|There’s nobody we ever meet we can’t learn from
I LEARN from everybody, young and old, including people others dismiss.
Among those who have inspired me over the past century there’s enormous variety. I have already mentioned some family, friends and colleagues.
Life’s most important lessons are not formal curriculum subjects which may not mean anything at all to an audience.
For many years I was influenced by the Leicester-Tavistock Co-operation, regular conferences and meetings between some Leicester University staff members and the Tavistock Clinic.
We discovered you can educate far more efficiently through discussion groups than through lectures.
Like Janusz Korczak, who owed much of his learning to street children who shared their knowledge with him, I believe there’s a great difference between instructing, drilling facts in, and educating, drawing understanding out.
I learned so much from teenagers I worked with on Education for Personal Relationships courses. Also frequently from highly intelligent, gifted people who have had mental breakdowns.
Tragically all too many ended up in prison, where I learned further invaluable lessons from them.
So it was devastating two weeks ago to discover the Corston Report, commissioned after six deaths in Styal prison in 2005, documenting the scandalous plight of women in prison today.
A decade ago New Labour promised us ‘joined up government’.
Which bits of ‘joined up government’ increased the number of women in prison from 1,800 in 1995 to 4,300 in 2007?
When fathers go to prison, there is almost always a woman to care for children, hold the family together and maintain a roof over their heads.
Many imprisoned women are single mothers, their biggest single crime, shoplifting.
Putting mothers in prison, even for short periods affects not just them. It can destroy their families. The average woman’s imprisonment lasts just 42 days, long enough for them to lose their homes and their children, often forever.
Fifteen years ago eight percent of women jailed were there for motoring offences. Now it’s 42 percent.
One quarter of jailed women have been in local authority care. One third have suffered sexual abuse. Two thirds have neurotic disorders such as depression or anxiety. Many have serious mental disorders. 14 percent have schizophrenia against under one percent in the overall population. Over 40 percent have attempted suicide.
When I worked in Holloway Prison with failed borstal girls, I learned so much from them. They spoke very freely about their lives. So many had been ‘on the game’ and cruelly treated by men who took all their money.
I remember one girl saying the only time she ever enjoyed intercourse was with her brother.
I felt my whole insides turned upside down, so potent was the taboo I had grown up with. I learned we do not realise how powerful are the rules and taboos we absorbed unconsciously from our parents.
I also learned a great deal from school children, some of them great big men with woolly hats who had never been listened to in their lives and had enormous difficulty communicating.
Initially they frightened me but eventually I discovered they actually feared me. With humanity, sensitivity and great effort, I managed to help them learn how to listen and speak and got them to lead groups and report back, a learning experience for us all.
Freddy Bloom taught me so much. All through the war she and her husband were in separate prisons after being captured by the Japanese in Shanghai.
They both managed to survive. When they married they had two children, the first completely deaf. Freddy devoted her life to helping her daughter to speak, grow up, get a job, marry and have a child. She then devoted the rest of her life to deaf children.
In her late years, when she became disabled, she refused to end her life in a wheelchair saying she would rather commit suicide, which she did.
She left it to her children to make sure she had completed the job properly. She said “Get rid of the body any way you like and have a party!” They did.
I knew other civilian prisoners of the Japanese who were treated less harshly.
Phyllis Simon, a fellow counsellor, always reminded me that nothing ever existed without its opposite, a very valuable lesson.
I have always found however bad people may seem, there is always a good side. They might be kind to their children or their puppies. And ‘good’ people always have a ‘shadow’ side.
Now that I am very old I learn all the time from my companions how to accept old age and death, how to refuse to accept the inevitable changes and become a burden and a nuisance to everyone else.
The people who have taught me are far too numerous to mention but I’m grateful to them all.
There is nobody we ever meet that we cannot learn something from.
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