When Things Come Together

Friday, June 1st, 2012 by Dr Keith J. White

One of the benefits of having students come to Mill Grove is that it can provide opportunities for stillness and reflection that are not otherwise characteristic of daily life. So it was this week that the presence of five students (from Nottingham and Oxford) opened up for me the pondering that gave rise to this article.They had come to stay for 30 hours, and this included one night, and several meals with the extended family.

At breakfast we were joined by someone who had lived at Mill Grove as a little girl in the 1930s. She is now a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother living a bus-ride away, and she always comes to be with us for at least two days a week. Having listened to her describe some memories of the way things were over 80 years ago, we discussed (over cereal and toast) how she felt about her life looking back now. She paused for just a moment and then using her hands simply but to great effect, said “Everything has come together”.

A rare privilege of living at Mill Grove is the way it allows me to hear the reflections and stories of those who were here as children long before I was born. And a priceless aspect of this is the chance it affords to see how things have come together in the lives of many of the children who lived here, years, often decades after they moved on. Apart from being noticed by a few specialist historians I guess most of such experiences go unsaid and unrecorded.

We live at a time when ‘outcomes’ and ‘evidence-based practice’ are fashionable terms, and for those children who come into the ‘care system’ the theory is that what happens in their lives is based on solid foundations made up of a combination of these two ingredients (mixed, like cement, three-to-one, I wonder?). But quite apart from the very questionable assumptions that lead people to think such laudatory aims are possible, there is the matter of the time-frame. When in a child’s life do we consider it appropriate to ‘measure’ (another word that sends shivers down my spine) outcomes, and to assess the evidence amassed from the practice base?

Could I suggest that forty years after the intervention or episode(s) might be a basic and conservative minimum (80 years does sound a bit like a hostage to fortune)? This at least gives a chance for a person to see how things work out in a variety of settings and roles in real life (work, family, friendships, interests and so on), and to recollect the past with a modicum of tranquillity.

Even were this so, I hope and long that a proper modesty and humility might characterise the lessons gained from the whole exercise. As I tried to explain in The Growth of Love, we can see and feel love growing, but why and how it does is ultimately a mystery, and it behoves us not to pretend we can ever know. (While on this point it is worth noting that it also behoves us not to restrict ourselves to ‘measurable objectives’, and progress that is ‘evidenced’ by virtue of having been recorded in some way. This is as spurious as it is ethically dubious.)

After breakfast I spent an hour or so in the part of Mill Grove that is devoted to the nurture, care and education of children with cerebral palsy. We were welcomed in the spacious, light and sun-filled room where the Rose Walton Centre has operated for nearly twenty years. There was one child there, and he was working at walking and climbing, using the Peto method, and the specified equipment. He greeted us warmly and despite the need for much concentration and effort to achieve the tasks he set himself, he seemed to have a permanent smile on his face and was thrilled with our encouragement and applause.

There were two educators with him: one was the leader of the centre, as experienced as she is committed and enthusiastic. The other was a young lady that I want to say something more about now in the context of “things coming together”. It would not be appropriate to tell her story in any identifiable way, and so let me put it like this. She had suffered at the hands of her birth family, the care system and an adoption breakdown before she came to live at Mill Grove. She was upset, insecure and disturbed when she came, completely in line with what could be considered as ‘normal’ in such distressing and chronically oppressive circumstances.

A senior member of the local authority that placed her with our family took the exceptional (and in my experience, unique) step of phoning me to say that he feared for the worst. When I prompted him to share with me what “worst” might look like, he told me that he had genuine worries that she might destroy Mill Grove.

That was nearly twenty years ago, and a lot of water has flowed along the River Roding and into the Thames since then. (The Roding runs less than two hundred yards from Mill Grove.) Now the five students and I watched as Moira (as I shall call her) gave her full attention to little Victor (as I shall call him). She encouraged, supported, and where appropriate guided him, all within the framework laid out by Peto in his philosophy of Conductive Education. She worked easily and confidently with the leader of the Centre.

The time came for the session to end. Victor’s father arrived to collect him, and Moira confirmed how well Victor had done. We bade farewell to father and son and reflected together on what we had witnessed, and what had been achieved. The students had some insightful and challenging questions. It was clear that before Victor had come to the Rose Walton Centre he had been able to do very little for himself. Now he was sitting up, standing up (against a wall) and working at ways of walking and climbing using appropriate physical supports, and with carefully considered movements and coordination of hands and feet.

That was when Moira commented, “He’s a star!” And she went on to say, “I know I shouldn’t have favourites, but he is lovely.”

I sat on a little stool in the corner of the room and it was as if the past twenty years of her life all sped before my eyes. I did not think in terms of outcomes or evidence, but of memories in the context of the breakfast chat: it was movingly obvious to me, that although this was just one moment in time, and one aspect in life, this had warmed my heart. Some very important things had come together for Moira, whatever the challenges of other parts of her life, and whatever the future holds.

I thanked the students for allowing me the space to experience all this, and realised it would not be possible to convey to them the subtle and interwoven threads that had combined to make all this possible. It was in fact the networking of Mill Grove that had provided a holding environment (yes, the centre did hold!) for Moira, not only through childhood, but well into adulthood.

As far as I know, this article will be the only place where anyone will ever read of what I witnessed, and I am certain that I have been unable to convey anything but a fraction of what I am trying to say.

That both events (if that is not too strong a word) happened the very same morning is for me evidence (did I write that?!) of the privilege Ruth and I have, of living in a place and environment when from time to time we know deep down that we have seen love grow. And perhaps one way of describing love growing is to say that things come together.

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