The world of children and the world of adults intersects on so many levels and yet is so disconnected. Reading Saki’s story ‘The Lumber Room’ with a student today I endeavored to bridge the chasm that separated these worlds. In the process I realized that certain conversations that I have with my children are to be questioned.
The story is simple enough on the surface of it. A child, Nicholas, is in ‘disgrace’ for having put a frog into his ‘wholesome bread-and-milk basin’ that constituted his daily breakfast. ‘His sin is enlarged on at great length’ by his aunt, while he wonders why he is being taken to task when the wiser adults have in fact been ‘proved to be profoundly in error.’ The aunt had insisted that a frog could not possibly have gotten into the bread-and-milk, while he knew it was there since he himself had put it into the basin. While I chuckled at the precocity of this child and admitted to my student that what Nicholas claimed was perfectly reasonable, we discussed what the aunt would have probably said scolding him. He laughed while he told me his own parents would say that people were starving in poor homes while he fussed about eating his vegetables and I shared that I would scold my children that there were millions starving and here you have wasted perfectly good food that is now not fit for eating. A child’s mind is not equipped to imagine the scenario that the adults are alluding to and so they cannot relate to the hunger suffered by others who are so far removed from their lives. Our words though stored away for future use somewhere in their minds fall on deaf ears. Does this mean we do not lecture them on the importance of empathy? Or is there another way?
Nicholas’ Aunt then devises an outing to the seaside for the other children to make his ‘disgrace’ more pronounced. He of course is unfazed, expected to be miserable as the others leave he couldn’t care less for the company of the children he finds so uninteresting, leaving her disappointed. She further tries to restrict him by banning him from exploring the ‘gooseberry gardens’ he, the smart cookie that he is strings her along and has her guarding the entryways to the garden while he goes exploring into the banned ‘lumber room’ so full of treasures that she has hidden away. There is a tapestry of a hunting scene, that excites his imagination, a teapot like a china duck far more interesting than the ‘dull and shapeless’ everyday one that was used in her kitchens and ‘little brass figures, hump-necked bulls, and peacocks and goblins, delightful to see and to handle.’ How many times as adults do we keep trinkets and decoratives that may be either fragile, dearly bought or even hold sentimental value to us away from the reach of younger children? We are afraid that they will break or be damaged. Reaching this bit of the story I was struck by the thought that while I guarded my ‘treasures’ did I limit the mind of my children? Were they not entitled to explore and let their imaginations find joy just as I did? Were these baubles more ‘dear’ than their ingenuities?
Nicholas had a few more lessons up his sleeve. He informs the ‘soi-disant aunt’ that though she’s sent the other children off on a fun expedition Bobby, wouldn’t enjoy as his new boots were too tight. The aunt perplexed wonders why Bobby did not tell her, Nicholas’ answer is a crime as a parent I am also oft accused of by my kids. “He told you twice, but you weren’t listening. You often don’t listen when we tell you important things.”
The end of the story had me laughing out loud, I’ll not spoil it for you. Do read this precocious story and appreciate this disconnect that makes the child’s mind such an amazing place to explore. What I will comment upon before I end is at the cleverness of the writer’s mind, set in Edwardian times children did not have the privilege of being understood. Children should be seen and not heard, an adage of yesteryears applying to them rather severely. Schooling and parenting is a lot different today, Nicholas would easily fit into the mould of today’s child and is a complete delight.