Two Childhoods

 

Once there was a girl. She lived with her mother in a small cottage at the edge of the village close to the forest. The girl could not remember her father. For as long as she had known, there had only been her and her mother. Just the two. Life was not easy for them. Just the two to do all the work that needed doing. But, though they had to work hard, they did well enough. They helped each other. Supported each other. Learned from each other. The girl was clever and quick. Though she had only gone to the village school for a short time, she had learned to read and write there. The school gave her a beginning and she was then clever enough to teach herself whatever more she needed to know. And clever enough to learn how to teach her mother to read and write too.

But, though the girl was clever, her mother was wise. Cleverness and wisdom are two very different things. There has been many a clever idiot and a few wise fools. The mother was wise enough to see both the value of cleverness and its limitations. So, she brought up the girl to appreciate her own cleverness but not to take pride in it. To see cleverness for what it is. To know that it is not wisdom. Nor can cleverness take the place of wisdom. For wisdom has to be earned. It takes time. It cannot be rushed. It cannot be taught. But it can be learned. Often in the most unlikely places.

The mother knew this secret and so made a point of taking her daughter to unlikely places. Which was why they lived at the edge of the village. Close to the forest. Most of the villagers stayed away from the forest. Were afraid of the forest. The forest was a dangerous place, they said. It was dark. Wolves lived in there. Wolves that would kill you and eat you. They said. If you went in there, you were sure to lose your way. You would get lost and be easy prey for the wolves. Or worse. They said. For things inhabited the forest which were not human nor beast. But something other. They said. And most of the plants that grew there were poisonous. They said.

The mother smiled. She knew otherwise. She knew the forest as a place of safety and wonder. A place where a person could get lost and find peace. A place where plants grew that could cure and comfort. A place that was home to spirits that could help and advise – if asked correctly. A place to be shared with animal brothers and sisters. And the mother passed on this knowledge to her daughter. Little by little. A drop at a time. For too much knowledge too fast is not wise. No matter how clever you are. She would go into the woods with the girl to gather firewood. In passing, she would perhaps point out a leaf that, when boiled up into a tea, was useful to ease headaches. And the girl would remember. As the pair were out gathering wood sorrell for a meal, the mother would draw the girl’s attention to how the return to roost of the jackdaws so early in the evening told of a cold night to come. And the girl remembered. The mother was confident that, in good time, the girl would indeed become Wise.

For the mother knew that the villagers would always have need of a Wise Woman. Someone who they could come to when they were unwell or had a problem of the Heart. The prince had his doctors and physicians in the castle. But their fees were well beyond the reach of most villagers. And, anyway, most villagers did not care for the leeches and knives favoured by the doctors, preferring, instead, the kinder remedies of the Wise Woman. The mother knew that, when she was no longer of this world, her daughter would have to be able to survive on her own. If her daughter was a Wise Woman, there would always be a place for her in the village. She would survive.

 

Once there was a boy who never went to school. His father was a blacksmith. His mother had died shortly after bringing him into the world. His father was a good blacksmith. Skillful and strong. But the work was long and hard. Often he worked all day and still the sparks flew from his fire as night fell. And the sound of his hammer rang into a moonlit sky. He worried that he was neglecting his son. He tried to give him time. Tried to keep him by the fire. Safe. Watching. Learning a trade. It was only natural that the boy should follow his father and become a blacksmith in turn. As had been his father before him. It was a good trade. After all, people would always need to plough the fields to grow food. People would always need horses to pull the ploughs. Horses would always need shoeing. There would always be work for blacksmiths. Always.

But the boy was too free-spirited. As soon as his father’s attention strayed from him, he was off. Away. Into the woods. On an adventure. And a blacksmith’s attention needs be on his work or all manner of harm will befall. So, the boy was often away. Off. On an adventure. In charge of his own time. Master of his own fate. Teacher of his own lessons. Discovering, for himself, who and what he was. How and why he fitted into the world. For the boy was naturally curious, as all children are. And, for those with eyes to see, the World has much to teach. There were always new lessons to learn out there in the woods. How to hear the conversation of birds. How to taste a change in the weather. How to feel a rock’s history. How to see tomorrow’s ghosts in the fall of light across a clearing. The boy was never bored.

 

Still, the father worried. With no wife to help him in raising the boy, he felt the full weight of responsibility for his well-being. And it sat heavy upon him. The neighbours made sure of that. He knew they talked. Whispered amongst themselves about the boy. Passed judgement on the father’s parenting. Or lack of it.

“Wild, he is.”

“Out all hours.”

“Knows no boundaries. No limits.”

“Anything could happen.”

“Yes, anything.”

“Bad influence, he is.”

“On the other children.”

“Our children.”

“Needs taking in hand.”

“Old fashioned discipline.”

“Positive discipline.”

“Needs to learn a few rules.”

“For his own good.”

“Never did me any harm.”

“Needs to go to school.”

 

And so the father decided that the boy should go to school. Then he would know where he was all day. Know that he was safe. And he would learn things. Important things. He would learn how to read and write. Maybe he could do better for himself. Be better than a blacksmith. Not have to make things with the sweat of his brow and the blisters on his hands. The boy could improve his circumstances. He should aspire for more from life than rooting for berries in the woods. Everyone said so. That was the way of the world now. The days of following your father’s trade were gone. Everyone could do better for themselves. If they went to school and studied. And everybody else’s children went to school, if only for a year or two. It was important to do so. The boy had to go to school.

 

He explained all this to the boy that night, once the forge was closed down for the night. The fire safely subdued. The boy nodded. Agreed to give it a try. He loved his father and wanted to please him if he could.

 

So, the next day, the boy set off early for school. His father had explained to him that it was very important that he arrived at school on time. If he failed to do so he would be punished. They were very strict about Time at the school. There were bells. Lots of bells to mark the Times of the day. And there were particular things to be done at particular times. For example, you could not eat when you were hungry. You had to wait until the proper Time. Eating Time. There would be Time to learn to read. And a different Time to learn to write. A Time to learn Science. A Time to learn Counting. Even a Time to Play. The boy thought this was very odd. When the boy asked why Time was chopped up in this strange way, the father explained that it was the best way to learn new things. The boy nodded, even though this had not been his experience thus far – he had always learned most when he got really interested in something. So interested that Time seemed to loose its grip, slip away. And so, he would spend a whole day absorbed in the movement of ants across a pathway. Or a mother swallow teaching her fledglings to fly. But, he didn’t want to disappoint his father, so he would try. Try to learn in the school way.

 

As the boy hurried towards school, he thought about the other advice his father had given him regarding school.

 

Be punctual. That was very important. Important to accept that Time was not, actually, as the boy had so far experienced it. Time was not actually anything to do with Day or Night. Light or Dark. Spring, Summer, Harvest or Winter. Nothing to do with the growth of saplings in the woods. Not to do with the flight and return of the swallows. Nor the wax and wane of the moon. What he had to learn at school was that his Time was not his own. Once he went to school, from then on, his Time belonged to someone else. It was a commodity. He had to work to earn some of it back. Only then could he spend time how he wanted. Spend. Like money. That is what he had to learn at school. Time is money. An important lesson.

 

Do as you are told. Comply. If a teacher tells you to do something, you must do it. Even if you disagree. Even if he is wrong. Respect authority. Do as authority tells you. Otherwise you will be punished. When the boy asked why he should do something he knew to be wrong, the father explained that there were several reasons. First, it was a matter of respect. The teachers were older and wiser. They had read many books. They knew lots of things. Important things. It had taken them many years to learn these things. They had worked hard. Knowing so many important things naturally made them more Important. It was, therefore, natural to respect their authority. It was the natural order of things. The Natural Order. Some men were simply born to be Leaders. Others to be led. It was not wise to question The Natural Order. It was important to Know Your Place. Now, the boy had spent most of his life in the woods and he had noticed that there was indeed an Order to things. Sun gave life to leaf, leaf gave life to rabbit, rabbit gave life to hawk. Hawk roosted on tree. Her shit fell on the earth. Gave life to tree. Tree gave apple to boy. Boy gave thanks. Spits seeds on ground. Sun gives life to seeds. Rain gives life to seeds. It was all a huge, big, interconnected web. There was Order and there was Balance. Too much Sun, too much Rain – either way the harvest might fail. Each year, some things in the wood do well, others not so well. The next year, it would be different. Over Time, things would Balance out and Order would prevail. Without anyone telling anyone else what to do. It felt very different to the Order they seemed to like in schools. Order in the woods was supple, ever-changing. Order in school sounded rigid, inflexible. But Rules are Rules. Another important lesson to be learned.

 

His father had also explained that he would be tested. There would be lots of tests. Examinations. So that the teachers could tell whether he was learning enough. So that they could measure him. Measure him against the other students. This was very important. Everybody had to know where they stood compared to everybody else. So that they knew their place. Knew who they were. In the Natural Order. If you did well on the tests, you were Clever and you would be rewarded. Everyone would know that you were Clever and you would be given a good job. You would be respected. You would spend your Time working in a good job. You would earn more money. Then you could pay for own children to have books, go to a good school. Then they would be Clever. Respected. And, in this way, we maintain the Natural Order. Then everybody knows their place. Everybody is safe. Everybody is happy. This is what schools are for. You are what the tests say you are. Schools are how we measure. We must measure to be safe. Another important lesson.

 

The boy thought about the look on his father’s face as he had explained these things about school. He had not looked happy. He had looked extinguished. A fire had gone out in his eyes. Like the forge at the end of the day. Safe. Dead.

 

The boy threw away his school books, turned on his heels and ran back towards the woods.

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