Source of strength;Parting shots

29th May 1998 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark on the resilience factor

It was the long hot summer before the First World War. Joan's mother was a respectable girl but she "fell". Soon after birth the baby was whisked off to a foster mother in a village in Kent. The first five years of Joan's life among the apple trees were "always summer". Her brother Bill was her constant playmate and protector. Then suddenly, she was taken to London and abandoned. "Don't cry," said eight-year old Bill as he left her in the orphanage.

They cut her hair, exchanged her clothes for a uniform and left her with many other children in a dormitory. All night, the child next to Joan was crying, "I want my mummy". And Joan put her hands through the bars of the bed to comfort her. She didn't cry herself, because Bill had told her not to.

Through the rest of her long life, at the orphanage school, in service, with her own happy family, Joan carried the image of her early childhood. When interviewed as an old lady, she said that the one person she would like to see again would be her foster brother, Bill.

Frederick had had a similar life. He, too, went from foster family to residential school and service, in his case the Army. Then he had a career and family. Yet it was only after the adoption laws had changed and he was already in his 70s that he was able to track down his birth-mother and visit her grave with his long-lost relations to feel, in his words, "complete". All that time, he had kept an image of loss in his mind; yet, as his new family congratulated him after their meeting, he had had a "triumphant life".

What kept Frederick and Joan going? A recent conference at the Thomas Coram Foundation, London, asked educationists and social workers to consider resilience: what makes one person go through horrors - a childhood in Auschwitz, being disabled in an accident - and rise through it, and another to experience such terrors as utterly fragmenting?

Unsurprisingly, if you are born with a pretty face, intelligence, a rich parent, with no genetic disease or in a country uninvolved in war, your chances of a good life are much improved. There is another, hugely protective factor. Attachment to a benevolent elder gives a child an internal source of strength to survive whatever life throws at him or her; the longer and more consistent the bond, the better.

Fifty years ago, a teacher told Joan, "You'll never amount to anything", because her work was messy. That hurt and she never forgot it. But nor did she forget her brother Bill and the sunlit days in the apple orchards in Kent. She knew she had been important to someone in her childhood. She was able to have a triumphant life, despite the odds.

Something to bear in mind when considering social exclusion. And something to remember when biting back a sarcastic remark, too.

Details of the conference on The Resilient Child from Thomas Coram Foundation, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1; tel: 0171 278 2424

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