Life Lesson by Anne Goodwin

Monday, November 15, 2021
Two foster children, Autumn and Becca, return from an educational trip to Auschwitz carrying very different lessons; by Anne Goodwin.

We’d agreed not to mention the press conference until the plane was on the ground. We couldn’t predict what they’d do if they got overexcited. As it was, the girls abandoned us at the luggage carousel and rushed off to the toilets to reapply their make-up. All except Becca who leant against the wall with that same scornful sneer she’d worn the entire week; indeed, the entire time she’d been on my caseload. Jack shot me a sympathetic glance as suitcases paraded on the belt before us. Of course I was disappointed, but nine out of ten wasn’t bad.

The foster mothers waved as we emerged from the Nothing to Declare channel. I’d been worried one of the boys might be singled out for inspection – with their unlaced trainers and low-slung jeans they had the capacity to look shifty even when politely holding open a door – but we were waved through. Not that I thought for a minute they’d be carrying anything they shouldn’t. We’d checked them on the way out and kept them too busy over there to have the energy for mischief.

The foster mothers held back as the producer positioned the kids for the camera. Jack and I held back also; trusting the young people to speak freely about their experience had been part of the deal. I’m sure he felt as proud as I did as they spoke, boys as well as girls, about being moved to tears by the sight of the huts, the train tracks, the stripy uniforms and the mountains of shorn hair and shoes.

“What would you say to people who thought it a waste of taxpayer’s money?”

Only a week ago, they’d have dismissed the question with a stream of expletives. Even Autumn, who now brushed her hair back from her face and leant forward to respond on behalf of the group. “I’d say, I get where you’re coming from, obviously. But that was no holiday. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

“So more of a punishment?”

“A privilege,” said Autumn. “Totally changed my life.”

“How’s that?” said the reporter.

“Like because we can’t live with our parents we sometimes feel sorry for ourselves? This showed us we’ve got lots to be thankful for. We’ve got food in our stomachs. We’ve got clothes on our backs.” Autumn flicked her hair again. “We’ve got hair.”

My gaze drifted from the teenager to her foster mother, Marie, positioned by the coffee concession. I wasn’t surprised to see her wipe away a tear. In front of her, the twins held a homemade banner: WELCOME HOME AUTUMN AND BECCA. The five-year-olds looked positively angelic in their cotton dresses, with matching bows in their hair.

“And how about you, Becca?” We’d given them name badges to make things easier for the reporter. Part of me now wished we hadn’t. “Do you feel the same as Autumn?”

“Why should I give a fuck about what happened to a load of Jews back in the dark ages?”

The journalist recoiled amid murmurs of revulsion, giving Becca the effect she wanted.

“Okay, let’s wrap this up.” I managed to speak with authority, but Marie’s stricken expression reflected my real feelings. “Everyone’s tired and maybe a tad emotional.”

Jack sidled up to the producer as the foster mothers claimed their kids. “No worries,” I heard her tell him. “I’ll edit it out.”



Jack said I shouldn’t blame myself, but I’ll carry that guilt till I retire. The follow-up meetings were integral to the project, the cornerstone of our application for permission and funds. Visiting the camp was only half of it; processing it afterwards would make the lesson stick. But I wasn’t to know I’d be floored by flu hours after our return from Poland. I wasn’t to know Jack would postpone the debriefing session till I got back from the sickness. But every social worker is acquainted with remorse. There’s always something we haven’t managed to do.

I was still feeling fragile when I took Marie’s call. Although my hearing was patchy, the quiver in her voice told me all I needed to know. Abandoning my coffee, I grabbed my coat and car keys.

Marie and Dominic were among our most experienced foster parents. If they couldn’t turn Becca around, no-one could. I’d placed Autumn with them as a conciliatory gesture, an easy child to compensate for the problem one, and in the hope her good sense might rub off on Becca. We social workers are suckers for improbable dreams.

Parking outside their gate, I raced round the side of the house to the back door. I knocked and, without waiting for a response, entered the kitchen. My hand flew to my mouth as bile bit my throat.

A green First Aid box lay on the table, a roll of cotton wool and a bottle of antiseptic alongside. Marie sat on a pinewood dining chair, one of the twins on her lap, the other standing beside her, clutching her leg with one hand and sucking her thumb with the other. At the airport the girls wore identical pastel-blue dresses and their wispy white-blonde hair reached to their shoulders. Now they were clad in pyjamas and their heads completely bald, the blanched skin nicked with tiny cuts.

Marie looked up momentarily. “She’s upstairs.”

There was nothing I could say or do to make it better. My hands in fists, I marched into the hallway.

Through the open door of the lounge, I heard the buzz of TV chat. Buying time to work out how to deal with Becca, I chose to check on Autumn first. Stepping into the lounge, it took me a moment to register that the girl sprawled on the sofa thumbing her phone wasn’t the one I’d expected. I snatched the phone from her while, on the larger screen, some Z-list celebrity cracked eggs into a bowl. “How can you sit there acting the innocent after what you’ve done?”

Becca flashed me her regulation sneer. “Nothing wrong with By Hook or By Cook. It’s educational.”

Every cell of my body ached to slap her. But getting me suspended would be another victory for her. “How could you do that to those poor little girls?”

“It wasn’t me what done it. It was that psycho upstairs.”

Autumn? How typical of Becca to pin the blame on someone else. I was about to challenge her when Dominic called me from the floor above.

On the desk in Autumn’s room, a disposable razor and a can of shaving foam. Her white school-shirt spotted with blood. When I walked in, she sprang at me, but it wasn’t for a hug. If her foster father hadn’t grabbed her, she’d have knocked me to the floor.

Still my mind fought against the evidence. “Did Becca put you up to this?”

Autumn smiled. “Can’t I have any ideas of my own?”

“But why? How could you be so cruel?”

“They were always moaning. Throwing tantrums when they couldn’t get their way.” She spoke calmly, her tone as sweet as ever. Explaining, rather than complaining, her facade of reason the most disturbing aspect of all.

“But that’s how young children are, Autumn.”

Autumn tossed her silky hair across her shoulder. “I was only sharing what we learnt at Auschwitz. Don’t tell me you object to that.”

11 comments:

  1. What a powerful story! A totally unexpected twist! And, yes, I've been to Auschwitz. In my novel, my character went to Auschwitz and it affected her too, but not like this.

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    1. Thanks Rosemary. I've neverr been myself and not sure how I'd handle it. But I do think we need to be careful about what we try to teach vulnerable children. Their minds don't always work how we expect.

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  2. Surprising and thought-provoking. There’s some logic in Autumn’s thinking, but the way she acted on it is, to say the least, flawed.

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    1. Thanks, David. I'm glad you can see where Autumn's coming from, even though she's behaved appallingly.

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  3. Anne, this is such a powerful story; proof that length is not needed to make a story effective. I was surprised by the outcome, but it successfully underscores the vulnerability and (perhaps to our minds) twisted responses that might result from such an "informative" experience. Many, it appears, are more damaged than we can anticipate or appreciate. Very good story!
    Cameron Spencer

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    1. Thanks, Cameron. Yes, I think that damage is often underestimated. Autumn needed something very different to what her social worker envisaged.

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  4. Wow, such a three-dimensional story. Highly creative and will provoke a lot of thought after-the-fact. I think the spare dialog provokes a powerful thought process around the challenge of personalities and assumptions.

    thanks,

    David

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    1. Thank you, David. I'm glad I managed to surprise you!

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  5. Excellent story. I taught high school for 35 years and it doesn't matter the child, the place, or the background. Teenagers are complicated and unpredictable. I can't imagine the challenges faced by foster parents. This piece drove that fact home even further. Thank you for sharing your skills with us.

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    1. Thank you, James. I'm so glad you found the story credible and consistent with your experience of inconsistent teenagers.

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  6. Short but very intriguing... I worked with mentally disturbed adults and they also came to unpredictable conclusions about issues ... which in a sense had a connection, like Autumn's. One fellow was in fact quite fascinated with Auschwitz...he tried to light himself on fire because he identified so much with the victims. Good story.

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