Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Yesterday Grandson and I went to the park. Shortly after we arrived, a young mum got into conversation with us. She seemed keen to talk. She commented that it was cold (which it wasn't particularly but she was wearing a thin jacket) and said she had to be there for two hours because she was too early to visit someone in prison. (It was almost as if she was pleased - proud? - to tell me this.) The prison is a couple of miles away from the park - I don't think it's a high security establishment but I don't know much about it, not even exactly where it is. She said that she lived in East Lothian, which is a county just to the east of Edinburgh, and that her father had told her that the journey would take her much longer than it had actually done.

She was in the park to put off time and to let her little girl play. The child was three and a bit; nine months or so older than Grandson. She seemed a nice child. Grandson and she started playing in the same area, looking at each other and following each other about. Grandson chatted to me about her and what she was doing. The other child didn't say much but smiled and accepted her mum's suggestions as to what she should do next.

The mum told me that her little girl hadn't seen the man she was going to visit for some time because he'd been in prison, but the mum thought that he and her daughter should get to know each other again because he was hoping to be released on Friday. It turned out that the man was the mum's partner though not actually the child's father "but he's been like her father". She said that she hoped that the little girl wouldn't remember when she was older that she'd visited the prison. The child had also been there "when she was a baby, visiting my brother" but didn't remember this.

At this point I mentioned the East Lothian school where I taught from 1973-1979 and it turned out that this was the school that the mum had been to (not long ago, I'd guess). We chatted a bit about the school. She said that her father had been a pupil. I recognised his name though I don't think I actually taught him. It was, I fear, one of those names that was not greeted with joy when one saw them on one's register. I can't now remember whether he was a challenging boy or just a bit of a poor soul (I rather think the former). Then she said that her mother was also a pupil. Her name was familiar to me in the same way. I remembered quite well another girl with the same surname; sure enough, this was the young mum's aunt. The aunt had been quite a forceful character and not academic. In those days I was very aware that schools didn't on the whole cope very well with the full range of needs. I doubt if things are much better now. It's very hard to teach children who are not keen to be there for whatever reasons.

And I looked at the two children and their innocent, hopeful faces. Who knows how anyone's life will turn out? -  but I feel worried for the little girl, though her mum obviously loves her and wants to do the best for her. I felt that I ought to do something but... what? And then quite soon the mum decided that she was too cold and she would just make her way to the prison anyway, so off she went.

She left me feeling very thoughtful.


  1. Some people seem to have life stacked against them right from the start, don't they? It can take a lot to break out of a cycle such as you described; the same events keep cropping up in future generations.

  2. In my job I encounter people who perhaps are not at their best stage in life and sometimes an encounter like this can make you feel strangely if you should apologise for your good fortune...and this is wrong. Life is difficult for some this is true...and some make it difficult for others....we do what we do.
    Thoughtful was a good word.

  3. I am often thoughtful about a similar juxtaposition in my daily life. Our house has an identical neighbour. The lives of the inhabitants (it is divided into flats) could not be more different from ours.

  4. I am closely related to a prison warder. He once told me that they see the intake lists of names and recognise past 'visitors', but also family members. Father and son, and so it goes on.
    I worked for many years in a branch of the public services which also sees surnames and addresses which carry a certain expectation (or lack of).
    I do feel, though, that while at some time in the past someone had a choice as to how they lead their life, as the generations go on, it gets harder and harder. We do what we know. Breaking out of that cycle is very difficult. Without good, hardworking examples at home, how can we blame the children?

  5. How sad. It's even sadder when we want to help but it's out of our control. It definitely leaves one thoughtful.

  6. Your post leaves me thoughtful too, and probably has the same effect on all your readers. I feel thoughtful and sad and have no answers. It reminded me also of a meeting with a mother from a different background whom I encountered at a church gathering once. She told me how proud she was of her children because none of them had been in jail. I know I responded in a way so that she continued to feel that pride, but inside I was a little stunned. I was pretty young then, in my thirties and this quiet glimpse into another world was something that left me thoughtful.

  7. You DID do something. You chatted with her. You let the children play together and didnt look down on her when she mentioned the prison
    and you remembered her family. You paid her the respect of not shutting up shop when she wanted to chat. That's a gift that maybe too many people have forgotten. Maybe not so much in Scotland or the north but certainly in London and the south-east, neighbourliness and common humanity.

    I bet it made her feel better :-) Lesley xx

  8. This reminds me what a responsibility I have as a teacher. I'm sure we can do something to break the cycle of low expectations, but policies and paperwork eat away at the time we might take to do so.

  9. There needs to be a Like button for Lesley's comment. :) You gave her your full attention and that was such a nice example for her little girl to see. I hope she owns a warmer coat.

  10. Such encounters can be disturbing--making one feel a combination of wariness as well as wanting to be kind. the conventional responses don't always work.
    I"m glad the little girl was mannerly--surely a hopeful sign?