Very often boys and girls have a lot more common sense than many adults who have been warped as they grew up. We do not only need to look after our children and guarantee their rights, but we must listen to them and allow them to speak. – Ada Colau
Before bedtime last night my son asked if we could go to school a bit earlier the following morning. Why, I asked. He lifted his shirt to show an eye-wateringly rough gash on his side. Resisting the urge to faint, I asked him why this meant he wanted to go to school early. “To show everyone.” He had fallen outside on the tarmac while playing football.
Half an hour later, after the application of antiseptic and gauze, he was in bed, now howling and wincing from the sting. I went downstairs to sort a couple of things out. When I came back up, maybe five minutes later, his sister, who is four, was in the room. The light was off and it was dark. She doesn’t like the dark. She had taken a chair from her own room and placed it at his bedside and was sat up, in the dark, watching over him. Don’t worry, I’m looking after him, she said.
When our children get upset by something late in the day, they can’t settle and become hyper. She had been drifting off to sleep before her brother’s pained howls, and now she was looking for stories. She picked out Zog, by Julia Donaldson. Zog is the story of a dragon going through school, learning each year to do one of the things dragons need to be taught, in order to become a dragon – to fly, to roar, to breathe fire, to capture princesses, and to fight.
Zog is the most enthusiastic dragon in his class, but at each year of his schooling he seems unsuited to the tasks set to him. He falls and hurts himself when he tries to fly. He goes hoarse when he tries to roar. He singes himself when he tries to breathe fire (apparently dragons can also breathe ice, but they are told by the teacher that they should not). He is beaten away with ease when he besieges a castle to capture a princess.
At each pitfall, he has a chance encounter with Pearl, who tends to his afflictions with plasters and peppermints. When he fails to capture a princess, she says, perhaps you’d like to capture me? Pearl, it turns out, is also a princess. He brings her back to the other dragons, whom she looks after when they are sick and injured. But after a year, a knight in armour comes to rescue her. Zog, who is now learning to fight, rears up to fight the knight, roaring that Pearl is his. Then Pearl places herself between the knight and the dragon, saying she does not want to be a princess, and she does not want fighting. She wants to be a doctor. And so, it turns out, does the knight. So Pearl, the knight and Zog decide to become a flying doctor team, and Madame Dragon, Zog’s teacher, agrees it is a good idea.
In the end, Zog leaves behind all the things he is being trained to do at school that are supposed to make you a dragon- fighting, roaring, taking hostage, breathing fire- except fly. Pearl refuses to be a damsel in distress, rejects her position of privilege and wealth, and hangs out with the mortal enemies of her family. The warrior knight decides he would be better off healing rather than injuring. As a children’s story, Zog stands radically opposed to the standard feudal fairytale, whether in traditional or Disney form.
Zog suggests there is no good reason for things to be the way they are. It suggests we would all be much better off if we reached beyond the narrow role we are assigned by school, by family, by gender norms, or by nationality and notions of military valour, and thought instead about how we can help each other. It suggests that the expectations we are taught to have for ourselves can turn us into something we were never meant to be.
Of course, it is a story for children. In the adult world, the idea that you should care for someone who doesn’t look like you, or for someone who comes from the dangerous part of town, so often gets dismissed as unrealistic and immature fantasy. The idea that schools leave a repressive imprint on people is just so much childish babble. The idea we could live in a world without war, without contending forces of annihilation, is the sort of thing a five-year-old would come out with. Why ask children’s opinions on anything? Sure what do they know?
My daughter is growing up in a country where people in power pretend to care about children. “Cherishing all the children equally”, and the rest. But the same people are the ones who insist on maturity. Maturity means accepting the way of the world, and it just so happens that this way benefits them more than it does most people. As Fintan O’Toole wrote the other day, 6.8% of children in Ireland lived in consistent poverty in 2008. By 2013 it was 11.7 per cent, in his words, ‘an entire Galway city plus an entire Limerick city of poor kids‘. This is what having the maturity to accept the way of the world does to a country.
Last night, my daughter braved her fear of the dark to sit beside her brother for a bit because he was in pain. In Zog, Pearl is not in the slightest afraid of the dragons, nor they of her. Why would you be afraid of someone who says they will look after you? It turns out, however, that there are lots of people who are afraid of the people that are supposed to look after them.
A report on an ombudsman investigation in yesterday’s Irish Times, by its Health Correspondent Paul Cullen, begins: ‘patients are afraid to complain about the care they receive in hospitals because of concerns over possible repercussions for themselves or their loved ones’, and concludes ‘the investigation discovered many users of hospital services were afraid of repercussions, did not believe anything would change as a result of complaining and found it difficult to discover how to complain.’
Why are people afraid of the people who are there to care for them? If you are a child reading a story like Zog, you probably think hospitals are full of good people who make you better (and they mostly are, to be fair), so why would you be afraid of them? You will probably be perplexed about the idea you can have a hospital that doesn’t let some people in because they haven’t got enough money, because you don’t even know what money is yet. But somewhere along the line, you learn, as many people do, to grow up and accept reality.
Who taught us to be so afraid? Who taught us that it was OK for people to make a profit out of the pain and vulnerability of others? Who taught us it was OK to say nothing about any of this, to accept it, and to be “mature” about it? Recently deceased writer Eduardo Galeano once paid tribute to the dead Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, saying he was “a man who never betrayed the child he once had been.” I doubt there’s anyone who feels they could say the same thing about themselves. But perhaps we could start overcoming our fears, dare to believe that there are many others who feel the same as us, and confront the voices that never stop urging a betrayal.