When the world stops to mourn

24th October 1997 at 01:00
The first significant historical event of my childhood was the assassination of President Kennedy. I was six years old and I had come home from school with my new pal, Margaret. It was an exciting day for me as it was the first time Margaret had come to my house. We played out on the street all afternoon and when the news broke we knew instantly that something bad had happened. I was subdued, but like any young child, was secretly far too concerned with my private world to consider a person I had never even met, let alone knew. I didn't see the point about worrying about something that had happened a long way from Glasgow.

The seriousness of this event was emphasised by what seemed to be continuous news bulletins. These were new to me. The severity of the newsreader's voice unsettled and scared me. That response has stayed with me to this day. I remember the shock my parents showed and their endless talk of this terrible crime. Although I picked up some details, I only understood it in terms of goodies and baddies. Next day I didn't want to hear about it anymore. I remember when I went to school on Monday morning I still hadn't a clue what "assassination" meant, despite hearing the word all weekend.

The sudden death of Diana, Princess of Wales, would have been for many young pupils their first experience of living through a tragic event in history. This time I was the teacher, not the child. My pupils were the same age as I was that fateful day when Margaret came to play. Are today's children more sophisticated in their understanding of their world than I was? Did I find the whole experience overwhelming?

Technology has moved on. The regular brief news bulletins were now replaced with excessive programmes on four out of the now five television channels. Instant communication meant that we were subjected to continuous reports. The footage on Princess Diana that was screened made everyone's loss more painful. Radio stations played sombre music.

The children could not fail to be influenced by the media's action. They knew that something awful had happened yet on Monday morning they appeared as confused as I had been more than 30 years ago. "The Queen died," said one girl sadly. "No, it was Diana that died," one boy corrected. "Yes, that's right. Queen Diana - she died," another girl said.

At that point I intervened to clarify the point. Like many teachers, that week, I used my 15 per cent flexibility allocation to discuss and explain the situation. The children did not know much about the Royal Family. It is alarming to think that I had received more accurate information from last year's class, who were the same age, about Baby Spice's skiing accident than I did about this. Most were subdued but some were keen to tell of how their mum or grandma sat crying all afternoon. Some complained that "it was on the telly all afternoon. Everywhere."

One of the reception children said to her teacher: "I don't want to talk about that lovely lady again." This may have been a reaction to the media's obsession with the story but possibly reflected something deeper. To young children, Diana fulfilled the stereotypical notion of a princess. She was beautiful, glamorous and helped the needy. In fairy stories like Cinderella and the Frog Prince, princesses were always rewarded and lived happily ever after. The reality of what happened to the "People's Princess" shattered this illusion.

The following Monday the children spoke with uncanny ease about the funeral. They talked about the very features that had made that day so memorable. The hundreds of flowers, the people, the colourful guards - and the two boys. For younger children, talking about it allowed them an opportunity to share their feelings, report on what they had seen and listen to each other. Throughout Scotland, primary and secondary schools assembled together to say prayers for the Princess.

My pupils' responses showed little difference to the understanding of my youth. A lack of basic understanding and a sense of being influenced by others prevailed. The only contrasting feature was the role of the school. Whereas my teacher ignored news items in favour of the three Rs, we acknowledged it and attempted to unravel children's confusion. I rather doubt whether I was successful.

Many young children remain confused. One boy asked his mum when an elderly relative died: "Will Auntie Jean be in all the papers and the television too?"

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