I once read a good book called The World According to Garp by John Irving. At one point the story is told of the hero’s young son who every summer goes with his mother and father to the seaside. Near the holiday house there is a beach ravaged by a terrible tidal undertow and when the child is big enough to go near the water his father warns him of the dangers of this undertow. Every summer the father gives the warning about the terrible undertow, the wicked undertow, the dangerous undertow. A summer comes when one day the father finds his little son on the beach watching the sea, not daring to go beyond ankle-depth, just watching the sea. His father asks him what he is doing.
“I’m trying to see the Under Toad”, the little boy says.
“The what?” his father asks.
“The Under Toad. I’m trying to see it. How big is it?”
All those years of his father’s warnings the little boy had thought that beneath the waves of the sea lurked a giant toad, a huge and ugly frog waiting to suck him down, the terrible Under Toad of the world-wide sea.
That story makes me think how we must handle the lives and the imaginations of children with the greatest care. Their days are filled with magic, with terror and with inspiration that we adults have forgotten long ago.
It is natural that the fate of a child should tear the heart more than that of an adult. When an old man dies he dies in the fullness of his days but if a child dies with him dies perhaps some promise of the stars cut short.
I hate the thought of punishing children too harshly or too long. I think of John Berryman’s lovely poem to his child:
Cross am I sometimes with my little daughter:
fill her eyes with tears. Forgive me, Lord.
Unite my various soul
Sole watchman of the wide and single stars.
Punish mildly. And do not punish at all a child’s imagination, even if it seems to get a little out of hand. We cannot tell the destination of the voyage into truth that a child’s mind makes. But what we do know is that in the imagination of children, in the dreams they dream, lie all our tomorrows how sweet or bitter they will be.
Above all, never let fear, that great Under Toad, that huge and ugly frog, that destroyer of joy and confidence, lurk for long in the burning but defenceless heart of any child.
As I was thinking about these things – thinking about the special vulnerability of children – by a terrible coincidence I happened to read a story about the neglected children of Guyana – rejected, abandoned, abused, living pillar to post, subsisting in deprivation, hurt forever to the very marrow of their souls.
These thoughts tumbled together in my mind – the strange imaginings of children, their special vulnerability, the need to protect them from fear, the need to let dreams flourish in their lives – and then the plight of Guyana’s neglected children so vivid in grim counter-point.
I wondered to myself if there might be something one could do as a private citizen to help. Government authorities, I am assuming, will take vigorous action in well-publicised cases. But there must be so much unsung desperation. So many young lives must be wasted utterly. Is there something each one of us might be able to do on an organized basis to help save the children? They are, after all, very like internal refugees in out midst.
There are, I know, organizations around the world which gather contributions and use them to organize the assistance and education of individual homeless, refugee, or destitute children. I have not contributed mainly because I have felt that there must be enough such work to do at home without seeking a good cause far away. The thought at once occurs whether it might not be possible to organize a purely Guyanese ‘Save the Children‘ scheme. The idea in such schemes is that you can sponsor a refugee or destitute child by making monthly or annual contributions which are used to provide the absolutely basic needs of the child, ensuring that he is fed, clothed and taught. You can, if you wish, identify your contribution quite closely with an individual child and receive regular reports on how the child is progressing.
I do not know if such an idea would work here. Could the organization be established? Would enough people contribute on a regular, Banker’s form, basis? How would such a scheme mesh with the state’s own social welfare programmes? I do not know all the answers – I do not even know all the questions. What I do know is that there must be quite a few Guyanese who, in their own more fortunate circumstances, would be ready to help safeguard the happiness of specific children who are deprived, through no fault of their own, of any joy of living or any stimulus of mind except fear and growing bitterness waiting to explode like bombs later in life.