Give gift of education this Christmas


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Category: Children/Teenagers Date: 18 Dec 97

‘Give a child a chance by paying their school fees’


‘They just need someone to give them a chance in life’


These couples refuse to have children. They are professionals, in their thirties, comfortably off or up and coming. Their parents wait, arms outstretched, ready to baby-sit night and day, pulling every guilt trip for a grandchild (“We are getting old”, “All our friends are grandparents”, “Your biological clock is ticking”), but nothing doing.


Just because these couples are never tired at work, never have to rush out at midnight for diaper rash cream, or abort their social lives. Just because they can quit their jobs at a whim, or plunge headlong into an ambitious career, or never worry about saving for children going to university in 2016. Just because their homes stay clean, and they can party late and not have to wake up early with kids poking their eyes open. Just because they can go away on a six-month sabbatical, or spend two uninterrupted hours reading or in the gym. Just because of these small inconveniences they won’t have children. Just because they have no stretch marks or big round circles under their eyes.


You invite these reluctant couples round (another plot concocted through longing for grandchildren, parents) so you can give their offspring a taste of the little darlings to show them the joy of motherhood. But the little one has a tantrum involving running around naked and screaming. The older one splashes sticky orange drink all over a crisp white shirt, a third little friendly one pulls at designer beads, sending them rolling in all directions.


They leave, and renew their resolve never to have children. We have to admit failure to the “longing-for-grandchildren” club. Despite the warm cuddly kisses at night, and the tear-jerking sight of their vulnerable little backs holding lunch kits and bags on their first day at school, or the heartbreaking love you feel for them when they do and say little things or when they are ill, you really have to want children to have them.


Children: an owners manual: the basics: give them a secure home with routine bedtimes, regular meals and supervised homework. Push to tap their talents and abilities to the fullest. Give them a sense of humanity which involves giving something back to the world they are born in. The basics can eat up almost all your spare time. And many people don’t have the time, or the basics themselves.


I was to learn that they come to homes like St Dominic’s or Christ Child home from as far as Moruga. Most come from Port-of-Spain. Their parents are imprisoned, mentally ill, or dead. They are abandoned as babies in hospital, or pulled out of either physical or sexual abuse. None of them goes there through any fault of their own. Shaka entered my life five years ago around this time of year, at a Christmas party in one of these homes. He sat on my lap like a limpet while other Rotarians’ wives served the children with cake and ice-cream. I had to peel him off me to help to get “Santa” (my husband) dressed in the children’s living quarters: row upon row of tiny beds, uniformly placed, each with a teddy on it. Cribs bunched together with sleeping babies and toddlers. A tiny thin baby, with an enormous cast on his upper arm, wakes up crying. “How did it happen?” I ask a helper. “Nobody knows. He came in like that.” They are too young to know their lot in life yet. An elderly nun cuddling them, or a helper or bigger child loving them, is love all the same.


The laundry room is piled with communal second hand clothes. After Santa puts on his beard and stuffs one of the children’s pillows in his tummy we make our way out, passing the dining room with its low tables and small chairs, a faded poster of Big Bird. Shaka was not yet placed in somebody’s home for Christmas, so we took him home for a few weeks. My one-year-old son called me “Mum-Mum.” I became “Mum-Mum” to Shaka too.


At night my son cuddled under one crook of my arm and Shaka under the other. They fought like siblings, refused nourishing food for chocolates and junk, leapt with delight in the back of the car at every tree and light. We took pictures with Santa’s hat and built puzzles.


Two children were harder to manage than one and we didn’t want to impose Shaka on our family for overnight stays just yet so we stayed in a lot. I was ready to adopt. Then Shaka’s brother Zik came to stay for the last few days. Zik was nine years old and furious with the world. When we went shopping he talked about “robbing up” people. He didn’t speak. He had a tense restrained violence about him.


If I adopted Shaka I would have to take Zik on in some way too. I got jittery at the last minute, lost courage and didn’t do it. Shaka wanted Mum-Mum. Shaka and Zik went back to the home, laden with presents instead. I am ashamed to report that I avoided my heavy heart by avoiding Shaka. I didn’t see him till the next year’s Christmas party. To my surprise Shaka came up to me, without any resentment and said simply to all the other children, “This is Mum-Mum.” More than 20 children pulled at my dress, my bag, held on to my knees and waist, wherever they could reach, planted kisses and hugs and there was a shouting chorus of “Mum-Mum.”


Shaka had talked to them about me all year long. I was going to come back for him. I left overwhelmed and guilty. A year later, Shaka looked more grown up, less open, quiet. Last year he was in a different home, separated from his three siblings. I asked for him and was told he was cleaning the latrine and would see me later. A stranger peered at me behind thick glasses. The openness and instant affection were no longer there.


At this year’s Rotary party a six-year-old girl, while sitting on my lap, asked me if I was going to take a child home for Christmas. I feel barely able to cope with my two children, and gave her an honest answer. “No.” She recoiled, got off my lap and announced with venom, “You’re wicked.” “No, no,” I said, “I’m working, I don’t have the time.” She danced around me, mocking, calling attention to me, “She’s wicked, she’s wicked, she won’t have a child for Christmas.”


It felt like a nightmare. The little girl’s taunts, the children who weren’t on Santa’s list, left without presents, the 12-year old-boy crying because he got a one-year-old girl child’s gift instead because their names were similar, the toys which disappeared the minute they were put down, the sticky juice, cakes, ice-cream, the humidity, the smells of abandonment, the desperation of the few who were trying to make it right for so many children.


This could never be an ordinary children’s party. Theirs are not children’s anxieties, but big ones, a weight they can barely carry. “Will they find a home for me? Will I be separated from my brother and sister? Can I afford to love this person or will they disappoint me? My mummy doesn’t love me. She loves her other children.”


Christmas gestures often make the giver feel better than the receiver. Sure, a party is nice. Santa reinforces an enchanted world children find so easy to get into. But how to bring enchantment to the ones who are disenchanted so early, shuttled from here to there, with only scraps of affection by worn overworked helpers?


Hampers mean food and drink associated with a season. But one, two meals later, they melt away, leaving the smells of despair, adults with empty gestures, again. I’ll repeat the tired maxim. Christmas is for children. What do they really need, I asked Sister Scott from St Dominic’s Home for Children? Adoption is a long-winded, untenable option for most. But most of us want to do something. She answered in three words.

“Education, education, education.

“A good private school for those who don’t make Common Entrance can make the difference between a success and a failure.

“A lot of our children are late developers due to lack of opportunity and poor nourishment in their early years. A child may come into the home at age seven without schooling, may reach university level at a later age. They just need someone to give them a chance in life.

“We lose many children in the junior secondary school environment. It is too large and impersonal for children who have already experienced many traumas, abandonment, abuse, neglect. There is no sense of belonging. They don’t succeed. And they, more than any others, need tools to get them by in life.

“Very few get their full certificates in one shot. Most schools start CXC preparation in form three. Graduates of junior secondary school have to start in form four. Even if they stick at it they don’t do as well as the average child. A private school may give you one scholarship at most. We can’t afford school fees.”


I learned from Sister Scott that given the chance most children out of homes hold their own. Some get to university, others enter professions such as banking or the public service. Some of the finest musicians in the police bands are products of homes. Almost all keep in touch with the homes, returning occasionally to help, as volunteers, or through a youth link programme. But they keep quiet about their background because they fear victimisation if they reveal that they were brought up in an institution. 


And those without chances? Some are forced to enter the underworld of drugs, crime and prostitution to survive, perpetuating an ignorance and poverty trap. Sister Scott: “Their chances of success depend on the support they get in the transition from the home to the real world. In their years here we try to bond them with families so they can live with them until they are ready to face the world alone. “It’s an informal kind of adoption. If families abuse this by making them their servants we move them elsewhere.” Others are trained for independent living in hostels which have a community base, such as the Carmelite Sisters, so they are not lonely.


Sister Scott doesn’t condemn parents who don’t take care of their children. “There is need to educate parents to have children when they can afford them. There should be some family counselling support before they are made to give up children. The father may be an addict, the mother unemployed. They may be hungry together but they are close. “People make hard decisions not because they want to but because they see no way out.”


They have to be self sufficient because they have no one to fall back on. So this Christmas, put your raffle hamper money aside and give a child a chance in life by paying their school fees - no strings attached even for those who don’t want them.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur