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Anon [Craig Fees]

"a pause in the day's occupation"

Joint Newsletter 7, March 2003, p. 54

 

 

a pause in the day’s occupation

 

Dear Ned,

 

I’m a parent. I spend half my life in therapeutic community, and the other half dandling the children on my knee, ceaselessly trying to find books which they’ll enjoy, but which also carry a therapeutic community message. I can just about wrestle Harry Potter into shape, but after that I falter. What can I do?

 

Dear Falter (as in, the wish is falter to the deed):

 

Try “The Naughtiest Girl in the School”, by Enid Blyton. Enid Blyton? And then “The Naughtiest Girl Again”, and “The Naughtiest Girl’s A Monitor” and “Here’s the Naughtiest Girl.” Surprising as it may seem, the creator of the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, the Faraway Tree and about a million other books and stories for children also wrote a series set in what A.S. Neill’s editor, Albert Lamb, has referred to as ‘therapeutic communities for normal children’.

 

Not that Elizabeth Allen is all that normal. She is spoiled rotten, and makes life hell for a string of governesses. Indeed, “Six governesses had come and gone, but not one of them had been able to make Elizabeth obedient or good-mannered!” As the first book opens we learn that her parents are going away for a year, and had intended to leave her in the care of the latest governess, Miss Scott; but earwigs in the latter’s bed (“Elizabeth giggled. ‘Yes, she said. ‘Miss Scott is so frightened of them! It’s silly to be frightened of earwigs, isn’t it?’”) put final pay to that, and Elizabeth is told she is to go to school. She is admirably ruthless in her attempts to turn the decision around, first vowing to be so naughty and stupid that the school would send her home, and then “to the surprise of everyone” becoming “thoughtful, sweet-tongued, good-mannered, and most obedient”. When that backfires she behaves atrociously again, albeit with commendable creativity – “She emptied the ink-bottle over the cushions in the drawing-room. She tore a hole in one of the nicest curtains. She put three black beetles into poor Miss Scott’s toothbrush mug, and she squeezed glue into the ends of both Miss Scotts’ brown shoes, so that her toes would stick there!” Determined to be the worst child ever to go to Whyteleafe School and therefore be thrown out, by the end of the first book she has thoroughly changed. “Could this really be Elizabeth” her mother asks herself, “- this good-mannered, polite, happy child? Everyone seemed to like her. She had lots of friends…” and Elizabeth herself is found saying “I love Whyteleafe, and I won’t leave it for years and years and years!”

 

The change in Elizabeth, and in a variety of other difficult or desperately unhappy children throughout the series, is a consequence of the school community. It is run, for the most part, by the children themselves; they make the rules, and therefore, as is said throughout the books, it would be silly to break them, or to disobey the monitors whom they themselves elect each month. The focus of the community is the weekly (or more often, if necessary) Meeting, during which any money the children may have is put into the common Meeting fund, from which each then draws two pounds pocket money. If a child feels they have a good reason to ask for more – they may have broken a window, for example, and need to replace it; or wish to buy a game, gramophone record or gardening tools for the community; or they may need extra stamps because a family crisis means they are suddenly writing more letters to home – they can bring this up at the Meeting, where it will be discussed and either agreed or some alternative found: if you lost that ball in a fit of willful anger, for example, you may very well be expected to replace it out of your own pocket money! It is also the Meeting to which any complaint – any “bullying, unkindness, untruthfulness or disobedience” - may be brought, “so that everyone may hear it, and decide what is to be done with it.” Adults attend and can take an interest, but the Meetings are run by the children, and any decisions are taken entirely by them. Woe betide the child who innocently or cleverly tries to use the Meeting for their own selfish or dishonest ends!

 

But the main work goes on in the events and relationships of the day-to-day life of the school, and here everyone is involved, from the music teacher who regrets the loss of a potential talent when Elizabeth insists she is only at the school until she can get herself thrown out; to the two headmistresses who “threw back their heads and laughed and laughed!” when Elizabeth told them what they could do with their school; to the other children, new and established, who engage and batter and attract Elizabeth (and in this and other stories, other children) into discovering herself as a person who exists in relation to others. It is well told, as one would expect in an Enid Blyton story, and the transformations make sense; you can see that this must be the way it really happens. And, best of all, no one is turned into a goody-goody; the children remain complex, though not artificially so; and Elizabeth’s spark throws up many opportunities for learning.

 

Some of us having read them, our family recently listened together to the tapes of the Naughtiest Girl series one after the other, engrossed and laughing together. We think Enid Blyton loved Whyteleafe School; we think a therapeutic community ought to be named after her.

 

The Naughtiest Girl in the School” was one of Enid Blyton’s earliest real-life adventure books. It was first published in 1940 – somewhere between the opening of Hawkspur and the start of Northfield – and though not one of those Enid Blyton books everyone seems to have read, whether they admit it or not, appears to have been in print more or less ever since. The edition we have, which tries to bring things like money into the decimal and post-pound note era, was published by Hodder’s Childrens Books (London) in 1999. Here’s an Internet fact: Did you know that Enid Blyton started her career as a Froebel-trained teacher?