As a child, I had a lot of friends. Now looking back on it I don’t think that this was an accident. My parents made it impossible for me not to have friends. I started school a year early, when I was three as opposed to the accustomed four, as I was the fifth of the six children and the gap between my younger brother and I stands at just two years. So the head teacher, a man named Mr Jones whom I still hold in high regard, suggested starting little Veronika a year early to let my Ma have some time at home with my brother Phillip who would have been one at the time.
So I went to school before anyone else and watched at the end of that first year as the friends I had made went up into “big school” and I stayed behind in the nursery block waiting to see who I would get to make the journey with. I grew to have a close group of seven or eight friends, the majority male as I preferred wrestling to hair braiding. I also kept some friends in the year above me and therefore, aside from the teachers knowing me and my family well simply for the expanse of Harper children that they had educated, I had a pretty sociable start in life.
I went to Brownies every Monday and made my way through the ranks, even had my own special badge made for me as there was no badge for girls who attended Brownie camp three times (my birthday is in August, so I managed to squeeze that third time out before they booted me up to Guides!) and Brown Owl, a lovely lady by the name of Margot who used to spread brown sauce on her toast in the mornings at camp, cried when I eventually left. I had some really wonderful times there, and made plenty of friends.
Sunday school on a Sunday, Bible club on a Wednesday, swimming, camping, later art clubs and science clubs (and more Bible clubs!) even landing me with a Crest award at the age of eleven (they used to matter, now people don’t know what they are!). I was head of the debate team my first year of secondary school and I headed up many other bits and bobs through out my early adolescence, all safe in the knowledge that I was confident, reasonably popular in the more unpopular places, and that I had friends that had known me since I still had baby teeth.
Then something changed. My parents got divorced and I, along with my little brother now ten years old, was ripped from the bosom of my socially exalted little town in Hertfordshire and plonked rather randomly in a leafy suburb of Surrey, known as Weybridge. And I didn’t know a soul.
It didn’t take me long to realise that maybe, just maybe, this loneliness wasn’t a bad thing. I enjoyed having the time to myself with no clubs or concerts or choirs to participate in. I liked the fact that when I walked into my new school, no body needed to know that I was head of the Bible club or that my Ma had a rather fancy looking Crest award hanging in her hallway with my name on it. I could be whomever I liked, because unlike the little town I was socialised in, this town didn’t have a clue who I was, or who my family was. I was allowed then to either fade into the distance with a novel in my hand or set fire to the system with, er, well, a novel in my hand. Books are friends for life.
This anonymity and the power that came with it got me into a lot of hot water, that’s for sure. But at the end of it all when I look back with a daughter of my own, whom like her mother, hasn’t had the very best of anything in life and a few curve balls thrown for her tiny hands to catch even in her short life, I wonder whether or not I did the right thing by not sending to her nursery or forcing her into baby groups and the like. Because I didn’t. Oh no, Molly has been with me since the day she was born (barring work of course) and if I knew how to divide anything by anything, I would have home-schooled her for sure. But we need maths apparently. Numbers aren’t my strong point, so I couldn’t tell you why we need them exactly.
Anyway it was the idea of Molly becoming a member of society, a number and a name on a register, a child on the books so to speak, before she even knew where her nose was that sat unsteady with me. And like I’ve said, I was a very sociable child and I did all the things back in the early nineties that babies and toddlers and young children still do now – the clubs, the contests, the camaraderie – but I didn’t choose to do it. This is where I kept coming unstuck with my own child when it came to putting her out there, into the big, bad world.
The vast majority of friends in my life – I’ve never chosen. They have been lumped with me because they had the misfortune of being put next to me in a seating plan or deemed a suitable friend because I met them in a club that loosely grouped together a general plethora of freaks and geeks, all with vaguely similar interests. None of my friends liked Bryan Adams or Elvis Presley, and the amount of times I got asked who “the fat man” was on my walls still angers me today. (It was Meatloaf by the way.) Most of them didn’t read the books I read, if they read at all, and almost none of them knew what it was like to grow up in a tragically dysfunctional family that was full of love, and laughter, and anger (passion, as my Ma would say). None of them knew me.
I look back on it now as an adult who can and does choose her friends, wondering now whether or not I would have picked the friends I had as a kid, now that I am older and realise that friends are, for the most part, more work than they’re worth. Let’s just face it shall we? We’re all grown ups here and most of us usually end up with one real, solid friend that carries over from school into real adult life. One. Out of the thirty or so you amass by the end of your time in that bastard place. One.
And you know why that is? It’s because you didn’t choose them. The system gave you those friends, the years aligned and made sure that you would in the same class, year group, school as them. You weren’t friends in the sense of the word now that you pay taxes and buy your own cigarettes instead of pinching them form your parents. They were friends born out of necessity. The necessity not to be alone.
But where is it written that we can’t be alone? We’re born into a house full of people, we see them everywhere – in the street, on the television, in magazines and newspapers, our neighbours, our teachers, our parents, our siblings, our distant and immediate families, and the friends of those who already have them – we’re not (or at least I hope not) locked in boxes the second we dance ourselves out of the womb and only allowed out when there is a baby group about to socialise us in. There are peopleeverywhere and there always will be.
So why do we feel the need to build these social constructs for our children so early in life? How does it possibly make sense to expose children to opinion before they have learned fact? To show them how horrible people are before they can comprehend how good they can be? And how does it make sense to hand your baby, toddler, child over to a group of complete strangers (barring when you have to work of course) so you can saunter down to the café and complain about the world with similarly like minded “friends” that you have collected over cups of horrid coffee whilst your children wonder where the hell their mother has gone? To me, none of it makes a whole heap of sense. And I am speaking as a “socialised” child.
I wasn’t locked in a box, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t rather have been at home with my Ma and my brothers and sisters when I was spending time at a friends house. I’d also be lying if I didn’t state now and in no uncertain terms, that I didn’t have a child to give her away at the first available opportunity. I had a child because God has a cruel sense of humour and decided to test me with the most impossible yet amazing little person I have ever met. She is not the worlds to teach. She is mine to teach. How can I raise her with any other view point of the world other than my own when in the end, I only have my eyes to see it with and my experience to draw from?
I don’t care if my daughter grows up socially awkward and introvert, and to be frank, I don’t care if I get blamed for not “socialising” her when she was smaller, because at the end of the it all, when you strip away all the shoulds and coulds of parenting you are left with one overwhelming fact of nature, that my Ma learned herself the hard way. And that is that it doesn’t matter what you do and how hard you try to make a child be a certain way, their personalities regardless of their upbringings, will end up winning in the end.
I have had hundreds of friends in my life due to these social activities and the like. And now, in my twenties and a mother myself, I can count on one hand the people who remember my birthday or know what my favourite colour is. And three of them are my Ma, my sister and my brother. I didn’t even need to leave the house for some of the best friends I’ve ever had.
And another of these best of friends is my daughter who is a living, breathing testament to how she’s been raised, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer. And however she turns out, angry and angst ridden, or calm and confident, I will know, as will she, that she is the person she was meant to be and I will be able to sleep well as an old lady knowing that my daughter knew exactly who she was long before she was told who she was.
And when she feels it just to make her stand, I know she will do it on her own two feet and not propped up by a world of fools that in hindsight will seem like bad dreams. And she’ll know her song well, before she starts singing.
And maybe, just maybe, she’ll skip the horror of hitting puberty and not knowing who the hell she is. Because she’ll already know. From the start.