“My fourteen year old, A, is very interested in joining the school senior orchestra. She is a talented violinist but despite the encouragement of her music teacher will not join as she has no musical friend to support her. It seems no peer already in the orchestra will offer a friendly hand. At the other extreme, and in another school, my 17 year old, B, has been told to close the popular longstanding debating society she founded because the new authoritarian Head does not like the subjects they are dealing with. B has the support of her friends (and indeed other teachers who are not happy with this new regime) but it has made no difference. The Head presents this very reasonable facade of wanting to facilitate the girls’ development whilst destroying creative ventures. We feel quite bemused by their contrasting positions.”
When two children in the same family grow up in very different ways there is often an initial surprise. “How strange when they have the same parent(s)”, some people comment. The answer of course is that they do not! A parent can be very different to each child and vice versa for a range of conscious and unconscious reasons including gender, age and personality of both the parent and child. The unique difference of each human being means we often spark off and receive different responses from the same person. One individual can also contain within herself equally strong contrasts or contradictions. The poet Walt Whitman on asking “Do I contradict myself?” decided that he was and concluded “I contain multitudes”.
Against that context the situation of the C family is only initially surprising. A. has a friendly teacher offering encouragement but needs peer support to achieve her goal whilst B has peer support but an adult who is apparently thwarting her aims. Regardless of the specific issues they are struggling with they have the chance to realise how simplistic a “one problem only” way of perceiving life is - e.g. “if only I had one friend/a nice teacher etc. life would be totally different”. Whilst a friend is indeed a bulwark against all kinds of ups and downs B is very aware that friendship does not transform her situation whilst A is aware that the kindliness of her school teacher does not make up for lack of peer support. There are many factors that aid or hinder creativity at any age, whether from internal sources, external environment or a combination of the two.
A. has been offered a helping hand by a teacher which she cannot accept. Why? Is she someone who finds it hard to be helped by a parental figure or is she correctly perceiving an uninviting gang-like attitude in the existing orchestra that is inimicable to newcomers? Steven, aged 14, said he was desperate to improve at basketball but refused all help from his athletic father. “I find that everything I can offer him he refuses and I am getting fed up with it”. Steven could not bear to admit that an adult, his father, had the skills he was deficient in. It took quite a time in therapy before Steven was able to ask for and receive help from his father rather than from his friends alone.
On the other hand, Jenny, aged 12, initially received no support from her parents when she asked them for help and told them that her new class was hostile. She was told to be friendlier and tougher. “It must be your manner that’s putting them off” said her mother. The parents and staff only realised later that there was a totalitarian mentality operating in that middle class group that had gone unrecognised because it was not accompanied by overtly aggressive anti-social behaviour - rather like B’s head, perhaps, who appears to be operating destructively whilst speaking reasonably.
That combination of a destructive use of power accompanied by libertarian talk is hard to deal with for professional adults, let alone children. In Cambridge, two prominent psychoanalysts who are also NHS consultant psychotherapists, Drs Jon Sklar and Colin James, were offered redundancy arrangements by their hospital who commented “ We want to make a better department of psychotherapy”. Such institutional double-speak - effectively removing the most qualified staff for such a project whilst emphasising the creativity of the project is found in many institutions and amongst all ages. What makes the Cambridge situation so particularly disturbing is that the two psychoanalysts specifically left London to take up these posts because of a paucity of such trainers in Cambridgeshire.
Without doubt, under NHS policy procedures, soundings were taken but many were then ignored. There is then an important question to be grasped as to whose soundings are listened to most. If B’s new Head will not listen to B will she listen to soundings from the other teachers or parents who share B’s views? Will she consider their views important? Sometimes a new leader can be scared of incurring disapproval for allowing something controversial to take place and can behave initially in a more authoritarian way than is their natural style. However, for B to stay fighting for something she established that is not allowed to continue is a difficult position for anyone, let alone a 17 year old. Some schools and workplaces can require such a level of energy to maintain creativity that individuals are forced into the roles of rebels, victims, or, as in Berlin in the 1930’s might decide it is the right time to leave. Is this school suitable for B with the new Head? Will the difficulties deflect from her examination work?
Co-existing with these totalitarian states are important moments where a friendly nudge from a friend can make a major difference. American child psychologist Dr Mary Sue Moore was helped into getting her international lectures into chapters when English child psychotherapist Dilys Daws gently commented “You know - I want to quote what you have been saying and I can’t without a book reference”. Similarly, GP Tessa Dresser was nudged into public speaking at a writing workshop run by Nell Dunn when the whole group said “You can speak. Come on. We are listening”.
Historian Denis Judd performed a similar function for his dog Tigger. On a boiling hot day Tigger and a friend’s dog, Bramble, were clearly over-heated. Whilst Bramble could cool himself in the pond Tigger sat on the edge watching but unable to follow suit. In the end, after hoping in vain that Bramble would be able to nudge Tigger into action Denis went into the water himself and called Tigger who rushed in with great relief and tail-wagging. It needed a human ally to create the friendly nudge at that point rather than the same species.
It could be that just finding one friendly girl in the orchestra might make a difference. Can A’s teacher encourage one to make contact with her? For a few children and adults, sometimes only being willing to learn from the one person who won’t help you is a way of avoiding the task in the first place! Does A really want to join the orchestra?