I notice she is wearing make-up which, while not a red-flag, is also quite unusual because she is only 10 years old. I make small talk by asking her where she comes from but it isn’t long before she begins to divulge what is really going on. Despite not knowing me, she is overcome by an urge to disclose intimate details of her life. This urge is a common trope among victims of abuse and neglect who, burdened by trauma, purge themselves of painful memories by vomiting them up to anyone who will listen.
She discloses, in a very matter-of-fact way, that her dad is in prison because he gets angry and that she and her mother have been trying to get away from him. She tells me he has a loud voice and that he is scary. Our conversation is then interrupted by another girl who approaches us, crying. I ask what is wrong. “I miss my mummy,” she replies, tears streaming down her face.
I ask her to sit down. She does, snivelling, as the other girl, in make-up, resumes colouring in a picture. I turn to the girl who is crying and ask her where she is from. “Bearsden”, she replies, in a polite accent. Bearsden is an affluent community on the outskirts of Glasgow. It is not unsurprising that a young girl from a more affluent part of town should feel scared in this unfamiliar environment.
This little girl is also stressed but for a different reason. She is stressed because it is unusual for her to be separated from her mother, who left twenty minutes’ prior. She is upset and frightened, but it’s less likely because of abuse at home, and more likely due to the fact she is accustomed to feeling secure. She is so used to being taken care of by her mother that merely being separated from her for half an hour fills her with enough dread to illicit tears.
Meanwhile, the little girl in make-up, lost in her colouring book, is well adjusted to feelings of insecurity. Despite suffering abuse and emotional neglect, she has yet to shed a tear, even though she is visibly stressed. One girl has an expectation of danger and the other an expectation of security. Both expectations are correct based on their respective life experiences, however both expectations have placed them at odds with the situation they now find themselves in. One girl feels scared, despite being perfectly safe, while the other feels stressed despite everyone else around her having fun.
Subjectively, these girls are experiencing equally uncomfortable emotions, but the wider context of their reactions is anything but equal. In fact, it’s rooted in class disparity.
The second these girls leave the play group, their lives will continue to diverge, as they have done since the day they were born; their respective social environments and how these impact upon them psychologically, emotionally, socially and culturally are likely to produce two fundamentally different people.
These differences will find expression in everything from their behaviour, their mental and physical health, education and life opportunities to their social values, political views, cultural interests and preferences, and even the way they speak. These differences will also play a role in what sort of relationships they form as well as their lifestyles, how often (and how far) they will travel abroad as well as what illnesses they are more likely to get later in life.
In twenty years’ time, the gulf in their respective experiences may be so vast that the chances of them ever interacting again are slim. They’ll exist in two increasingly distinct, parallel cultures between which it’s very difficult to move. I’d even wager that if they do cross paths in the future, it’s highly likely that, should they attempt to communicate for any prolonged period of time on a matter of substance, they will be antagonised by one another on a number of levels.
They will judge each other based on appearance, voice, accent, language and tone. These judgments will occur subconsciously, as they attempt to engage in conversation, until eventually they hit a juncture at which there is difference of opinion. Having subconsciously made their assessments of one another, based on their own distinct cultural experiences and the social and cultural attitudes and expectation these have created, it is like that they will misunderstand one another so fundamentally that they’ll walk away from the interaction abruptly, feeling deeply offended, insulted, hurt or misunderstood, by what the other person appeared to imply.
One will conclude the other small-minded, vulgar, aggressive and intimidating. The other, molly-coddled, judgmental and spoiled.
Two little girls, who once attended the same play group as kids, now separated by a gulf of experience so vast that simply speaking to one another has the potential to create so much confusion, ill-feeling and resentment that it becomes easier to retreat to familiarity.
The familiarity of their social class.