Through a series of coincidences involving shelving books at school, I recently found myself spending a weekend reading through Cynthia Voigt’s “young adult” cycle of books about the Tillerman family, starting with volume number two called Dicey’s Song.
I haven’t been a young adult for a long time, but this was riveting reading, starting right at the worst of my childhood fears of losing my mother, here pictured in the even more unthinkable scenario of four children being abandoned by their mother on a hot summer day in a car parked in a mall parking lot in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She goes to the mall, apparently to run an errand, and simply never returns. As I later learned from volume number one, this was the final turn of the mother’s slide into a catatonic state of depression, but whatever the reason, the story begins with this abandonment and follows the children as they survive day by day on their journey first to an aunt’s house and then to their grandmother, led by the oldest girl, the 13 year old Dicey. (The father, in case you wonder, has been absent pretty much all their conscious lives.)
Now I don’t want to spend time discussing the likelihood of any of the particular conceits or events, because what really interested me were three very real things these books address: How to survive the loss of a parent, how to become an adult and live your life, and what role school plays in this process.
Written by a self-proclaimed enthusiastic and devoted former English teacher, school – to start with number three - plays a surprisingly secondary and pretty negative role in both Dicey’s Song as well as the other six volumes. Everything really important seems to happen in the summer or during vacations. School is reserved for scenes of humiliating misunderstanding of children by adults, ignorance of the complexities of students’ lives, minds, and learning differences, bullying, and loneliness. Dicey and her siblings, including her academically very gifted brother, don’t seem to have much to take home from school, except a well-founded weariness when it comes to dealing with adults, and particularly teachers, who Dicey sees misjudging her younger sister as mentally handicapped and her little brother as unmanageable. It’s not that the children don’t want to trust those adults around them - and the reader sees them struggling with their desire and need to do so - it’s just that the adults don’t seem to quite perceive them as full human beings in their own right, and are usually limited in a clear view of the children by some agenda or issue of their own.
So while school is mostly just one of their problems, what the four siblings really need and manage to draw on in order to survive their life threatening predicament, are the hands-on skills they have somehow acquired and developed in their lives so far: reading maps, finding shelter, rationing money and food, making fire, cooking chicken and potatoes; but also estimating your and other’s strength and endurance, dealing with everybody’s and your own emotions, being able to trust each other and, especially for Dicey, making leadership judgements based on all these different factors, all the time. Sounds like a management crash-course, right? No wonder professional development and personal improvement courses not infrequently take people into the woods: managing the basics of human survival – food, shelter, hygiene sleep - helps you feel like you can survive in the world at large, paperwork and all. While reading about every meal the siblings gather, how they prepare it, and how it makes them feel left me sometimes exhausted just from reading it – it’s so much work! – I remember reading and re-reading similar things as a child and being absolutely fascinated by them. Descriptions of how to make tea out of fir-tree needles in the wilderness, or how to catch a turkey and prepare to cook it are forever etched in my memory. I suspect some of the appeal of camping lies somewhere in this area of survival in the world, no matter what.
But back to issue number one, how to survive the loss of parents: apart from their combined survival skills and trust in each other, in their suddenly parentless world, the children actually draw on their mother: we don’t learn too many details about her, but puzzled, hurt, doubting and traumatized by her action as they are, it is also clear to the children that their mother loved them and tried to do good things for them. They have a sense of home, the essence of which they are setting out to recapture, somehow, and they know when they have found it at their grandmother’s house. Carrying her own burden of loss, grief and regrets, the grandmother initially does not want them, but is eventually won over by their fight to stay. Because she is honest with herself and them, and because she does not have ulterior motives and needs connected with them, her house does indeed become their, a place where they can be themselves. And then schools starts…
Why I am writing about this? And what does it really have to do with school? Because both as a child, as a parent, and as somebody working at a school, I’ve been dealing with separation issues all my life it seems, many of them surfacing around school, and the two step plot line of 1) parent(s) disappear(s) 2) children have adventure, resonates with me.
One might, as people have, question whether it is really necessary for the mom, dad, or both to die or otherwise disappear for the children’s growing up adventure to take place. Bambi, Cinderella, Nemo, The Secret Garden, The Boxcar Children, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Harry Potter… can’t folks stay alive and children still grow up, get their own lives and have adventures?
Of course. In real life! I don’t know if film makers and authors are “killing” mothers and fathers to make way for other cool relatives to step in and enable kids’ exciting adventures, as some people interpret the phenomenon of the disappearing parent plot-line. I just see its persistent appeal in how it addresses one of the challenges everybody has to face at some point in their lives. And schools – or daycare centers, nursery schools, or kindergartens - play a particular place in this because they bring up the issue of separation often quite early in the child/parent relationship. A daycare where I tried to leave my son who was about three years old informed me through a pamphlet (I wish I had the original text here), that a child’s early separations, such as being in day care for a few hours, are a preparation for the final separation from their parents when the parents die. Gulp. Nursery school as a training program for a parent’s death? That’s not really what I was aiming at for me or my son at that point. I just wanted a few hours to get my unfinished school work done. Or just be by myself. But this pamphlet did touch on the truth of how every one of these separations felt, a life and death situation, and the fear of one of us not coming back. Maybe that’s why he – and I – were resisting it so much, because we were not quite ready to get used to living without each other.
But is this really how you get prepared for the big departure, by practicing separation in little installments, and then, one day, miraculously it doesn’t matter or doesn’t hurt anymore? Could I train my son to be used to separation in case I would get hit by a bus during my time away from him, so he would be able to handle it better? Or was his absolute refusal to stay without me a clear signal that I better stay alive because he was not ready for this? Maybe he just didn’t like the daycare enough?
If this kind of athletic separation muscle building would be the whole truth, how then did clingy little me who always, always wanted to be home with her mom, refused sleepovers at her grandmother’s house and skipped her elementary school overnight trip without giving it a second thought ever grow up, move away from home, and even survive her parents’ death, although admittedly, it came much, much later? Though much less dramatic, in essence not unlike the kids in Cynthia Voigt’s novel: by developing along the lines of my own inclinations and talents, by integrating images of my parents in myself and my own life, and by developing my own family context. It’s not some outward separation “practice” that prepared me for handling my parent’s death, but an inner growing up and having my own life that helped me to live on my own. I have the feeling it is, somewhat paradoxically, any time spent with your children that helps them eventually live without you, not how much time you have, by whatever reason or necessity, spent time physically separate.
Perhaps this is getting a bit too complex to handle in a blog, so back to the book, back to summer, and back to school, our school. Thinking of how the story of Dicey and her siblings always kind of stopped when school started again, and pretty much the only thing they got from school was misunderstandings and more problems, I am simply hoping that our school is not like that, and that here, students have at least a chance to develop in their own directions and at their own pace. That they won’t be subject to the quick and fast judgments many in the teaching profession are used and of course required to hand out. I am hoping that our students encounter adults who treat them as developing but complete and complex human beings, and who are honest with them, and themselves. That school can be part of where and when things that really matter happen. That even the youngest students will want to brave the fear of separating and that they will learn things they really need to learn to feel that they can make it in this world. For the parents, I hope that the feeling of having just abandoned your child when you leave the parking lot, a feeling I remember vividly from dropping off my children at SVS in the early days of their attendance, will soon be replaced by a feeling of closeness that comes from your child being in the right place, and from you having stepped aside just the right amount for you and your child to develop freely.