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Sunday, 16 November 2008

Another Garden of Eden

Towards the end of last month in a post I called A Painting with a C.V., about Raymond, a one-time pupil of mine, I told the story of how he had resolved, or partly resolved, an inner conflict by painting a picture - a really fine picture, as it turned out.

This post has something in common with it: they both centre around a boy, a pupil of mine, painting a picture of The Garden of Eden. But there, I think you will probably agree when you have read the account, all similarity ends.

First though, I need to explain something of the background. Stanley was 10 or 11 years old. He came from Jamaica, having lived there with his mother, father, brothers and sisters until he had turned school age, which I think would have been six, at which point his father decided to bring him to England to take advantage of England's superior education system. He could only afford the two of them to make the journey, so mother and siblings were left behind in Jamaica. Stanley was the chosen one, the one who would bring wealth and honour to the family. Exactly how it came about, I do not know, but Stanley was almost 9 by the time he and father had reached England and the authorities over here had caught up with them. At that point Stanley had still never been to school, so it was hardly surprising that he did not start well. Very quickly his school asked the educational psychologist to take a look at him, and he was pronounced Educationally Subnormal, as the nomenclature then was. (Today we would say that he had moderate - or even mild - learning difficulties.) It was then that father washed his hands of him. He was now the no-gooder on whom he had wasted all his money, the runt of the litter who would never amount to anything. (I thought he showed promise as a script writer, but see what you think after reading the post.) However, as far as his father was concerned, they might as well have stayed in Jamaica - though had he but considered for a moment, he might have realised that in the light of his son's special needs, Stanley was in a position to profit even more than his father had first thought, from the provision available over here. However, again not surprisingly, Stanley was soon being referred as a behaviour problem. Not long after that, he came to us, and to me. The educational psychologist asked that if possible, I arrange periods in which his behaviour would not be checked or punished, but merely observed and recorded. I had always been of the opinion that such children can not be adequately helped unless you first know them and what makes them tick, and that they cannot be well known unless they are allowed occasionally to show their true selves. The trick is to find an environment in which they can do this without disrupting (or corrupting) the rest of the group. My first choice was an art period. I had arranged a table of objets d'art (mostly liberated from items collected for a school fair) and reproductions of paintings from The Tate and elsewhere. Among these were two postcards brought from home as a contribution to our collection by one of the girls. These were Rousseau's The Dream and Savador Dali's famous melting timepieces. Stanley had acquired for himself the reputation of being a severe behaviour problem. In fact, as this short episode shows, his behaviour was of the attention-getting variety. Annoying, indeed, intended to be annoying, its success depends upon it, but not beyond the wit of man to cope with.

Stanley sidled past our inspiration table, looking away from it, surreptitiously flicking away the Dali and then palming - I think is the best word to describe it - The Dream. Why did he do that? he was an accomplished thief. Cynics said he had just been practising, but if that had been the intention I am sure I would not have seen it go, even though I had been watching him. He could have taken the piano without being spotted! No, if I saw him take it, he had meant me to see him. Whatever, he settled himself behind a drawing board which he rested on his knees and propped against his desk. The reproduction was propped against a water jar. From time to time his two eyes would appear briefly over the top of the board or round the edge of it - vertically!

Silence for a bit - and then a monologue. I should point out that there were gaps in the monologue, well-judged, mostly, for effect, waiting for his words to sink in, I suspect.

I'm a-goin-a do Eve first... put 'er in...
her titties first, I think - and then 'er hair...
all black and curly-wurly, lovely grub...!
Gotter cross 'er legs coz she's a lady!

An' now I doin' Adam... here he comes...
He sees Eve dreaming wide awake.
"Wow!" he thinks, because 'e sees 'er titties...
only now it looks like she got three...
"Three, is it?" Adam says. "How come, my sister?"
But arf a mo', the middle one's a magic mushroom...
and she's arf eaten it... He says:
"And what you been a-up to, woman?"
An' she say:
O, Adam, the ole serpent there, he say if I eat all the mushrooms..."
"Get on with it woman... what if you do eat all the mushrooms?"
"I will see how all the magic spells in all the world are made..."
An' Adam says... "An' can you girl?"
She tells him how the trees are full of stars
an' all the planets in their courses spin around the twigs... An' Adam says:
"I'll have a bit of that, I think!" and bites the mushroom on 'er breast...
and soon 'e don't know which is tittie and which is mushroom,
so he says:
"An' that ole serpent, he teach you well, ole girl, coz now I don't know you tittie from you magic mushroom...
But you should cover them things up, sweetheart, for they be powerful bright
to bring down any man..."
An' she wild! She veery wild... She get up and she slap his face good an' hard.
"The Gooooooooooood LLLLawd, he gave me these 'ere titties, boy," she say. "You hear me boy? The goooooood LLLLlawd did...! An' no one aint-a-gone-a tellllll me what to do with mar titties, save the Gooooood LLLLLLawd... Hallelujah boy!"

The eyes came round the board for the umpteenth time.
An' that mean you, too, man-behind-the-desk, there! No one ant-a-gone-a tell me what to doooo with marrrr bones, save that same Goooooood LLLLLawd... Hallelujah man!

The monologue petered out at this point, so I wandered round the room, coming last to Stanley. He had painted a cartoon, night-club world, with speech bubbles, though the speech in them was indecipherable. It was a world of strippers, booze and couplings. Surprise, surprise, Eve's legs were not crossed as he had said.
A busty blonde was dancing with the snake.

I pointed to the bubble coming out of Eve's mouth, and asked what it said.
He replied: "You just like all the men, you only wanting one thing, boy!"
an' Adam, he saying "Yup, coz that's what the Goooooooood LLLLLord gave it for!"
An' wanna know what Adam sees?
he asked, looking up at me.
I said that I would very much like to know what Adam can see.
He sees man building houses five miles high
an' painting smoke across the sky. He sees the blue dome over Eden
an' he sees it blow away all that hot air that's blown out by that dick in the white coat.

Later he added skyscrapers to the background.

I thought this might be an opportune moment to use this as my post, being that we have been having a discussion partly about the link between speech and painting. Okay, this is not quite what any of us had in mind, but it could be seen as a comment of sorts.

As another side issue, there is the question of the coincidence of both stories revolving around The Garden of Eden. Not down to any influence from me, I do assure you, and not such a coincidence as it might seem, for, looking back, I am quite surprised at the number of occasions on which, with an absolutely free choice, children have raised or used the story. Even children who could think of no other story from The Bible, would know and use that one. The second most popular Biblical story was Noah and the flood. Nothing else came near. The New Testament was nowhere. Those two stories must resonate very deeply with something in our psyches, I think.


Marion McCready said...

What an extraordinary story, dave, and you tell it so well. 'Educationally subnormal' - unbelievable that terms like these were used. The little boy's story itself is fascinating, surreal yet earthy. I'm never quite sure whether to believe these stories or not! Either way, you're definitely a story-teller.

Dave King said...

I have my fading notes to keep me on the straight and narrow! (I also think you tend to credit me with a degree of imagination I would dearly love to have but cannot match!)

As for the terminology, before that it was Mentally Deficient> Children were divided into sheep and goats - those that were deemed teachable and were the responsibility of the education department, and those that unteachable and the responsibility of the health department. The latter did not qualify for teachers.

Anairam said...

Interesting comment about children choosing those two stories from the Bible! I think they resonate so strongly with us because the one is about birth and creation, and the second about death and destruction (well, of some ...) Birth and death are the two definite and dependable points that mark our existence, the things that happen in between are merely diversions ...

Anairam said...

Thanks also for answering my query about persimmon - I found that very interesting!

Frances said...

Thank you Dave for this fascinating story. Sadly I am not surprised by it. Although we do not use terminology like 'educationally subnormal' anymore (thank God), a lot of the prejudices surrounding the less able continue under the surface. I speak from the experience of having been asked to take a child away from a school because he was unable to keep up with the others - at the age of five!

Art Durkee said...

The Garden is an archetype, it's tied to the archetype of Paradise, lost or not. It turns up in work after work. From one depth psychology viewpoint, the entire environmental movement is motivated by the Garden archetype, and our desire to return to it, to create it. It's everywhere.

Lucy said...

'He sees man building houses five miles high
an' painting smoke across the sky. He sees the blue dome over Eden
an' he sees it blow away all that hot air that's blown out by that dick in the white coat.'

Made me shiver oddly. And presumably this was before there was much awareness of global warming etc?

Like Sorlil, I often don't quite now whether to believe these stories, but I do because it's you telling them! I think you must have had a knack for drawing this stuff out from these children, and then for remembering and recording it.

Linda Sue said...

Thank you so much for this! It is a most amusing and thoughtful story, titties are the first fixation for baby boys - stays with them forever. Gardens, sex, birth, betrayal, power, must be a universal story.
Thank you again for your wonderful ability to communicate at heart and soul level! I am always moved by your writing!

Dave King said...

I am sure that is a large part of the answer, but it came as a bit of a shock initially to find children in this (that!) day and age who could not begin to tell me who Jesus was, yet had a passing knowledge of Genesis.

Dave King said...

That sounds sadly familiar. I was reading only the other day that 40,000 (I think it was) children of 5 or under had been excluded from school. Hopefully, not all permanently, but even so...

Dave King said...

Art Durkee

Agreed, but it was the stories they didn't know that surprised me.

Dave King said...

Do you know, I hadn't associated that with global warming? (This was the mid 60's. At that time the scientists were warning us all of imminent global cooling!) I had taken hot air to mean empty talk. (From the psychologist in the white coat?) It was the stars in their courses spinning round the twigs that bowled me over.
Thanks for the compliment, but you have to remember that these were all disadvantaged children, though a few - a very few - had an exceptional side to them which only appeared under certain conditions - eg, when given completely free rein, as here, something which probably had never happened before, certainly not at school!

Dave King said...

Linda Sue

Many thanks for the encouraging comments. You are right, it is a universal story. Universal in both senses - in its inclusiveness and in its applicability.

Dave King said...


Forgot to say that this particular session was recorded for the psychologist. Not a great feat of memory!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Dick - and this child was classed ESN as they called it in those days. If only you could have harnessed this talk - but then we have all taught kids like this. Wonder where he is now and what he is doing?!

McGuire said...

Very interesting story about a boy with learning difficulties. I'll be rereading this.

Always interesting to read you David. I shall be looking through the Archive here. I want to know a bit more about you.

Clearly, you were a teacher, you are a poet and an essayist. I have much to catch up on.

hope said...

Interesting that kids have so much to share and are often "shut up" by a system which takes a quick look and slaps on a label. I bet many of "your kids" have fond memories of you Dave, for being an adult who allowed them to blossom at their own rate.

I thought about you the other day when an 8 year old boy in the After School program was having difficulty with homework. The Director there is not well educated or patient. She looked at this kid, who has an attention span problem, and told him if he was going to be stupid, she was done. He looked so crushed! I gave him a moment to pull himself together, then asked what he was working on. Without any pressure to perform, he pointed out what was stumping him and we worked on it together. When we were done, he asked if I thought he was stupid. With a smile I shook my head and told him everyone learns differently. He looked at the other woman and said, "Some people don't learn."

It was all I could do not to give him a standing ovation. :)

Dave King said...

Weaver of Grass
I have been wondering exactly that, specifically, if he could (has) read the posy, would he recognise himself?

At the time, calling these children E.S.N. was an enlightened move: before that they were a sub-category of the Mentally Deficient. Children were examined for a disability of the mind - the phrase was there on the form for the parents to read.

Dave King said...


You make me feel guilty. I have not written up my profile as I should have. I will try to do so within the next week. Thanks for your interest.

Dave King said...

You are absolutely right about sticking on labels - self-sticking ones, usually. I always required staff to be specific; to say in what circumstances he was stupid, impatient, hyper-active, unimaginative etc. A child can show one set of characteristics in Art (for example) and quite another in, say, History.

Fiendish said...

What a fascinating child. It is so difficult to believe that he said all this, or that he was only ten or eleven - but it doesn't matter particularly whether I believe it or not. It's a perfect post. :)

Anonymous said...

The triumph of education over schooling - a rare enough occurrence within the Gordian mess that comprises our 'education system' - and on your watch, Dave. 'Educare' - to draw out. Credit where it's due, prof!

Dave King said...


I do sympathise with your difficulty. we do so underestimate children, and especially those from other cultures and/or with special difficulties. We tend to judge them by what they can manage of our culture or in our terms, but there is a whole world of abilities that never gets tapped. It is the same for us as well. Probably none of us is ever called upon to use his/her full range of abilities. So they never do see the light of day. It is possible for the so-called slow learner to get very close to the average in terms of achievement, but s/he has to get much closer to his/her full potential to do so.

Dave King said...

I used to think that, like British Rail, we were getting there - slowly - but look what happened to them!