Some things are never going to happen. One such thing is the completion of a whole mealtime without a child in my care spilling their drink. Honestly, it’s impossible. I remember being their age, when the knocking over of my beaker of orange juice was a rare but traumatic event. My parents would leap up from the dining table like scalded cats, trying to stem the flow with napkins, calling out in exasperated voices for someone to bring them a cloth. I would stand there uselessly, whilst they flapped about, waiting to see if their exasperation would develop into anger, or if, like the juice, it would ebb away as quickly as it had appeared. I now understand my parents’ frustration.
Some mealtimes the children don’t even make it out of the starting blocks as the obstacle course of the cafeteria serving area proves too much for them. The juice hits the floor before we’ve even sat down. Other times it’s the placing of the tray on the table that opens the floodgates and the liquid goes flying. Sometimes a mere cup of spilt milk doesn’t quite make the desired statement and so they’ll go the whole hog and spill the entire jug. My heart sinks every time I hear one of the children asking another to pass the milk for their cereal, or worse, observe them leaning precariously over another person in order to reach it for themselves. You know it’s not going to end well. On the odd occasion, I’ll make it through to the end of breakfast or supper with no juice-slicks in sight. Although calm and composed on the outside, inside I’m performing joyful cartwheels. At least, I am until the inevitable happens and someone trips and sends the dregs of their drink flying through the air on their way to the tray clearing point. The worst bit of it all is the way that the culprit will sit and stare blankly at the rapidly spreading patch of orange as if, by sheer force of will, they can stop it running over the table’s edge and dripping down to the bench below. Not for a moment does it cross their mind to do something about it. Oh no, that’s Matron’s job.
It’s got to the stage where I no longer naively hope for a spill-free breakfast. I’ve come to accept the ignominy of my daily trip to the paper towel dispenser as other staff share knowing smiles with me which, whilst expressing their sympathy, don’t quite serve to cover up their relief that they don’t look after the junior boarding house. Little do they know that I’m now running a scoring system: one point for a tray-spill as the damage is contained within the plastic edges of the tray. This increases to three points if the child manages to incorporate a plate-spill as well, thereby ruining their meal. Five points are awarded for an across-table-spill with an extra two points to be gained if it actually flows off the other side. There are ten points for an own-lap-spill and a generous fifteen for a neighbour’s-lap-bull’s-eye. The real Brucie-bonus comes with a whole-jug-spillage as this can often affect several other diners at once. I’m quite tempted to suggest it as an Olympic sport for Rio 2016. I already have the perfect team in mind to lead Britain to medal success.
The realisation is slowly dawning on me that another thing that is never going to happen is perfection. Up until recently, I laboured under the illusion that if I worked hard enough, prayed hard enough, loved hard enough, I could lead my boarding house into a brave new world where bickering ceased, bumped heads were a thing of the past and peace and harmony reigned uninterrupted. In my head, if I was there all the time for the children, nothing could go wrong. This, of course, proved rather tricky as omnipresence was never a strong point of mine. It also proved to be rather destructive as you simply can’t be all things to all people in all places. Attempting to do so doesn’t lead to peace and harmony but exhaustion and guilt. It also prevents the children learning for themselves. In the same way that giving them a sipper cup to prevent spillages - as I am sorely tempted to do on many an occasion – would really only prevent the children from learning how to drink normally, trying to be there to defuse arguments, intercept rogue footballs, and ensure fair play actually serves to impede the children’s ability to live and learn for themselves. Perfection isn’t available in this lifetime, but redemption is and so I’m learning, slowly (as ever!) to live more with a relaxed yet realistic reactive stance than in a perpetual state of neurotic pre-emptive perfectionism.
Brene Brown, a ‘researcher-story teller’, talks about the power of vulnerability. Her research prompted her to change her world-view from ‘Life’s messy, clean it up, organise it and put it into a tupperware box’ to one which accepts and even loves the glorious messiness of life. For me, letting go of my attempts at perfection makes me feel quite vulnerable and, worse, can cause me to fear that I’m leaving the children vulnerable and unprotected too. However, her words on the danger of attempting to perfect children ring challengingly true:
“When you hold those perfect little babies in your hands, our job is not to say, ‘Look at her, she’s perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect, make sure she makes the tennis team by fifth grade and Yale by seventh grade.’ That’s not our job. Our job is to look and say, ‘You know what, you’re imperfect and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.’ Show me a generation of kids raised like that and we’ll end a lot of the problems we see today.”
Last week, I came back into the boarding house after a couple of hours off to find Milly, one of our littlest girls, crawling around on her hands and knees with a large slab of cardboard box strapped to her back which she had fashioned into a tortoise shell. She desperately wanted to paint the cardboard so that it would look like a proper shell. I was reluctant. In my mind’s eye, I could see the whole project getting out of hand. Others would come into the room, see Milly painting and want to get involved. Their artistic vision for the tortoise shell might not match Milly’s and arguments would break out, never mind the increased possibility of spillage which several open pots of poster-paint and a jar of water for brush cleaning would bring about! I couldn’t stop her though and soon the aprons were on, the paints were out and the brushes were being wielded. I held my breath, waiting for trouble to descend. But it didn’t. Each child chose a section of the shell and covered it in their own design. The result was far from perfect, but it was beautiful. Milly was delighted with her amazing technicolour dream-shell and all ended far better than I could ever have imagined…