There’s a very real chance that there is no reader of this column that knows the source of this quotation. (And that includes Google, and our extremely knowledgeable and well-read Editor!) So, before reading on, see if you have any idea.The author, believe it or not, is Russ Conway, the British pub pianist, best known for tinny numbers like Side Saddle (which happened to be in the charts for over thirty weeks). His music was nearly all simple vamping on the piano without words.
But occasionally he wrote lyrics. And so it was in a reflective mood, as a person who experienced clinical depression, he penned a piece that began with the words in the title, and then continued,
“But take away you from me, and I’ll be left with none:
to carry in my arms an empty space,
and in my heart the same,
and all the world a lonely place, and all my life alone.”
Now I am not going to claim that these are the profoundest lines ever thought of, but they do go to the heart of what I want to write about in this column.
A PhD Subject?
Children who have experienced traumas such as separation and loss tend to suffer as a consequence in a number of ways, and one of the observed results is that they tend to steal and lie. (This was the conclusion of D.W. Winnicott, and has subsequently been corroborated by many.) As one who has lived alongside and among such children and young people for most of my life, and sadly aware of this tendency, it occurred to me recently that I hadn’t shared one of my related observations. On mentioning it to two academics (on separate occasions in recent weeks), they each took a deep breath, whistled in amazement, and said that this could be the subject of several PhDs.
Well, I have got past the stage of trying to generate ideas for PhDs, but I thought you might be interested to know what it was that so excited them. It was not, incidentally, my discovery that such children usually have a rather poor sense of physical space, relationships and geography. I think most can imagine that it is very difficult to begin to establish a sense of where places are and how they relate to each other if you don’t have a firm sense of home, or a secure base, to start from.
Making Sense of Maths
No, this is about mathematics, not geography. Children who have suffered traumas often struggle with pure mathematics, and I think that one boy who lived at Mill Grove helped me to see why. He simply couldn’t connect mathematics with his daily life and experience. What on earth was the point of trying to add or multiply some numbers (or, for that matter, letters like y and z) that signified nothing? Then one day for some reason someone suggested that he put a £ sign before the numbers and he immediately produced the right answer from his head. He then did the same with fruit and vegetables and also, as it happened, with the points that West Ham needed to gain if they were to avoid relegation from the English Premier League!
Suddenly he saw that mathematics was related to the real world that he not only understood but that mattered to him. Unfortunately, teachers had not managed to connect the subject with his personal experience and agenda until he reached his teens.
A Symbol of Loss?
My discovery is more specific: it is that children who experience separation and loss have particular difficulty with subtraction. They may be able to add and multiply, but subtraction is quite a different matter. I have seen them not only struggle with the very question, but more often refuse to connect with it at all. And so I have mused what this might be about. And it seems to me that Russ Conway got very close to the answer. If you are interested in pure maths for its own sake (and such children usually aren’t in my experience) you could subtract away to your heart’s content and it would not connect in any way with your life and experience.
But if you make any connections at all whether conscious or unconscious, between the sum in question and your real life, then subtraction is desperately close to the bone. Your life has been turned up side down, perhaps shattered, by the loss of someone close and vital to you, and anything that stirs memories or associations with this loss is something that you will tend to freeze or deny. “Take away you from me and I’ll be left with none” is exactly, precisely the experience, and the source of fear and anxiety.
Today I mentioned this to Jonathan Stanley, Director of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, and we discovered that we had both come to the same conclusion about subtraction (he mentioned division too), but that we had not written about our thinking, nor read anyone else who had been thinking along these lines. And this was what triggered the idea to write about the subject.
Concentrate on the Concrete and the Positive
Well, I say that, but it is also possible that the fact that we always use Russ Conway music for our Christmas party games at Mill Grove, and his music is ringing in my ears, that may have contributed to the urge to write thus!
It seems to me that this insight is worth a good deal of thought. The UK Government is keen to improve the educational attainments of ‘looked after children’, and mathematics is always part of the core package, but has anyone considered the potential pain and even harm that insensitive teaching of maths might cause? (Bear in mind the indirect problem of poor achievement for reasons unknown to anyone, including the teacher and the child.)
Those with memories stretching back to 1948 will remember that there were concerns about the educational attainment of children in care/need then. Those concerns have continued unabated until the present with monotonous regularity, without anyone asking fundamental questions about possible root causes of the problem. So I offer a modest and simple suggestion: concentrate on addition and multiplication using very concrete examples, and leave subtraction until it becomes bearable for the children and young people.
One Person’s Gain is Another’s Loss?
One closing reflection: to subtract is often called to ‘take away’. It is a small conceptual step from this to theft: the taking of that which does not belong to you. Has anyone considered that children who have suffered loss may see this as addition? “What”, you say, “this is going too far!” The thought behind this suggestion is that if the child is thinking only of herself then theft is about addition: that is adding to what already belongs to the child.
And what about the loss suffered by the other party? Well, we are back to subtraction again, and if the child will not go there, then it may be hard for her to be aware, and a routine emotional reflex to deny, that somebody else has lost something in the first place. What has happened in her eyes may be all about addition and nothing to do with subtraction or loss.
This reflection is a musing which I leave with you for your consideration. What I am convinced of is that until we understand the associations stirred by the very thought of subtraction we will not be serving traumatised children and young people well. And we also do Russ Conway an injustice.