Break-time. The English sip milk through a straw, crunch crisps.
I am the foreign kid, cornered by Miss Blowers, stick the tip
between your teeth. The them there this. The they them, like this.
Her tongue protrudes from her mouth like a sliver of salami. De dem dare dis. De dey dem, like dis, I repeat.
Miss Blowers holds Noddy and the Magic Rubber. Her sharp
fingernails tap the cover; rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat. Thwack.
I am crowned with Noddy. I detonate with pain and shame. The they them there this. The they them! roars Miss Blowers.
My tongue strikes, three thunderous thumps, thanks.
Back home Mama prepares borscht, slicing beetroots, carrots,
Chop, chop, chop into small. Her knife slides through red
flesh with no resistance, taps as it hits the chopping board. Don’t like bosh, says I. Not de bosh, but de borscht! says Mama. Not de borscht but the borscht and out comes my tongue.
Picking blackberries from hedgerows, making daisy chains, collecting acorns, playing conkers, wandering the fields looking for rabbits, daydreaming under a tree on a sunny day. These are the precious memories of my childhood when my relationship with animals and the natural world became an integral part of my imagination and personality. I was lucky enough to grow up in the late sixties before the age of parental paranoia and health and safety fanaticism. Children were allowed personal freedom to explore the world, test their bodies and minds, learn about risk, learn about the magic of nature. But times have changed. We live in an age of fear, much of it unfounded. Kids spend more time alone with their tablets than playing outdoors. I was sad to learn that the 2008 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary aimed at children between the ages of 7 and 9 has omitted the following ‘nature’ words believing they are no longer relevant.
The obsolete words are catkin, brook, acorn, buttercup, blackberry, conker, holly, ivy, mistletoe. No doubt they have been replaced by technology words like database, spreadsheet, voicemail, pixel.
Contact and knowledge of the natural world are essential to a child’s artistic and spiritual development, be it poetry, visual art, music. How will future generations learn to cherish other living things and respect their environment if they don’t even have the right words?