Sir – there’s something we need to tell you
Kentish girls teach me about fatherlessness
It was a mixed class, in a school in Kent to which I had been invited. I was there to talk to a class of fifteen-year-olds about dunno, my first novel. It concerns a fourteen-year-old who has never known his father and finds the business of growing up very difficult indeed.
For over half an hour they listened to me, politely, quietly, asking questions from time to time, mainly about the troubled boys I had encountered and tried to help during my teaching career. What happened to the boy who could not help lying, the twelve-year-old bully who used to sit on his mother’s lap and cry when his dad rang up to say that he could not come to see him for yet another two weeks?
For a moment they were puzzled by what one boy had meant when he was questioned by his teacher in an international boarding school. When he was asked whether his parents were coming to spend half-term weekend with him, something that most parents did, Paul did not so much as pause:
“My dad spends all his spare time making brothers and sisters for me.”
Then the penny had dropped; Paul’s father had been an international football star, a sports celebrity, supposedly somebody wonderful, but not wonderful enough to take an interest in his son. Then I remembered his reputation as a womaniser. What must it must be like to see through a negligent or spiteful parent, to acknowledge and understand their weakness and their lack of interest in you; who else is there to take an interest in you and help you along the way if it is not a parent? Before long Paul had become a very angry fourteen-year-old and was having trouble with his temper. Suddenly he had gone; there had been an assault on his room-mate.
Then I told them about Mike. He was the youngest of four brothers and a sister whose parents had been killed in a car accident some twenty years ago. When a couple offered to adopt them and provide them with a home, Mark was not included. He was the awkward one and had an ugly scar above his mouth, the result of a repair to a cleft-palate. He was sent to live in a children’s home, next door to the school where I got to know him. Every day he would see his brothers and sister at school, but at four o’clock they went home to a mum and a dad while he returned to the large building which housed children with troubled lives.
When Mike got into serious trouble at school – an uncontrollable temper and attacks on other students – I had to take him back to the home one Friday afternoon to explain that he would be facing exclusion on the Monday morning. Thirteen-year-olds do not usually need to be escorted home from school but this one was now finding it extremely difficult to cope with the new threat and someone was needed to explain to the staff of the home. We walked over the railway bridge between the two buildings and into the office.
I explained to the man at the desk why I had come: I needed to see the house parent or whoever it was who would be looking after Mike for the weekend as Monday and exclusion loomed nearer, not just exclusion from school, but exclusion from his only contact with his brothers and sister.
The man opened a drawer in his desk and took out a list of some sort.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible. Mr X is on leave this weekend.” He turned to the boy.
“Mike isn’t it?” Mike nodded. The man turned again to me. “Well, you’d better tell me what’s up and I’ll see that it gets passed on.”
That is when it dawned on me that no one, except a parent, can be obliged to take an interest in a child: no one. Others, staff in children’s homes, social workers, probation officers and teachers can take holidays, go on courses, change jobs or enjoy a weekend off. They can escape. Parents cannot, and Mike had no parents.
There was a lesson awaiting me now in Kent as I sat in front of these fifteen-year-old strangers. As the bell rang for break they got to their feet and most of them made for the door. They had been an excellent group to work with. On their way past some of them thanked me and then there were just five of them left behind, five girls. One of them spoke.
“We just wanted to say something, if that’s all right sir.” I nodded and smiled.
“We can sort of understand why you have been so worried about boys whose dads have walked out, but it happens to girls too. We thought you ought to know what it’s like for a girl with no dad at home.” Again she looked at the others. “None of us have a dad at home.”
Break was passing but they were obviously in no hurry to go; the very least I could do was listen to them. I’m glad I did.
One of them had never slept under the same roof as a man. Her father had gone before she was born and her mother was terrified of men. Apart from boys and teachers at school she had no contact with males and as she was growing up her mother’s fear and attempts to keep her away from men and boys was beginning to trouble her for she had no reason herself to worry about men and boys. The result seemed to be that she found it difficult to cope with males away from school where so much was organised and routine.
Another girl’s mother hated men, thinking that they were the cause of all that is wrong with the world. If groups of friends called at the house with a boy among them her mother would send them away. On the occasions when the girl went out to friends in the evening there were unreasonable demands about the time she should get home and about keeping in touch and this caused rows.
One girl said that forming relationships with boys was difficult now – not like childhood friendships in junior school. She wondered what it would be like to have a brother or a dad at home so that she could cope with males without making a fuss about them, in the way that her friends with brothers and dads at home were able to. In her dealings with boys and men she found that she had no easy rules of thumb as to what is reasonable behaviour and I recalled rows over the bathroom between my son and daughter as they grew up and found sensible ways of organising these matters.
One had seen the effect on her mother of her father leaving them and the crushing effect it had on her. She had been very frightened by the power her father seemed to exert over her mother and found herself powerless as she tried to comfort and care for her mum.
The last of the girls said that she envied some friends whose homes she visited. She would watch them row with their brothers and play up with their dads and yet have an easier friendship with their mothers. The she described how she envied these same friends at school where they could launch themselves at boys one minute then see them off the next without losing their cool.
Twelve years on and these delightful girls will be in their late twenties, partners perhaps, maybe mothers, colleagues at work, friends, fully part of the adult world, beyond the trials of growing up. They taught me a lot and I am very grateful.
What is the first lesson to which the writer refers?
What is the second lesson?
Why is this second lesson important for the teacher?