Thursday, 3 November 2016

Remembrance Day, Refugees and Other Awkward Subjects

Girl Child bought a poppy at school yesterday.

She'd been told on Monday that Year 6 children would be coming round that week selling poppies and was desperate to buy one, and crestfallen when her class missed out on Tuesday. So yesterday she was pleased as punch to be wearing one when I picked her up.

I don't really know how much she understands, or how much her desire for a poppy was driven by that understanding rather than just wanting to have a Thing. But it's a subject that has cropped up a lot recently.

Our route to school takes us past a big stone cross, which up until a couple of weeks ago still had poppy wreaths laid on it from the Somme centenary. So that introduced the subject of why we use poppies as a symbol of remembrance, and what it is we're remembering.

We also walk past the Anglican church, and sometimes cut through the churchyard to avoid the noise of the rush hour traffic. There is a stone porch at the entrance to the churchyard, with the names of local fallen soldiers engraved inside. As Girl Child is a compulsive reader she started reading the names and asked who they were. This was a bit harder than abstract talk about poppies in battlefields - now it wasn't just 'lots of people' who died, those people had names.

I cannot begin to fathom how to explain to my daughter why, for centuries, leaders have thought the best way to solve differences is with killing. How do you tell your 4 year old, who you tell again and again to be kind and gentle, who you tell that hurting others is bad even if it's an accident, that this is how the world works?

It was hard enough talking about wars that happened a long time ago, But she has long been aware of the refugee crisis. She's heard talk of it, and last weekend our church collected items to send to the local refugee centre. She knows that these are people who have had to leave their country because there is a war. I wonder whether she has joined the dots yet between the names of the dead engraved on a wall and the fact that war is still happening.

Because I so desperately want to tell her that this proliferation of poppies is not in vain. That we remember so we learn the lesson, that war is bad, that killing is not the best way to solve problems. But it hasn't worked. There are still wars happening. Not only that, but our country has just decided that cooperation with our neighbours is not what we want, and we are cutting ourselves adrift from a Union that has maintained peace for decades.

She's at school right now, her poppy on her tie, learning to get along with her classmates, to show kindness, to work together. And yet all around us is fighting and intolerance and hard-heartedness. What changes in us as we grow?

When I first told her about all the people without homes because they've had to run away from war, she said they could all come and live with us. When do we lose that sense of compassion and hospitality? Why are there still children (and yes, they are children, no matter how old they look) stuck in Calais with nowhere to go?

And if I don't understand the answers to all these questions, how on earth do I explain them to a 4 year old?


  1. So true, how do we manage to say both 'hitting is wrong' and 'fight for the things you believe in' ? I read an article recently too, that said we care more about one person than many, proved by your comment on seeing the names, it makes it so much more 'real' doesn't it?

    1. Exactly, the messages we give children are so muddled. And yes, saying 'lots of people died' seems so much easier than 'these specific people died'. I think it's still fairly abstract for her but seeing the names did seem to have an effect on her.