We may feel that the pandemic, lockdowns and the closure of boarders has been hard on families but spare a thought for the size and length of the separation felt by children when the world was at war.
The Evacuation of children in England was a terrible business. The announcement ‘Evacuate Forthwith,’ was issued by the Government at 11.07 am on Thursday, 31 August 1939 and within a few months, three million children had assembled in their schools, said farewell to their parents and been transported to new locations accompanied by one hundred thousand teachers. Each child had a gas mask and a brown label around their neck stating their name, address and medical condition. Hundreds of children arrived in the wrong places with insufficient rations, there were not enough homes in which to put them and most were away from their families for years.
Every child was a confused and somewhat lost soul trying to make sense of all the frightening changes around them. In March 1940 a boy wrote, “Dear Mummy and Daddy, Thank you very much for this letter you have sent me, Actually I do not know whether I have answered it or not, probably not because I still have the unused stamped envelope.” On arrival from Liverpool a girl wrote home to say, “Dear Mum, I hope you are well. I don’t like the man’s face. I don’t like the lady’s face much. Perhaps it will look better in daylight. I like the dog’s face best.”
The allocation process of deciding where each child would go can be summed up by one evacuee who spoke of waiting in an unused cattle pen in a farmer’s market as men and women wandered amongst the hundreds of children and picked the ones they wanted. This stark method of allocating foster families made me think. If we could, would we want to pick our children through a selection process and if we were allowed to pick and choose would we end up with the ones we have?
Then I thought about it as a child might. As children if we could, how could we pick our own parents and whom would we choose? What if we could start again with new families picking whom we wanted? Would we want other parents and if so, who?
It is a cruel generalization that when we are children other people’s parents are cooler, better and more fun to be with than our own. Similarly, when we are parents it is the other children we meet (usually the friends of our children) who are better behaved, more hard-working and more polite than our own.
Have we really got it all mixed up? Everywhere else in the world we can stop and start again, change things, delete, re-format and recreate ourselves. Why do we not play real-life Happy Families picking and choosing what suits us?
But we don’t. The instances of children seeking legal separation form their own parents and parents disowning their offspring make national and international news. Despite the fact that our society is driven by consumer choice and the rights of the individual are paramount the family unit provides the strongest, oldest and most reliable bond there is. It is the one we rely on and the family unit is the model for many organistions including schools.
Evacuees cite the forced absence from their family as the greatest problem they endured. Parents, their children and their grandchildren have an invisible bond that holds them together and this is perhaps why the threat to this bond for whatever reason causes so much angst and unhappiness. This is probably why we parents worry so much about our children and why we seek a schooling that can support our family values and understands the value of the family.
The family bond changes over time and depending upon who we are. As young people grow older, they learn to live independent lives and the relationship with grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters changes. As family members we have duties to each, we have a responsibility to each member. Together we are stronger, more successful and happier than we are apart and alone. Choice is important but so is each, eccentric, peculiar and wonderful family. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us, “You don’t choose your family. They are a gift to you, as you are to them.”
Peter has been the Head of schools in the UK and Asia for 20 years. He writes about schools, teaching and learning here at hogan.education and can be contacted at [email protected]