I know I was very lucky to be raised as part of a large, close-knit family. They often drove me mad with their loudness and craziness but, there was never any doubt that in a pinch, I had lots of people ready willing and able to come to my aid. All the way through school, I had older aunties who made my journey easier and this clearly shaped my world view. I never had to feel fearful or nervous because those mean girls never messed with me, they were two scared of the crazy aunties. Likewise, my mother and I don’t have an easy mother/daughter relationship but I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that she would happily stomp someone to death if they intended me any harm.
Once I left home, my relationship with my extended family became less intense and, over the years, we drifted apart. Nowadays I keep up with their antics mainly through my mother and notes in Christmas and birthday cards. It’s a testament to their kindness that, when my dad died, his sisters supported my mother as if she was one of them and she still sees them regularly. Even though I’m fortunate enough to have done well out of the blood ties kind of family, I’ve always known that family is about so much more than blood.
When you live in a city or even a country where you don’t know anyone, you’re forced to forge bonds with people wherever you can. Friends become a different variety of family and I’ve been lucky enough to find myself ‘adopted’ many times during the course of my life. Sometimes my new family bonds lasted only for the duration of my stay in whichever particular place I found myself in and sometimes they last forever. People drift in and out of our lives all the time but I don’t think that diminishes the value of those relationships. If we meet someone with whom we feel a connection then, in my opinion, that’s a gift that should be cherished.
What Maisie Knew contained many poignant moments for me, particularly when Maisie was shown enjoying the safety and routine of school. Anybody who’s worked with kids from dysfunctional backgrounds will know how much they crave the sense of security that comes with routine. In a way school becomes a version of their family, possibly the only version they may have. This is something that Ofsted and all the government lackeys, doing their damnedest to make schools exam factories rather than communities, need to take on board.
When I first started teaching in the mid 80s, each teacher had a tutor group that they would often stay with for the duration of their school life. There was one memorable group of kids, many of whom I’m still in touch with, whose tutor I was from the ages of 11 to 18 (those kids are now 34, which makes me guffaw every time I think about it). For seven years, I would see them for fifteen minutes every morning and then again in the afternoon, in addition to which we had one hour a week in which to discuss relevant social issues. A lot of those kids, despite coming from very affluent backgrounds, had no one else to tell their funny stories and jokes to or in whom to confide their anxieties. Sadly, over the years, the stability afforded by the routine of tutor time has been eroded, viewed as worthless in a system that values only exam results. A system that places no value on the emotional wellbeing of a child when they can cram another subject in.
Consequently, the system now in place in most schools means that children have no one group of people who can represent their bit of stability, in a world that is often chaotic beyond belief. Little Maisie finds her ‘family’ in loving step parents who are then cruelly snatched away when her parents grow bored of the relationships. This is a reality for countless children, who are often left reeling when their ‘family’ is disbanded in the blink of an eye.
This is why I think community has never been more important. None of us want to feel adrift and alienated and yet modern society seems designed to make us feel that way. We have the rise of zero hour jobs, where people work in a temporary, unscheduled capacity, dipping in and out of employment. How are relationships possible in such an environment? Rather we have an army of people with absolutely no connections to their place of work or the people that they work with and no chance of feeling a part of any work based community.
Government funding for community groups have been slashed and so most communities no longer have facilities where people can meet for friendship and support. Ironically, the areas where community groups are still flourishing are middle class areas where people have the motivation and enthusiasm to set up their own. In most impoverished areas, there are a dearth of facilities, other than job clubs designed to get people back to work, presumably on zero hour contracts. The government after all place worth only on results based, practical initiatives, despite the fact that most of the people’s needs can’t be addressed by producing a token CV.
So what’s my idea of family? I think we can create family ties wherever we go if we are open and responsive to others. I’ve heard some people refer to their ‘twitter family’ and I know there are some for whom the internet is a lifeline. People who, for whatever reason, can’t interact in the outside world and so create their connections on social forums and what’s to say that these relationships aren’t as real or valid as other more conventional ones? In a world that seems to foster feelings of isolation and disenfranchisement rather than community and empowerment, aren’t any kinds of connections between people a good thing?
Most of my friends are atheists and they find it a source of much glee that I have a belief in an afterlife. They often ask me to describe my afterlife theories purely because they know I can’t. I do know, however, what I hope it’s like. I hope it’s a place where we get to be with everybody we’ve ever loved, no matter how fleetingly, as part of a big inclusive family. And if that makes me ridiculously naive and stupid, you know what – I don’t really care.