Occasionally something happens to us personally, a small incident to which we are bystander, that throws a great deal of light on our society. Some years ago on a Saturday, I used to swim at lunch time in our local public swimming pool. As I was drying off at the end of the adult swim session, often 6 or 7 boys aged about 7 years old from the local children’s home, aka orphanage, used to come into the changing room. They were energetic and reasonably well behaved, and accompanied by a male teacher who seemed well suited to his role and kept order while encouraging fun. He was doing his best. And our local children’s home had a good reputation as being a place that also did its best.
On one occasion, as the boys were changing, a young father was also changing his 4 year old son. He was doing it with great gentleness and love, tendering to the four year old’s every need and reassuring him about swimming. One of the boys from the children’s home, suddenly caught sight of this. It was if he had been struck a blow with a stick. He froze and for ten seconds could not move. Then as the young father turned his back on his son, the transfixed boy suddenly picked up his shoe and threw it at the son in a rage, a tantrum at the realization of what he was missing, by having no parent to show him that tenderness. His pain was unbearable to watch. The father shouted at him when the shoe narrowly missed the son. The boy then saw I had been watching, and with a huge effort, shrugged as if it meant nothing, and went back to changing and talking loudly to the other children he had come with.
That moment of despair explained a lot to me about a statistic I often heard quoted. Two thirds of the adult inmates of Britain’s jails were in local authority care as children. They on average have a reading age of 11 years old. In other words, their ability to learn in school freezes at the onset of puberty, like some illness. What I had witnessed threw some light on these appalling statistics. That moment when a child without a proper family saw a child with a proper family and took in, in an instant, all he had missed….