All over the UK there is the mingled excitement and fear of new Autumn beginnings. Those who have just started at nursery, infant, junior or secondary school and those about to start college, university, new evening classes or jobs or returning to previous work after a long absence will, regardless of their age and background, be experiencing certain feelings in common.
The probationary teacher struggling with the maze of a new school will need several orientation walks to find her way along what will look like an innocuous corridor a few days later. Infant and junior age children check the path to physical autonomy - the route to and from the toilets, the playground, the dining hall whilst the new secondary child checks the initially complex map of the school timetable and the contents of their bags.
Students of all ages show their nerves or ambivalence by arriving too late, too early, losing part of their minds, their reading lists, their parking space. Alternatively, some have obsessively struggled to do everything beforehand to cushion their fear and excitement about the unknown. Others protect themselves by denigrating the new knowledge.
In one 6th form group struggling with the end of secondary school there was a joke that illustrated this process. A famous Oxbridge philosopher, it was recounted, was invited to give a talk. Seated at lunch afterwards next to a schoolgirl who had not heard his presentation, he was asked what he did. When he said he was a philosopher the girl loftily replied “Oh - philosophy! We finished that last year”. Coming to the end of one major period where it possible to “know” the requisite amount, whether it is the end of nursery school or a postgraduate qualification, it can be a blow to personal omnipotence to realise there is a further mountain and a further and a further.
A Mr J.N. wrote to me recently about his five year old son Jason who started school a month ago. Apparently until the summer holiday Jason had been very excited about the prospect - wanting new crayons and felt-tips and a big desk in his room. Then he got nervy, even though he had been to nursery school since the age of two and had got used to the existence of his baby brother. Now he says he knows how to read already (he doesn’t) so it’s boring and he does not want to go out in the playground as there are rough children there. His father is stumped because he is a probation officer working with the “rough” products of failed systems. He had been thinking about some top-up training for himself, but decided it might be hard going back.
A beginning can be like a birth. However, unlike the experience of a wanted first-born who helps to shape the universe around himself, for all other beginners the universe has already been largely created! However sensitive the infant teacher or university lecturer there is a structure that has already been established. There are also other siblings. Jason’s personal domestic universe has already been transformed by the birth of his brother. Are there feelings about this change that he has displaced on to the infant school? Is he worried about how the older children are because, as the older son in his family, he knows how angry he feels towards his younger baby brother and how rough he would like to be?
The school, university and workplace are full of unresolved sibling struggles! Although Jason may have adapted well to the birth of his baby brother the experience of meeting new classmates could reawaken those anxieties. Well-run schools modify such concerns whilst schools with low-morale and lack of leadership exacerbate them, leading to rough playground behaviour. Is there a realistic component in Jason’s fears that Mr J.N. is blind to because it links with his work?
Could it be that both the school and Mr J.N.’s service are failing to contain the fears and hopes for change of both staff and clients?
In the aptly titled book “The Unconscious at Work”, psychoanalyst Anton Obholzer comments “human beings are notoriously resistant to change, even when the change appears to be relatively minor. Managing change inevitably requires managing the anxieties and resistance arising from the change process. It is therefore important to understand the nature of the anxieties that are stirred up, as well as those inherent in the regular work of the organisation”.
There are certainly a lot of rough feelings about. It is possible that Jason’s fears are reawakening old or chronic concerns in his father. It is not just children who receive the problems and fears of their parents- there is a two-way traffic!
Both Jason and his father are suffering from “beginner-itis” - the painful awareness that skills in one area (crayons, postgraduate training) are no final answer to development.
Those who struggle with these issues find they are rewarded. Ruth Rosen, the South African born actress, turned her talents to devising and performing British poetry and prose readings since emigrating here. However, with the recent return to democracy in South Africa she was invited to go back for a one-woman performance of Shirley Valentine. What was it like going back after an absence? “To be truthful, there was great trepidation. I dived in at the deep end. It was a wonderful thing to do as the script was brilliant and I learned an amazing amount. It was a major turning point in my life because it took courage”.
If all about him keep their heads Jason may find that despite his nerves he will find the courage to learn and play just as he has learned to manage being an older brother and perhaps his father will also enjoy extending his horizons.