodiment of any ‘wait until your father gets home’ threats.
Playing with other kids; going on trips to the beach or the moor. Sometimes as part of a group with other families in the street, Sometimes just with my family. Family? I’ve a brother five years older than me and a sister four years older than him. Perhaps not surprisingly, they don’t figure much in my recollections of those years. I guess my brother came along on those trips but I can barely remember him in this context, and can’t remember my sister at all. Perhaps they were doing their own thing with their own friends. I don’t know.
School and first exams and enjoying most of it, but struggling hugely with maths. I still do. Algebra defeated me. I can remember being very upset that all my algebra homework was wrong. I’d thought I’d understood it. That was the first bitter disappointment that I can remember. Somewhere along the way the value of education was emphasised to me, and that stuck. I learnt to learn.
(In later years I was a tutor for a while (I needed the money), helping just one or perhaps two students with law. The importance of learning to learn was the key message I gave out. I remain pleased to this day that a pupil/client/whatever you’d call him contacted me, after he’d passed his exams, to specifically praise that stance. Facts aren’t the issue – they’re vital, sure, but they’re often not that hard to discover. What really makes the difference to understanding what to do with the facts you learn. And making that difference, to your own life and the lives of others – fundamentally, it all hinges on being open to learning.)
How much of all of it actually happened and is genuinely remembered I can’t say. I know we all learn what we think of as memories by accident, unconsciously, not necessarily accurately. And yes, sometimes they’re imposed.
I remember it all with a contented neutrality. It was all fine. I don’t think of it as exceptional. That’s a good thing. In almost all aspects of life, freakishness is memorable. But freakish – in the sense of the notably unusual – is, well, it is just that. That I can look back on an un-freakish childhood is something to celebrate.
In terms of the overall tone, I remember it as a largely unemotional home life. I think that’s a fairly typical way of things, a fairly typical ‘family tone’, for that era, for better or worse.
And then you get older.
Arguably … being able to be more-or-less neutral when one looks back on one’s childhood is far more common than we might imagine. Because it has to be. However one’s childhood was, we need to be able to put it behind us to proceed.