When you came to the end of your time on the volunteer scheme I took part in last summer you could leave a message on the wall for future volunteers to read. A fellow volunteer leaving at the same time as me chose to leave her message in the words of Margery Williams Bianco‘s book The Velveteen Rabbit, a book which I had heard of but never read. She chose this extract:
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse.’It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
A few days after leaving the program, by a complete coincidence, I actually ended up watching the film of this book and then I fully understood these words and why my friend had chosen them. It is a story about a little boy whose mother has died and whose father is distant, as we later discover, so that he cannot be hurt by losing a loved one again. He is sent to his grandmother’s house, a strict woman. He finds his solace in a toy rabbit in the attic, and other old toys all of whom he brings to life in his imagination. Then the boy falls ill, and in the haze of fever is almost lost to the real world, trapped in his imaginary one. His rabbit sacrifices himself for his friend but through this is brought to life; loving has made him real.
At times I’m sure we’ve all experienced loss and heartache, but what I really registered on this trip is how they are inextricably entwined.
The children at the orphanage could make my heart hurt. I know as a teacher you are not allowed favourites, but I challenge you to find a teacher who doesn’t at least secretly have some. Mine were twin girls. They were mischievous, full of sibling rivalry, fairly new to the orphanage and with limited English, making them two of the more challenging inhabitants, but this just made any progress more rewarding. One day I had them both colouring together, without fighting and naming colours in English. Other times we would dance or sing together and they began to use English phrases, pointing and asking ‘Teacher what’s this?’ These moments could make me well up and squeak with excitement all at the same time.
However there were also moments when these girls, feeling confused and dislocated from their former lives, would just grieve. One afternoon one curled up in my lap and cried herself to sleep, another day the other twin was so racked with sobs that her tears had run dry before her grief had. On neither occasion had anything particular happened, they just needed comfort, closeness. I’ve never seen a child in such pain.
My love for these children, both the twins and others at the orphanage, has taught me so much. I could have kept my distance, sealed up my feelings, but then I wouldn’t have learnt as much and I certainly wouldn’t have got through to the children.
Now I know, like the rabbit, that love is what makes us real. When it hurts, you know it was worth it.
Here was my parting message:
– Emily Hill