Sunday, 20 April 2014

A Week of Goodbyes‏

Goodbye No. 8

I'm so relieved the goodbyes are over.


For the last 5 years, I've worked as an Early Years Library Outreach Worker, delivering story and song times to children under 5 in children's centres across the London Borough of Enfield on behalf of the library service. On the 5th of April 2014, the team of 5 people that I was a part of was reduced to a team of 1 person. 

The government says this is down to necessary 'austerity measures'; the council call it 'leaner working'; the press call it the impact of 'The Cuts'; activists call it 'the war against the welfare state'; for me it's a job lost. But many of the children just thought it was my birthday.

During my last week of work, I documented the goodbyes in pictures and words. This blog post is formed of selected extracts from those days. The gifts and goodbyes offered up by the children and families I worked with are, I think, startling evidence of how much they valued this important service, and what it was about it that they valued.

For me, this job loss is an opportunity to try and to do some of the things I do outside of children's work as a freelancer. It's not my job I'm mourning; it's the job I'm mourning, and the jobs of so many other people providing our public services.

The Last Week

As I approach the last week, the thing I'm finding the hardest is dealing with other people's sadness: having to navigate so many other people's feelings about me having my job cut when I've already got so many of my own. I feel sad because I'm leaving a job I've loved for the last 5 years. I feel lost, scared of the free-fall that is freelance. I'm also sad for the children and parents losing the service my team and I provided. And on the personal level, I'm saying goodbye to so many people I've worked with, the children I've seen growing up, the colleagues and parents I've come to know.

At every centre, when I tell my groups I'm going, everyone wants to share with me how sad they feel about it. Everyone wants to tell me how much they value what I do, the effect that my team and I have had on them and their children. People tell me how angry it makes them. They ask me what I'm going to do. They have so many suggestions about what I might do. Everyone offers advice and sympathy. Next week I expect they'll also be offering presents and goodbye speeches. 

I'm overwhelmed by all the love and the sadness. I'm overwhelmed by the scatter-gun advice. I'm overwhelmed by the powerlessness of all concerned. I know it's all meant well. I mostly manage to take it in good grace and save my tears for the walk home. 

The worst thing is that when the kids are sad, their eyes are so big, their hearts so exposed. The worst thing is imagining the ones who look forward to seeing me every week arriving at the centre to find I'm not there. Too young to understand why; so young that in the future they probably won't remember I was ever there at all. Young enough to feel the loss but too young to remember the joy we had when they look back.

Goodbye No. 1

These pictures are the emotional punches from this morning's sessions. 

This proves they paid attention to my jelly preferences during recent 'Jelly on a Plate' miming!

There was also a box of chocolates and one group of parents and carers gave me £70 in Amazon vouchers. I was not expecting such kindness and I felt very awkward accepting it.

Goodbye No. 2

I've just said goodbye to a group of children with severe special needs that I've been working with for 5 years.

Goodbye No. 3

The send-off at the third centre was very different to the other two, which reflects (in my view) some of the social issues surrounding that particular centre. The staff presented me with this present. "We would have wrapped it and we were going to make cards, but we had Ofsted this week and we haven't had a chance." 

The parents there are understandably more focused on scouring the job notices put up on the walls and taking down the details of the next food bank than they are the disappearance of the middle class white boy that sings songs with their kids. Many of them didn't know I was leaving, but they still wished me well, and at the end of my session they all lined up to take pictures of me with their children.

Goodbye No. 4

A nursery group (which includes a child called Hope) and a community group (where I first met Hope as a baby). The nursery children were chanting my name as I entered the room. That group have always treated me like a rock star. Dzifa was so sad that she insisted on hugging me mid-'Wind the Bobbin Up'. It's quite hard to play a ukulele, comfort a child and stop yourself from bursting into tears, but I just about managed it. At the end they collectively mobbed me for hugs as they normally do. Hope ran to the door and tried to stop me leaving. Her smiling face was the last thing I saw of the nursery room. The nursery teacher told me how angry she was at the government for cutting a valuable service. "The children love you. So many of them will never sit still and listen, but for you they do. Even the ones with special needs." 

Then, with tears behind my eyes, I left for my session with the community group, which again was full of beautiful and heartbreaking sweetness. The deputy head dropped by to thank me and pass on her frustration. I thanked her for taking time out to do so. "You're part of the furniture here... In a good way!" she said. I know what she means and yet it surprises me how valued a person who drops by one morning a week can become. Who would have thought I would become a familiar and safe thing in the lives of so many children? Certainly not me. But I was. For a short time.

Goodbye No. 5

I missed yesterday's session at this children's centre due to a train-line power failure, so I was glad to be going back today. The management were very nice and gave me £25 worth of iTunes vouchers and a card full of sincerity. The group I used to do there on Wednesdays was a childminder's group until, in mid-February, like most of the childminder's services in children's centres across the borough, it was closed down and replaced by a community group who I delivered story-times to for a few short weeks. Of all the groups to fail to say goodbye to that was probably the best as I'd known them for the shortest time. 

The session I've just said goodbye to was run for children and families currently in temporary accommodation. The service that runs it offers these children the opportunity to play with toys they don't have, connecting their families up with other services and helping them to parent and live in a culture that often sees them through a nasty tabloid lens. It helps them through tough times. It also allows a community to grow, creating friendships and support networks across a diverse group of people. The mums there are warm and tough. They are making the best out of hard times. I provided a song-time at the end. Have done for years. I've seen that community and its children grow and change. I've watched the team supporting them, winning their trust, being super-inspiring, kind people. 

That service has also been decimated by this round of cuts. Now, out of a full roster of sessions, they only have the funding to run one a week, and that's currently only sustainable for less than a year. They're seeking out new funding options, and they're canny and committed so perhaps they'll find some. If they don't, it will cease to be entirely. It will no longer be providing these things for people in temporary accommodation. Families who have no homes will be missing this essential lifeline. Future communities will not grow. The reduction of this service and its possible demise is so much sadder than the loss of mine. 

At the end of today's song-time, I was presented with gifts. The group of 50 or so parents had clubbed together and bought me a box of biscuits in a red bus tin (a reference to my most popular song request), a mug with a D on it, and £30 worth of M&S vouchers. I was humbled and guilty as I received these and a big card full of carefully crafted messages written out by people who generally do not speak or write English. (One of the things they get in the session is help filling in all the barriers disguised as forms that they're expected to complete.) 

Gifts sincerely given are not things you should refuse. And so this middle class man with a relatively stable existence accepted these moving expressions of appreciation from a group of poor people with unstable lives. 

As I was about to begin 'The Goodbye Song', one of the mums said, "Let us not sing goodbye. We don't want you to go. We hope you come back. No goodbye today."

But I sang goodbye anyway because I won't be coming back.

Goodbye No. 6

The nature of life means there was always going to be at least one session where the majority of the regular parents and children just happened to not be in, and that was the case for my community group at this centre. So the sadness there was about who I couldn't say goodbye to rather than the goodbyes to the kids in the room, many of whom were new. 

Luckily, last week I said goodbye to Maya and her mum. I've known Maya since she was 2 months old. She's now coming up for 4 and is one of the most delightful children I've met. Her mum does an amazing job of bringing her up, and also does great (upaid) work supporting the other parents at the group (not that she'd see what she does as work). This centre is another one in a deprived area with lots of complicated issues affecting the people who attend the sessions. The staff and parents like Mia's mum do an important and tough job with little thanks and increasingly dwindling resources.

The craft activity that the Stay and Play worker ran today was making goodbye cards. More children's drawings to add to the pile. I could put on an exhibition with the amount I've been given. From the staff, I got booze and chocolates. I got a bottle of wine this morning too. It's felt a little counter-intuitive walking around the schools and the church where today's centres are based carrying hootch. 

Then I did my sessions with the daycare groups (0-2's and 3-5's). I've seen those children grow up. Some of them I knew as babies, and helped contribute to their first experiences of stories, songs and socialising with their peers. 
All the younger nursery children kept saying, "See you next week." They couldn't get their heads round it. 

When I arrived in the 3-5's room with my bags of presents, this was how it went:

"Are you going to read us that bright coloured book?"

"Um... No. That's not a book it's a card."

"What's in the shiny bag?"

"It's a present."

"David, it's my birthday on Saturday!"

"That's nice. Well, you know what, it's not even my birthday but everywhere I go this week people keep giving me presents. I don't know why."

"That's because it's your last day at nursery, David!"

"I guess it is."

"Tyrell gave me a spaceman when it was his last day at nursery. He was a good friend."

Well, I didn't give them any spacemen but I did sometimes read stories about them. And imaginary spacemen are more reliable than plastic ones. You can't lose them or break them and they can fly anywhere you like.

I was presented with a box of Milk Tray by Jesse, who I first met when he was attending the community group. When he started, he had behavioural issues, and I've seen him grow from a disruptive and aggressive presence to a calm, thoughtful and warm one in the time I've known him. That's got a hell of a lot to do with the staff of the children's centre and the nursery, and the work they've done with him and his family. 

I told Jesse that I'd known him as a baby and that now he was big. He grinned all the way across his face and stood up to show me that he's now by far the tallest in his class. The amount of change a human body goes through in the early years is so extreme. It always shocks and awes me when I pay attention to it.

As I left the room, he called out, "Have a lovely day, David."

Goodbye No. 7

My last visit to the first children's centre I did a story-time in back in 2008. One of the mums made me a cake. 

From Tolga and his family, Turkish Delight and a Turkish coffee making set with carefully written instructions on how to use it and good luck charms attached to the bag. 

Heartbreakingly, one family gave me a card with a photo of their two boys on the front holding up a sign saying 'thank you'. Inside their mum put her email in case I need testimonials from parents in the future. 

From the centre, more booze and another giant, brightly coloured card full of messages and hand prints. 

In the middle of the song-time, the parents stopped me singing so that their children could take turns singing their songs to me: Turkish, Polish and French songs sung by tiny people with shaking voices. Then afterwards, more photos, all the staff and mums hugging me tightly. "We will remember you, David." 

Just one more punch in the heart left to go.

Goodbye No. 8

And this is where we started. Two weeks later, and I'm still relieved the goodbyes are over. I still feel overwhelmed and honoured and guilty to have received so many tokens of love. But those tokens are not really for me. They aren't really even about me. I'm not the story. The communities are. It's those communities that have lost out. I don't want  to have my old job back, but I want that job and jobs like it to exist again. The communities I served were diverse and varied; they have different issues and different circumstances, and they all valued the service my team provided. We weren't cut because we were failing to hit our targets. We weren't cut because our service didn't work and wasn't valued. We were cut because working, functional important services are being cut across the country.

Some people see these cuts as unfortunate but inevitable. Others see them as avoidable and objectionable. However you see it, I hope that this record will show that the services we're losing were valuable.