A painful start

20th November 1998 at 00:00
Victoria Neumark on learning from the past

Janine is 14. She's had a lot of changes in her life. Perhaps - she hopes - this is the last: the last family, the last school, the last set of schoolmates. Janine has her book, of course, which social services departments have helped her construct. Her book has pictures of important places and people - her birth mother, her adoptive parents, her little brother, her first set of foster parents, her first two primary schools. Janine is perhaps less keen on the book than her social worker. There is "too much in it", she says.

Janine would like to make a "fresh start". Her life, from drug-addict mother to alcoholic adoptive parents and on through some rocky foster placements, is certainly the kind one might want to be rid of. But what could it mean to wipe out 14 years of experience? Even if it were possible to erase the suffering and confusion, could that be done without also removing those few bright spaces of time in which Janine, like most people some of the time, was happy? Then, too, without her past, who would Janine be? Someone else, "someone new" as Lou Reed sings in "Perfect Day"?

Janine's new head of year, Mrs Marriot, is a wise woman. She sees the girl's desire for a fresh start as a fantasy. Nothing wrong with fantasy, as a way to play with future possibilities, but the idea of rewriting history, a gambit of dictators through the ages, is a damaging fantasy because it strikes at the roots of our ability to live in the present. The past is there, to learn from, to react against, to place in perspective, but not to forget. As Marx wrote (Mrs Marriott is also a history teacher), those who cannot understand history are condemned to relive it: if this is true of countries, it is all the more true of individuals.

So Mrs Marriott is working on Janine's book with her. The idea is to get the book to tell the same story in a different way. It could be a story of heroism, of how one lone girl, despite the odds, kept herself together and emerged with some academic and sporting success. Or it could be a story of survival, how Janine avoided the hostility of fate. And it is a story of love, about Janine and her little brother and how they stay in touch. But it is, always, a story with difficulty and pain woven into it, because that is how Janine's life has gone. Janine has been taken out of those situations, but they haven't been expunged from her.

Still, the story isn't a tragedy, either. At 14, bright and able and healthy, in a good school, there is a lot of life ahead to play with. And Janine, with all her harshly won knowledge, has also learned a lot more lessons than other people of her age. She is facing the world with open eyes.

Perhaps, hopefully, in a few years, she will be able to close that book and lay it by. Not to bin it for a fresh start, but because, after a rocky start, she has made something fresh for herself. Some of the sweetest fruit grows from trees whose roots are cramped.

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