“Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”

“Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”

That famous saying is attributed to St. Ignatius Loyola of the Jesuit Order and also to Aristotle, but I know it from a series of documentaries started in the 60’s (then called 7 UP) that follows a group of British children, from a cross-section of backgrounds, from the age of 7 – 56 years old, looking at their lives every 7 years.

For those who may wish to watch the series.

I watched up to 42, though it now continues as a series, however, it’s true meaning only really became apparent to me yesterday. Sort of “Hit me with a wet kipper,” reality, rather than the ‘Yes, it was part of my Sociology Course at Uni,” reality where everything is a theory, but not, if you follow?

In a nutshell, it showed that the environment, surroundings, experiences and education that a child receives in their formative/primary years, shape who they will become in later life – where they are likely to live, who they are likely to marry and the type of job they are likely to get.

And before you all jump and say, but so and so married a prince etc, etc.. I acknowledge there is always the exception to the rule.

Generally, though, it is true to say that where we live and the people we socialise with, are the greatest influences in our lives. If all we see are the streets of Colombo and our parent begging and possibly sleeping on those same streets at night, that too becomes our life and the realm of our experiences.

Why am I talking about this?

As a young Scout Leader in West London, I chose to start a Scout Troop on a municipal/council dump. We were known as the ‘Dump Kids.’ Initially, some kids from very middle-class homes followed me to this area and THAT CHANGED THE LIVES OF ALL THE NEW KIDS WHO JOINED! Why?

Well, their home and school experiences were different from those of the children living on the council estate that fed the area for my future troop as well as the local schools. I remember visiting the home of one parent, she was married, 21 years-old and with 5 kids, yes 5! The floor when I entered was ‘literally’ moving, there were unwashed dishes in the sink and kids with grubby faces. What there wasn’t was a single book, comic or magazine anywhere. I was shocked, the home I had grown up in had books everywhere, as did the homes of the kids who came with me. As I left the tenement (a double storied house on top of a house block) a TV came hurtling down from the upstairs home and smashed onto the pavement near to where I had parked my vehicle. (Needless to say, I parked away from the building and appointed a ‘lookout’ for my vehicle as a work colleague had parked in the same spot, gone off to measure up some roads for repairs and returned to find his car jacked up on bricks and the wheels all removed.)

The kids from better housing had access to books, better schools, field trips to museums, theatres, sporting holidays and trips overseas because their parents could afford them, these keys opened the doors to a much wider variety of experiences to learn and draw from than their ‘Council Estate’ ‘cousins.’

Now I think you may see where I am coming from.

Here, in South Africa, we have classes in government schools with 40-50 learners, few libraries and often no toilets, especially in rural schools. If we do not provide the very basics necessary for a decent education, how can children break away from the social bondage that traps them into a continued world of poverty? How can we aid in the improvement for learners to reach their full capacity, rather than clipping their wings from the start?

We expect our school learners to like and understand Shakespeare, but he speaks a different language to English as a first language speakers, let alone those for whom English is not their first language. Yet, we expect them to be able to write exams with perfect spelling, grammar and punctuation, be able to create fantastic stories. conjure up amazing characters.

I have realised, that if all you have in life is a poor home and school and maybe gang life in that environment and school, then that is all you have to reflect on. This will come out in your language, writing (if you are lucky enough to go to school) and attitude towards those surroundings as well as the rest of the world, your world.

How can we break free of this cycle? Can a child at 7 who becomes an astronaut, scientist, owns his own plumbing company etc. at 42?

We need schools, not with tablets and computers which are being stolen every day (129 Government Schools were broken into across Christmas 2018 in Johannesburg and computers and equipment stolen.) No, we need schools with small classes and brilliant teachers who can excite the minds of their charges, spark their imaginations, help create their dreams and set them on new and varied pathways for life.

We need libraries, where, not only books can be borrowed (btw every day, hundreds of books are stolen from libraries in South Africa.) but where there is also someone who can teach those who cannot read, or just listen to a those who can show interest and encouragement.

We need social programs that provide experiences other than TV programmes, where learners get to hear, touch, smell and see environments outside their own. (For years I have been advocating for student exchange programmes where at least those in 2nd year Uni can exchange for a year and live in another country.) Scouting does this on a small scale with their ‘Home hospitality’ programmes, where scout gets to stay with a scout from another country, go to school with them, live with them. But it comes with a cost. So too does crime. So do we lock the door after the horse has bolted or lead them to water? Can we afford not to widen the experiences of all children?

As an author, I try to create books that spark children’s imaginations, characters from different parts of the world with their own unique characteristics, tropical lands, lands of snow and ice, friendships, disabilities, bullying. I base my stories around pirates and birds, the latter, I have as puppets and take with me on school trips.

I try to visit a wide range of schools, where I chat with the learners about how we (Authors) write, what goes into producing a book from pen to the market place, BUT most importantly that an author is a REAL person. Books don’t just materialise, someone writes them, and that they too can write a story. However, I am, ever conscious that their world restrains them, so the responsibility to write even more exciting stories to spark their imaginations rests with my Author colleagues and myself. We must become their world, create an imaginary world for them to escape to, use our words wisely to increase their virtual world, even if we cannot improve their physical one.

Education, reading, enthusiastic teachers, libraries, school visits, exchange programmes are all keys to better prospects, plus our stories, how we spark their imaginations and the values we portray through our characters.

Give me a child until he is seven, help me change his world and I will show you the man who can become anything he wishes.

#Jann Weeratunga

 

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