How a story (and a foster carer's love) changed my life

Even at age 4, Anita Le Tissier knew she was unloved – but that changed when a foster carer read her a bedtime story

Illustration from the book Guess How Much I Love You

In nursery recently, the children have become quite taken with the book The Paper Dolls, by Julia Donaldson. I read it to them with awe in my voice, as we learn about memories and childhood.

And, after the story, I lie to the children as I tell them my memories of losing my own butterfly hair clip. Behind those make-believe memories is the reality of the kid from the blue high flats.

I remember those blue high flats as clear as day, reaching way above my head. I would climb the 192 stairs to home, while my mum was getting high. Each step took you closer to the smoke-stained walls of home: the same smoke I heard my teacher tell her friend shrouded my hair and my clothes, as she eyed me with cautious pity. A pity that didn’t always feel like caring. 

A vulnerable child

I’d play up and down the lifts from day until the night. Some nights, the small hand ran past the number 11 and nobody came to see if you were alright. 

The stairwells of the blue high flats still hold all of my imagination: my adventures to a world with dragons and castles and Robin Hood shooting up the steps to catch you, right before your innocence was snatched by the three men in dark hoods smashing your mum against the doorway. 

Sometimes Robin would get to you, pulling you from the edge just before Old John would entice you into his door with sweets. One time, Robin came and slipped the key for the cupboard with the food into my night dress, so my sister and I could have dinner when all the guys had gone.

My first happy memory

I was four years old when I was first taken from the care of my mother. I was transported from my lifeless mother in a car with bright blue lights, while a big man with handcuffs on his waist smiled gently as I cried. 

The car rushed through the dead of night, and I transferred to a station where hundreds of people who looked like the man with the handcuffs scurried past, and people made phone calls urgently shouting that a place was needed right now

And so it was that a tiny little human stood before the great big steps of the cottage house. It was miles from the blue high flats. The smell of burning wood filled my lungs, and thus my first happy memory is etched in my heart: the burning wood of the village with the big house. And Wilma. 

Oh, Wilma. Wilma wasn’t like any of the saviours from my imagination in the stairwell. She wasn’t Robin Hood, with a rope lasso for my rescue. Wilma wasn’t a council estate Mulan, coming to fight the big, heavy, suffocating men. 

No. Wilma, with her curled grey bob, floating skirt to her ankles and cardigan buttoned to her neck. 

The love of my foster carer

Wilma smiled. She looked at me and, at four years old, what I saw was somebody seeing me for the first time. In my mind’s eye, as clear as it was yesterday, is Wilma, kneeling down at the front door to greet a shivering, shaking, underweight four-year-old me. 

Her arm stretched, as if in slow motion, and I remember my eyes darting to see where she would go. As soft as the lightest snowflake on that freezing night, I felt her brush my hair away from my face, as she said, “Hello, pet. Welcome home.” 

That little girl, frightened, damaged and, even at that young age, aware of being unloved, took that stranger’s hand and slowly walked past the big living room on the right-hand side, past the kitchen, up the hall, on to the stairway and up into a bedroom where the bed was bigger than the whole of the house at the blue high flats. 

Carefully, the strange lady helped me into cosy pyjamas and popped me into the big bed with a hot chocolate. And she began to read Guess How Much I Love You, as I gulped the hot chocolate like a ravenous rat in the city streets. 

Looking back, I remember how slowly, as she read the story, I would edge closer and closer to the strange lady, trying to look at the pictures of the mummy hare. Soon, I was curled on the lap of the woman who had touched me. For the first time in my life, that touch was not her gain, it was not harming, it was not painful. That touch changed my life. 

I remember it now: that fast beating heart and the tears, the tears that cried for ever, and Wilma’s voice gently saying, “There, pet. Now, pet.”

Eyes that saw into my soul

Later, I would be returned to my mother and then removed from her care on numerous occasions. Sometimes because of her mental health, and at other times for my own safety. 

I stayed with many different foster families. But Wilma, with the touch and the story and those eyes that saw straight into my soul: she is everything that I am as a nursery practitioner. In my nursery, the children are loved. By their families, by their friends, by our team and by me.

My experience of childhood, the experience of Wilma, bleeds into all of my actions as I remember, each time there is a crying child, a skinned knee, an angry tot or a hungry bairn, how softly Wilma touched me, how she crept down to my level, looked me in the eye, the way she said my name.

I have dedicated my life to early education because, in my childhood, a woman committed to early childhood changed my life. 

I spent eight months living with Wilma, but Wilma has lived with me for 25 years. And now the children in my nursery get to take home the story suitcase filled with a bedtime story, hot chocolate and some marshmallows to share with their grown-up at home. 

Because bedtime should be safe, just like I was with Wilma in the big old double bed with the story. 

Anita Le Tissier is a principal and nursery teacher in Edinburgh. She tweets as @TissierPt

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