Both of our daughters have had to pretend, for school, to be evacuees from the London Blitz. The older one attended primary school on a London estate that was built along the river where a number of Victorian terraced houses had been bombed and adjacent ones torn down to build a vast housing estate. For homework, she had to pack a bag and dress in the clothes she would wear were she to be evacuated. The younger daughter had wanted to do it, too, and so they had packed together.
Which toy or keepsake would you bring? What does it feel like to wear your warmest coat and your best dress over an extra layer of clothing? That is a strange exercise to go through with your own child. What was it like for the older daughter’s classmates from Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq, and for their mothers, to role play leaving home again?
In America, studying World War II in the 5th grade, the younger daughter’s time had come. They were asked to dress as London school children. She wore her sister’s blue gingham summer dress. They were not sure what would happen that day. It involved walking, uncertainty and, at some point in the morning, the children would meet whoever it was who would be looking after them for the duration of the war. She had to write down what she would pack and interview members of the family about what they would take. Here, the exercise was more theoretical. But, I reminded her, we had lived in neighborhoods that had been bombed and been in tube stations where people took shelter.
When it came time for our family to actually evacuate, after the tornadoes, I didn’t take any of the things I had told her I would take in a war evacuation. We knew we were coming back. It was a dry and sunny day as we drove out. The neighbor kids were out playing. There was no danger, unless you started thinking about running out of gas, or having a crash at one of our highway intersections turned four-way stops, or if civil unrest broke out, in which case I would have wished I’d had Cousin Elliott’s knife.
How would our children fare today were we to take them to the bus station and tie a tag to their North Face fleeces with some relevant information and send them off to be cared for by random people selected by our local government? Their idea of disaster mostly comes from dystopic novels. The younger daughter’s survival skills consist of a trip to Costco.
They do not seem to crave independence. It is almost unthinkable to imagine them setting off for some other city to meet with charity or resentment, nurturing or exploitation of their labor. We have created their dependency by equipping them with tracking devices and ensuring that their days are parsed into units of supervision.
We recently watched Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series, which follows a group of children from age 7 into their adulthood to see what aspects of character and personality are somewhat determined by 7 and which factors play a decisive role, education and class in particular. Begun in 1964, the parents are invisible and the children are shown skipping through the Yorkshire Dales and hurdling fences in the East End. I had seen a few episodes of the series over time, but watching it all in one go, from 7 to 49 (56 is out, but we haven’t see it yet), and with the girls, was fascinating in a number of ways.
I saw “28 Up” in Seattle in 1986. I had turned down an internship in Boston that I probably should have taken and instead headed west with some friends to spend the summer living in collegiate squalor with access to the amenities of adult households. The man who would six moths later enter my life and is now my husband was on a similarly uncareerist roadtrip across the US with a friend. They were due to arrive in Seattle and crash in our strange little studio apartment in the U. District, but the Buick, the same car that I would travel in the following summer to Alabama, broke down in San Francisco and they made the decision to drive the car back to Chicago as quickly as possible, stopping only to refill the cracked air conditioning tank and switch drivers.
We would have seen “35 Up” together in NYC, newly married. By “42 Up” we were living in London and our first child was born. We may have seen it, but I don’t think we did. We missed “49 Up.” We were still in London, with two children. At “56 Up” we are living in Alabama.
The series starts off in black and white. The children are seven. The East End children and school playground scenes remind me of the older daughter’s school. Then the subjects are about their age, then older, then older than us. To watch these lives evolve is interesting for all of us; for the girls it is their first experience of seeing someone grow up. It makes them think about all the surprises life holds and all the ways that things might happen or might not work out and that bad fortune can lead to good or the two can go hand-in-hand. Or that you or Michael Apted might view a life differently than the person whose life it is. When one of the East End girls says her son might leave school, Apted asks if she is worried he will end up like her. She counters why would that worry her?
What is the measure of a successful life? Last year, the obituary of an ordinary woman, Shelagh Gordon, went viral. If you missed it, click the link. It’s a beautiful story and tribute. The idea of life’s arc, of thinking of yourself in the midst of a narrative that has clear foreshortening in childhood as well as unexpected plot twists, was revelatory even if we cannot guess at what, ultimately, it will tell us.
The poignancy of the evacuation homework was to imagine your small child setting off into the world on their own, but in some sense they have been out there all along. We pack their bags and hope for the best.
Photos at school by The Older Daughter, 2009.