Sunday, 28 September 2008
Saying au revoir
It's a week since I saw my daughter off to university and I still haven't got used to her absence.
She, of course, is having a lovely time. The first week is full of socialising and she seems to have settled in straight away. But here the house seems a bit empty at times.
These days, children grow up late. My mum started full-time work in a glove factory (five and a half days a week, cutting thumb-pieces) when she was still thirteen. In the 1930s most children left school at the end of the term before their fourteenth birthdays. This began to change with the war, when children were evacuated from the towns and cities. Later, the 1944 Education Act came into force, and 15 became the school leaving age.
My scholarship to boarding school took me away from home at 9 so at 19 I was eager for the freedom of university. I had a grant (my parents paid a little towards it - as much as they could afford) and knew that my fees were paid by the state. I felt independent but of course there were college rules. There were college servants too - an alarming concept but the people who worked as porters, scouts and kitchen staff were comfortingly familiar in many ways. My mother and many of her friends had been cleaners at the local college. In Oxford people doing the same sort of job called me "Miss" which disturbed me.
I had no problem that people served me meals in the college dining hall. I found it very helpful indeed that someone cleaned my room. But when cooks and cleaners called me "Miss", I found it hard to thank them as equals. I was relieved to notice that "Miss" or "Sir" could, on occasion, be said with a sneer. The college servants were not servile. Their thoughts and opinions of us weren't far below their surface deference.
These days students need lifts to university to transport all their luggage. These days most accommodation is self-catering and lists of "items required" include saucepans and crockery. Students are expected to provide duvets as well as sheets - plus books, stationery, computer, clothes - while the boot and shoe collection seems to require a whole suitcase to itself. The car was crammed but somehow my daughter fitted herself into the passenger seat. I stood on the pavement and waved goodbye.
That is, I suppose, what being a parent is all about. Years ago a terrific English teacher called Kathleen Betterton brought a poem by C. Day Lewis into our class. It was called "Walking Away" and, at the time, it wasn't the poem that made an impact on me but Mrs Betterton's feelings for the poem. She talked particularly about the final lines and I realise now that it talked of something she - and all our parents - had experienced. I was too young to get it.
C. Day Lewis wrote the poem about his son Sean's first day at school. It details the child's hesitancy from the point of view of the watching adult and ends with the lines:
"... selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go."