Article by Tanja Cilia
Some time ago, I shared a Facebook post which read as follows:
When those sweet faces show up in your classroom for the first time and you want to give that familiar homework of “What I did this summer”, please consider the kid whose family couldn’t afford a holiday; the kid who took care of younger siblings because their grown-up slept all day; the kid who hid under the covers at 2 a.m. trying to escape the screaming and cursing; the kid who is looking forward to lunch because they’ve only had the same sandwich all summer or haven’t been fed at all, and have spent their Summer looking for ways to feed themselves; the kid wearing last year’s clothes because their family couldn’t afford new ones, and more.
There are kids dreading the first day of school because they have no good answer for what they did this summer…what they really did was just survive.
So please consider a different question. Perhaps “What I’m looking forward to about this school year”. But please, don’t make them write about their summer. Sadly, for a lot of kids, the best part is that summer is over.
We all know that “What I Did During the Holidays”, like “My Family” and “My House” and “My Favourite Foods” are titles that save teachers a lot of pussyfooting around in order to find out information a child would not otherwise volunteer.
Before anyone (else!) jumps down my throat, here are the spoilers: I have worked in a school; I have friends who are teachers; I have been assigned these easy titles as homework, but I have not assigned them myself; and I can see the reasoning behind why they are given.
There are some things a child wants to keep personal. I remember being forced to draw Father’s Day cards against my will by all the teachers except one, in Primary School (Miss Mariucca, I salute you!) When I complained, I was told not to be silly, and to take the card to the cemetery.
Similar situations arise with any problems that a child is embarrassed to share with his peers… often, if approached in the right way, he will divulge them to his teacher, who can then take it from there to set the wheel in motion for the child’s well-being.
It could be counter-intuitive then, to ask a child to share an essay highlighting the aforementioned problems with the entire class. If it is assigned at all, there are several provisos that the teacher should keep in mind; not least that there are parents who will check the child’s exercise books, and raise hell if the child is “giving away family secrets.” And this can worsen the child’s situation at home, causing even more harm.
Even if the title is given as schoolwork, the problem does not disappear.
There will always be children who peek at the work of their peers, as well as children who go home and tell their parents what they did in class, of their own volition or because they are cross-questioned by the adults at home.
Not everyone lives in a home with at least one responsible adult to provide nurturing and food. Not every child is sure that there will be food on the table that day – it may even be withheld because of some real or imagined misdemeanour. Some children subsist on pastina in a watery broth made from beef or yeast extract paste, and what they can scrounge from here and there. Have you ever been in a clinic at hospital, and seen a child look longingly at your child, and drool, as your kid eats a sandwich? It is not a pretty sight, I tell you.
There are situations where children take their friends over to their own houses “for a snack” because they know that otherwise, their friend will not eat… but often even they are too reticent, confused or scared to talk to their parents about their friends’ situation.
There are some children who will share their clothes with their friends “because he likes this t-shirt and jeans combo”, and say the friend “might as well” wash in the house, or go with the family for the outing “because otherwise he will get bored alone at home”. But, again, these children will not disclose any of this in their essay, because they think it is “breaking trust” or “boasting.”
The teacher can tell the children to “use their imagination” i.e. invent a big house with an orchard where they can eat as much fruit as they want, and jump into the pool if they feel hot. In their dream place, they can have as many pets as they want, and they don’t have to do chores to eat, or be allowed access to Wi-Fi.
What children write, when given this carte blanche, could be indicative of what they are trying to hide.
Abuse, malnutrition, mental health issues in the family, parental alienation… no child wants to give his classmates ammunition that could be used to bully him. This will happen if the essays “have to be real,” and are shared with the class. We all know that there are children who fall through the cracks. Some have learned to pretend from a young age – or else! They glibly explain away bruises, cuts and bites which happen too often to be a coincidence.
The statistics of 63 children being killed by parents after the warning signs were missed recently broke in Great Britain… Let us not get to the point where we wince at scandals like this, when we can do so much to spot the warning signs. Let us keep our eyes and ears open, and our instincts honed.
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