Today I was talking to a patient in our dementia unit - Heather is her name. She told me that she was born in 1914 but I think I'll have to check up on that. Heather looks like everybody's favourite grandma, all curly white hair, little glasses, pastel twinsets and a whispery voice. We got to talking about what she liked to do before she came to live with us - I asked whether she liked to read and she told me that she used to adore reading and that her mother used to tell her off, saying that she 'always had her nose in a book'. Sadly nowadays, Heather said, she can't really see well enough to read.
As we chatted further Heather told me about her schooldays. She mentioned a lecture that all the students from local (Southampton) schools went to, on the subject of the League of Nations. All of the students from the other schools had little notebooks and pencils to take notes but her Headmistress wouldn't allow that, on the basis that 'if they were note-taking they weren't listening properly' (quite right too). After the lecture all the students from the schools that attended had to write an essay based on the lecture and Heather won the prize for the best essay. She was, by all accounts, a clever girl.
In those days, Heather said, you only got one crack at what she called a scholarship but what I guess was a forerunner to an 11-plus kind of exam (but sat at 13) and on the day she was due to sit it she had an abcess on her head and couldn't go to school. The Headmistress was gutted for Heather, her star pupil.
Needless to say Heather had to leave school along with the others who had failed the exam. There was a careers meeting for each child and the Headmistress had picked out three or four places where Heather could work and still use her brain but Heather's mother said that she should go into service. She went to work at fourteen skivvying at the District Nurses Home in the city, her brain completely wasted.
I was almost in tears as Heather told me this. Her father died when she was 10 weeks old but she had three older brothers and was not only the youngest child but the only girl. I asked why she hadn't been given a chance to carry on with her studies somehow and also why the Headmistress, in her opinion, hadn't gone to see her mother and ask her to give Heather an opportunity for advancement? Heather told me that her mother was a country woman to whom it would never have occurred that her daughter might be bright enough to maybe teach or nurse; also it just wasn't the done thing for a teacher to try to persuade a parent in a different course of action - her mother would have been mortified. I was so upset that I wished I could go back in time and give her mother a good slap, never mind anything else. I also asked Heather whether she felt resentful, as she got older, that her mother had denied her the chance to make something better of herself and she told me that she did of course, but at the time children didn't ever go against their parents - what they said was the law.
It got me thinking about parents nowadays, myself included, who move heaven and earth; spend money on grinds; and ease the path of their kids any way they can to get them what they want, be it a job by pulling strings and calling in favours; or by introducing the perfect conditions for studying, taking them all over the country to view universities, kit out their room in halls and subsidise them to the nth degree (yes, I have done all of those things). We seize on that one tiny spark - a talent for athletics, football, art or algebra - and blow on the tiny ember until it produces something bigger. We nourish their gifts and put all of our efforts into easing their path through life. Sometimes it's because we want our children to have what we had; sometimes it's because we want them to have what we didn't have. As a parent I would have been mortified if a teacher had pointed out that any of my children had an aptitude for something that I had failed to spot (and nurture) myself - would that be interference in the way that an intervention from Heather's Headmistress would have been perceived all those years ago? Do you think that Heather's mother was right?
It's a sad story.