Sam broke his leg when he was two years old. It is the single-most horrible thing to happen to me in my parenting life (let alone to him). Even more horrible than scraping poo out of pants or having a complete change of clothes for him and for me and scrubbing the floor after an episode of vomiting (we have only just persuaded him that it is not the bowl that is making him sick). It’s more horrible than sleep deprivation, or tantrums or snot. The breaking of the leg is top of the horrible pops.
Not only was the breaking a traumatic affair, but its consequences were too. The following couple of months were hardly what a person might call a cake walk. After three hospitals, one lot of traction and an operation to remove all of his tonsils and most of his adenoids, eleven week old baby brother in tow, my little boy finally came home, and we discovered, much to our dismay, that his sleep patterns were shot to pieces.
You see one of the things about modern hospitals is that they are never quiet, not in the day, nor in the night. I say modern because I was hospitalised for about four months when I was a little girl, back in the mid-70s, and I remember vividly the hush that fell over the ward when the strictest of strict Sisters (she of a starched cap, dark blue dress and a belt with a magnificent silver buckle) told us in no uncertain terms that her ward was full of Sick Children, and that Sick Children needed their sleep. My last overnighter, accompanying my daughter as she recovered from her adenoidectomy, revived the memories, not of my own sojourn, but of Sam’s lengthy stay.
Shifts always seem to change when children are supposed to be falling asleep. The medicine trolley clatters round just when they have nodded off, so they need waking up again. With the doctors’ round comes chatting and laughter; the nurses’ station is daytime-bright. There are no more fierce Sisters and the hush never seems to fall. Sam, on his return home, was all out of whack.
We felt so sorry for him, Daddy and I. What a dreadful time he had had. Our woes, our shuttling backwards and forwards, our fear during his surgery was as nothing compared to his experiences. He’d been so desperately poorly. There were oxygen boxes and masks and sats (a different kind to the ones that mean so much to us teacher types, and a whole lot more frightening). There was surgery and pain, needles and syringes, fear and worry and doctors who were worryingly young and the heartrending atmosphere of a children’s hospital. It was traumatising for us all.
And when he got home we tucked him up in his own little bed with a huge sigh of relief that our boy was back…and out he bounced. We returned him to his covers, but to no avail. When he first returned I was still giving him painkillers every two hours, but even after he didn’t need them he still couldn’t get back to sleep in the night, or stay in bed and fall asleep on his own.
You’d think that I would have known better. I mean, after all my experience with little children I should know that allowing the child to dictate my behaviour is a license for disaster, but there you go. Your own children, those beings with whom you have travelled such dramatic terrain, have you over an emotional barrel. One look at you from their puppy dog eyes and there you are, story after story, staying with them in the night-lit gloom until they are fast asleep and you have nodded off yourself more than once.
You’d think, after all the little heart-breakers I have taught over the years, the skinny ones, the ones with mummies who say all the right things and who yet turn up at school with none of the right things, or the poorly ones, the hungry ones, the ones with poorly brothers or sisters or no mummy or daddy, that I would know what to do.
I mean, we teachers do this all the time. We know that we have to keep our minds fixed on the big picture when we work with little creatures like these. And by that I don’t just mean their ABCs and their 123s (although they are undeniably useful), no, I mean those other skills, the ones that involve being kind to their friends, respectful to not only their teachers but all the adults in the school, behaving safely up and down the corridors. They need to know that other people have needs too, and we need to teach them.
Or we should do, anyway.
It is so easy, when we see how thin they are, or they tell us about the films they watched on the television last night, or the games they played, or the way they were carried in by the lice, in the manner of a rainforest leaf and its ants, to let our emotions take over. It is so easy to feel the pity for the poor little disabled child and let it throw us off course. It is so easy to forget that it is our job as adults to fit the children out with the skills they need to make their way successfully in the grown up world and make excuses for them instead.
It’s a funny thing, this life of the teacher-mother. As a mother my heart is softened by the pain and suffering endured by my children, of the children I have taught. As a mother I can lean down and do my best to kiss it better but I cannot, I must not do that as a teacher. The things that the teacher-me can give them do not spring from the soft heart of pity.
No, those things, the determination to succeed despite the odds, the self discipline that grows and forms a controlled character who can learn the things that will help them on their way to a better life, these are harder things, and they come from a steelier place.
Love does not give a child the very thing that will do them damage. Pity, the pity that lets them get away with what they ought not because, aw, look at them, the poor little things, they haven’t got much and they were enjoying that, stands in danger of doing so.
Ask any special needs parent.