I have seen and heard some alarming and quite disturbing comments from childcare providers, and parents, over the years. To some, their thoughts and ideas, prejudices and preconceptions are so ingrained that they genuinely do not seem to know when they have said something really quite outrageous. [I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here – nobody can be that stupid can they?]
I consider myself very lucky to have come across people of many faiths throughout my childhood which is remarkable considering I wasn’t raised in a particularly multi-cultural community at all. Very white British working class in fact. In particular, I knew just one black kid (my cousin) who I recall spending practically every day of my life with. He was the loveliest, happiest, funniest person you could ever meet. He had the loveliest laugh, the loveliest face and the loveliest smile. Beautiful inside and out. I also knew a pretty, delicate, softly spoken little Chinese girl – Tin Tin Yong Ye Ting – who told us we could just call her Jenny. I’ve no idea what school she went to, she never went to any of mine. Her family owned, and lived above, the local Chinese takeaway. But I loved her exotic sounding name so there was no way I was calling her Jenny. Besides, I had a baby sister called Jenny and one little Jenny was quite enough thank you very much. I loved their flat. It was beautifully decorated and had this lovely little area for meditation. We ate together sometimes – not the stuff they made for their customers – nothing at all like it in fact because they were Buddhists and so they were vegetarians. From that first family meal with them, I decided to be vegetarian too. Not because of the harm done to animals or any moralistic overtures – I wouldn’t understand all of that until much later. Amazing how even the simplest of experiences can impact so magnificently on you isn’t it?
And then I knew the Chatterjees. My Mam worked for them in the shop just a few doors down from our house. They too lived in the flat above their shop. My how I loved sitting on their back step, wet and slimy concrete, listening to their music and smelling what was cooking. They had a beautiful teenage daughter called Mala and I. loved. her. I loved the whole family in fact. (She had an older and a younger brother). Dad was just like the Dad from East is East only not Muslim. He was a Brahmin and the gentlest, kindest man you could ever meet. Trying his level best to raise his kids as good Hindus, to eat the traditional home-cooked food lovingly slaved over all day by Mrs Chatterjee when all they wanted for tea was fish fingers and chips. I couldn’t believe they’d rather eat boring English food when I’d have killed to have eaten whatever was making those gorgeous smells coming from their kitchen window.
One day, Mam came home from work with a curried egg. Now, I hate eggs. No matter how they are cooked, I hate them. It’s not just the taste, it’s the texture, the smell, the fact that it should have been given the chance to have hatched (I did know there should have been a chick in there), everything. But this one was curried and it smelled just like Mrs Chatterjee’s kitchen. Of course I had to have a bite and from that day on I was hooked on curry. Not eggs. I still hate eggs. But I do love any hot, spicy food from anywhere in the world. Everything just goes down so much better when it’s spicy isn’t it? [Funny, my son’s the same too].
Well anyway, after that my Mam told Mrs Chatterjee that I loved her food and I was invited to tea all the time. I think she just loved having somebody to cook for beside her husband, who probably would have preferred fish fingers and chips too like the kids but just wasn’t brave enough to say. Somebody who’d enjoy the meals her Mam had cooked for her when she was a child growing up in the Punjab. I guess it was her biggest connection with home. Poor Mrs Chatterjee. Oh it was fabulous sitting at their kitchen table with them. The colours. The smells. Their ornaments and pictures. Their clothes. The way they talked. I was in heaven. And that was where I watched my very first Bollywood movie. And even though it was in black and white it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen and heard. I remember a beautiful leading lady and a very handsome leading man and they were under a tree singing what must have been a very moving love song because Mrs Chatterjee was crying. Then the dancing started and Mala did her moves in the most beautiful green sari with a gold trim that looked like little coins. I was totally mesmerised. I recall it was a special holiday for the Chatterjees because the kids were all in their best clothes and there were fairy lights hanging all over the place. It looked gorgeous and I’d never seen fairy lights at any other time than at Christmas. My love of Bollywood and Bhangra started right then and there and it still endures to this day [picturing my husband rolling his eyes as I write]. Strangely, I don’t know which school any of the Chatterjee kids went to either.
Now, I was a good kid. I really was. My sisters and I all went to church on Sundays, stayed on for Sunday school and even the confirmation classes. I didn’t go because it was a family tradition or anything because it wasn’t – I just didn’t know any better. I’d never seen a mosque, or a synagogue, or a gurdwara, or a temple – there just wasn’t the need for them in my little corner of the world – or so I thought. Much later in my life I found out that my maternal grandmother was Jewish, which makes me Jewish because the faith is passed down through the Mother (sadly, I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing anything related to Judaism although apparently there was a Menorah hidden somewhere) and my paternal grandmother was a Romany gypsy who was raised in a traditional caravan. You can’t begin to imagine how thrilled I was when I learned that I too was really quite exotic. It explained a lot about myself too but anyway I only went to church because my junior school was just around the corner and we walked by St Hilda’s church every week to go to the local library. Our school also celebrated Easter and Christmas there and it wasn’t even a beautiful church like you see in quaint country villages – it was quite modern and ugly looking in fact from outside and really quite plain inside too, unlike the nearby Catholic church I’d been in. Yes, I’d been in one of those once because one of my aunties had had the gall to marry a Catholic and so all of her children were christened there. I don’t think those events were very well attended by our family. Anyway, it didn’t all turn out well as it happened, as Grandad predicted. And I never understood what all the anti-Catholic sentiment going on around me was all about. I remember telling my Grandad I had a boyfriend once. He asked the obvious questions: What does his Dad do? Where does he live? And then the crunch question: What school does he go to? And that was that. I was never allowed to see him again. Any school with ‘Saint’ in front of it was a no-no. I was told I could bring home anyone, anyone – of any colour, creed or nationality – but not a Catholic. Never. But that never stopped me from keeping my own mind and heart open.
When I started secondary school my whole world opened up. For one thing, I met my first Sikh and Muslim and secondly, we had RE lessons. I must be the only person ever (at least I’m the only one I know) who loved RE and the only person I know who – if there had been the chance to do an ‘O’ level in RE – would have done it in a heartbeat. I love, love, loved it. And my RE Teacher knew it too because I was the only pupil who was still awake at the end of a double lesson. What a dream, a double lesson in RE. But no, RE was just a bit of a filler. Like ‘A’ level General Studies that we were all forced to take back in the 1980s. Remember that? The most pointless qualification I’ve ever got. (Once bitten, twice shy. That’s why I’ve never done the EYT degree – I won’t be tricked again). Our RE lessons stopped the year we chose our GCE options but it didn’t stop me from continuing to read anything and everything I could about all faiths. And I mean all faiths, including the less savoury ones. Yes, the Librarian did look at me that way over the top of her glasses when she saw my choice of reading material and did even get in touch with my Mam once she was so worried. I didn’t find this out until very recently mind but fancy being worried about a child actually reading as much as I was. I’m still a very avid reader and researcher. Bet that Librarian would be shocked to learn that Satanism is actually a recognised religion now in the armed forces. Which brings me to my main point.
If we are to truly be seen to be accepting, respecting and tolerating (hate that word) people of all faiths, races and cultures then where do we draw the line? Is there a line? Should there be a line? There are aspects of organised religions I have grave reservations with and serious concerns about, and I’m not talking about Satanism and Voodooism here – they’re far too obvious. I once had a parent who refused to let her son, Bertie McSquirty, even hear about – never mind observe or celebrate – any other religion than Catholicism. Nevertheless, when my little charges and I honoured one occasion that had a lot of significance to her little boy and his family but one that I had no real personal connection with (despite my initiation to full Christian discipleship back in 1980) – through making lovely little Christingles – his Mother said it was an abhorrence and I had no right. She actually hit his little Christingle out of his hand so that it shot across my hall. And although I was initially shocked [and quite hurt if I’m honest because I thought I was being an inclusive practitioner, non-judgmental, respectful, impartial] I did appreciate her point. Not then and there but many years later. As a non-Christian, this ‘observing’ of a significant religious event was nothing more to me than a sensory learning activity with its representations of the world, the tastes and smells and origins of the fruits of the Earth and the four seasons. Heck, the activity ticked almost all of the EYFS (2008) boxes. Celebrating Advent like that was just about as disingenuous as it can get. (Just like putting up posters of different ethnic backgrounds for the sake of ticking the diversity box). The same way that making lanterns every Chinese New Year is. The same way that making diva lamps every Diwali is. The same way that making mkeke mats every Kwanzaa is. I’d like to say we could possibly all be making grucifix necklaces from hama beads next All Hallow’s Eve instead of carving pumpkins and trick or treating but then where’s the money in that?
So how do we observe Halloween here at Andrea Turner’s Childcare then?
Well, in precisely the way those who know us well have come to expect we would – we go easy on the religious stuff and go all out cultura Mexicana of course. Make and eat our own chilli, guacamole and salsa. Punch holes into tin cans (you know how I love upcycling) with hammers and nails. Learn a bit of Español. Smash up that piñata that we’ve been making for the last fortnight. The one that looks nothing at all like a donkey and isn’t even filled with sweets because Juicy Lucy’s just had 8 baby teeth taken out and Mam won’t let her have sweets any more; Manky Franky’s Mam’s too scared of him choking on anything smaller than his fist and Broody Trudy’s wearing age 8 clothes at 4 years old so she’s on a weight loss programme carefully monitored by Kurbo. (Did I manage to get all the latest childhood health scares in there? Rotten teeth – check. Choking on grapes and jelly cubes – check. Childhood obesity – check. Yep, they’re all in there. Wondering how I dare even be a Childminder at all…) Non-edible party favours it is then. Funny though how parents buy their kids fancy dress costumes of ghosts, skeletons and zombies but totally freak when they find out their kids have been learning about Dia de los Muertos. I’m not even sure Bertie McSquirty’s Mother would have approved even though we really do (honestly) completely and genuinely get into the spirit of things (see what I did there – spirit? yeah? nah? ah well).
So there’s our dilemma. What’s a humble Childminder to do to really and truly, but most of all genuinely promote our Fundamental British Values – of showing respect to others – without actually, and wholly unintentionally, causing disrespect?
*the names of the childminding children have been changed just in case you were wondering whether some parents really would be so cruel as to actually name their children Bertie McSquirty, Juicy Lucy, Manky Franky or Moody Trudy.