Sad Little Children

I just watched the movie The Nanny Diaries. At the end of the movie I wept for the sad little boy who lost his beloved Nanny and his puppy in one cruel day. I felt so righteously angry at the awful, self-centered parents who ignored this beautiful child’s need for love.

Of course the very end of the movie turned out happy…

scene from the movie The Nanny Diaries

Laura Linney as the rich mother, Scarlet Johansson as the Nanny and Nicholas Art as the little boy in the movie The Nanny Diaries, 2007.

… the terrible, rich, selfish mother learned her lesson from her middle class Nanny, and was beginning to show love and to nurture her 6 year old kid.

But how often does that really happen in real life?

The movie triggered memories of a little 5 year old girl I cared for during the summer of 1982 when I was 22.

I had taken a job as an assistant kindergarten teacher in a small town in New Brunswick. It was a new experimental program to help disadvantaged children in the area learn basic social skills to prepare them for kindergarten in the fall. The children were all poor, and most of them had bad behavioral problems – either from lack of structure at home, abuse, or actual physical deficiencies – like brain damage or malnutrition.

There were three of us young women – the lead “teacher” was younger than me. She regarded me suspiciously at first. What was I doing there – a college grad – in her home town, doing this job? But she and the other assistant and I all bonded quickly over caring for this assembly of sad, exhausting little children.

Betty age 22 August 1982

Me age 22, August 1982,Toronto.

We taught them how to follow instructions like lining up, taking turns, being quiet. We taught them how to use paper and crayons, glue and scissors. We combed their hair, taught them to brush their teeth, we washed their dirty hands and faces. We fed them. Some of the children couldn’t hold a crayon much less learn to write their names… but we persisted. At the end of the summer the school board was very happy with our results. We did succeed in “civilizing” them to a degree – they could go to kindergarten in the fall.

kindergarten kid coloringThere was one little girl – very tiny, always dirty, with bruised arms and matted hair, who suffered with an inability to do much of anything even to the level of her other damaged class mates – her frustration with things that required any concentration, like holding a crayon, ended in a complete emotional meltdown everyday. She needed extra care and extra patience and extra love.

She’d been born with this problem because she had an alcoholic mother – she was permanently damaged from the womb (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome), and even at 5 years old, there was little future for this child living in poverty with a family that treated her like garbage. I grew overly attached to her and she to me and it was heartbreaking.

Poverty Child, from The Hamilton Project

This is not the little girl I knew, but an anonymous child found in Google images. Photograph from the Hamilton Project.

I had terrible dreams about her for months – anxiety dreams about her crying and me not being able to find her… the reality of the job was too tough for me. I found I didn’t have the personal strength to divorce myself from the emotional impact of working with these children.

Over the course of the summer we met most of the parents and families of the children. Many of them were kind and loving and were just overwhelmed with life. Those children went home to parents that held their hands, hugged them, and stroked their hair. Those children adjusted the best to the regimen of the classroom.

Other children, like my little girl, had at best indifferent parents. People who could be hostile and verbally abusive to us when the teacher raised any issues of concern about their children. It felt like the only reason they were there at all was because the government and social services had intervened and forced them.

It was a thing back then (and probably stilI is) that the more children you had the more assistant funding you received from the government. It was said that the policy encouraged some people to have more children just for the money.

My mother’s best friend had done the same job with inner city kids in Bedford–Stuyvesant, in New York City for decades. She taught damaged children basics like brushing their teeth, wiping themselves, sitting quietly. Her children were from terrible backgrounds – some were brain damaged by drug or alcohol addicted mothers (one boy because he’d been dropped out of a window when he was an infant); some had been, and continued to be, horribly physically and mentally abused.

She was a Quaker – maybe her faith gave her the strength. She never married or had children of her own, but she was a loving and firm mother to countless children who had no one else.

Though I enjoyed working with the children, I realized I didn’t have the strength for this kind of work. I wouldn’t ever be able to do the work my mother’s friend did, or be a social worker and see that kind of deprivation on a daily basis.

The lessons I learned that summer changed me forever. I am a compassionate person, but I cannot accept the suffering and abuse of children – rich or poor – there is no excuse.

To reject, abuse, and damage a child that you’ve brought into the world is one of the worst sins I can imagine.