Tears to water the sunflowers

14th July 1995 at 01:00
It was a hot day. We went into the playground to sketch the vegetable patch. First we established the direction of the path and the number of the flagstones, then the position and number of the main plants. Without exception, the children all drew the path on the wrong (or mirror-image) diagonal.

They were not very sure about the plants: city children don't seem to know plants as well as they know the settings on a video recorder. But they were intrigued by the tomatoes, which already had a bushy air.

It was a bit harder to believe in the beans and peas which as yet had scarcely climbed their sticks. They did know the sunflowers because Fatima had brought some in.

Enthusiastically pointing out where the tomatoes were going to fruit, I grasped a nettle. It's not true that the harder you grab a nettle the less it hurts. It hurts a whole lot more. The children were solicitous as I hopped and muttered. Later I saw that every child had drawn "that stingy thing" very large.

It was so hot that soon every child began to droop and we repaired to the picnic benches where some sweetly-scented honeysuckle grows down the wall. We talked about the smell; the girls liked it and the boys said it tickled their noses. Alice knew how to get out the honey from the honeysuckle; Dassos could draw the flowers; Mahmud loved their smell. Fatima just wanted to lean her head against my shoulder.

Millie had been industriously drawing away and had produced an amazingly detailed plan of some stones in the bottom left-hand corner. Jake wanted to put flowers in my hair but drew round them instead. Although it seemed we had had hardly any time outside we decided to take our drawings in.

How surprised we were to discover that we had been gone for an hour and a quarter and I was late for my dental appointment. Everyone was lining up to go to lunch. I felt a bit ashamed, as if I'd been sneaking off with my friends in the middle of class. Had the children done enough? But then we showed our drawings and got Alice to explain about the honeysuckle and the teachers talked about the bees and the children went to their dinner and I left realising that I wasn't just helping out in my child's class any more - I really like these very young people, foolishly sentimental though it sounds.

Tears and worries at home a few days later on the eve of the reception class concert. "I'm a concert boy," sniffed Jake, dolefully. He wondered if this meant that he could have chocolate for breakfast but I didn't think so; nor did his brothers.

They tried to cheer him up. "There'll be all those people looking at you, " consoled elder brother. I shook my head frantically as the face crumpled. "No, I mean there'll be so many people that no one will look at you," elder brother cut in hastily. "You'll look really nice," urged middle brother, "'specially in your bow tie". Jake was comforted, but not enough. "My trousers are too tight," he gulped. Last-minute trousers were dug out.

"He was ever so confident yesterday," said Debbie chirpily, tucking people into their costumes. It was my turn to gulp as I hastily left the room before the lip quivered. "Please, let him not cry like last time," I prayed.

Of course the concert was a resounding success. How mature the five-year-olds seemed compared to their sisters and brothers in the audience. How Jake picked up the telephone and sang into it as to the manner born, and so did all the others. How I took pictures of everyone in the class, thinking I wouldn't like any of my chums to be left out. How they paid attention to each other's performances and clapped the teachers like good 'uns.

But, alas, how Jake rushed up to me in the classroom afterwards, his face bathed in tears, just as I was in the middle of congratulating Dassos who was clad in red shorts and T-shirt with a pair of spotty wings as the bad-tempered ladybird.

"Mum, I needed you," he wailed. What was wrong? He'd seen me, hadn't he? He'd done well, hadn't he? And everyone had enjoyed his performance and the whole class had done so well. They were all so grown-up now. Or were they?

"You see," sobbed Jake. "I just see you and I want to be with you. That's the problem." And he took off his bow tie and wept.

Later on I went to fetch him. He was beaming and clutching his celebration lolly. "I was good, Mum, wasn't I?" "Of course you were, darling." "I was good, Mum, and I didn't cry a bit, did I?" "Not a bit. You're a big boy now." What is truth, said jesting Pilate, and did not stay for an answer (Francis Bacon).

Patience is a parent helper in a reception class.

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