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A Shout From The Attic: Taps

...I have heard that a person trapped in a burning building who realises he is not going to escape, utters long, loud sigh of resignation. I have never been in that position, but I have been faced by a charging grandparent who graduated summa cum laudi from the Genghis Khan School of Charm, and the Sonny Liston School of Gentle Taps. I uttered one of those long sighs just before two of these taps, too fast for the human eye to detect, stung my ear with a speed that would have caught Muhammad Ali off guard...

Ronnie Bray tells how two unjust slaps were the foundations of his benign attitude to children.

To read more of Ronnie's experiences please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

Children view the world as an odd mixture of make-believe, guesswork, and reality. Reality is what overtakes them when nothing else works and they canít fathom what else it can be. Reality is the full stop that unhappy children break themselves against when what they would like to happen, and what they think should happen, doesnít. I had an early awakening to the authentic forces of reality in relation to the taps in our bathroom.

I was probably one of the few children at Spring Grove School that lived in a house with an inside bathroom and a real fastened-to-the-floor bath with hot and cold running water. The hot tap caused the problem. The first thing I knew about it was when, whilst I was playing in the back yard, the Gestapo, looking and sounding like Nanny, bore down shouting imprecatory curses at me for leaving the bath tap running.

Now, anyone who knew me well knew that I was different from other boys and girls. I would have combusted spontaneously if I had encountered water, and so I avoided it. I didnít use water, except to make pint pots of hot chocolate, or cocoa, as we called it before it got a high school education and went up in the world. I didnít use water to wash with, and I certainly didnít volunteer for baths.

Fact is, I canít recall ever having a bath after I was about seven years old, although I am sure that is just the consequence of a Freudian mechanism for forgetting very unpleasant things. So, the very idea that I could have had anything to do with not turning the bath taps off when I never turned them on was preposterous. But you try telling that to 95 pounds of angry grandma who never learned to retreat and could punch three times her weight. I was the culprit and I was going to be punished twice: once for leaving the tap on, and again for lying.

I have heard that a person trapped in a burning building who realises he is not going to escape, utters a long, loud sigh of resignation. I have never been in that position, but I have been faced by a charging grandparent who graduated summa cum laudi from the Genghis Khan School of Charm, and the Sonny Liston School of Gentle Taps. I uttered one of those long sighs just before two of these taps, too fast for the human eye to detect, stung my ear with a speed that would have caught Muhammad Ali off guard.

As my eyes cleared from the patterned grey fog that temporarily blurred them, (we were too poor to see starss), I glimpsed the back of my executioner sliding silently though the back door with all the grace of a Shaolin priest, into the halls of Justice Denied and Hope Deferred. Somebody knew more about the bath tap than I did, but kept their silence then, and they keep their secret still. Almost sixty years later, I have no idea whose punishment I painfully bore.

How did that colour my perception of the world? It taught me that being right didnít matter, and that innocence was no defence. Being powerful and unaccountable was the seat of authority, and children could not be believed because they were not capable of telling the truth if a grown-up has decided that they know what really happened.

But, it did much more than that. As I think back on the many times summary justice was meted out with no opportunity for a defence and no right of appeal, it firmed in me a resolve never to deal unjustly with any one, and never to judge a matter without sufficient facts to make a sure and fair judgement. Circumstantial evidence is unreliable and should never be used to force a conclusion in the absence of cogent and compelling evidence that such and such happened and that the actor is beyond dispute. A judgement based on the fact that someone could have done it, or might have done it, even if the guilty go free, should never be handed down.

I can remember the yard, the discussion about the tap, the heart and fire that seemed to well up in me as I denied any knowledge of the crime, and the ghastly realisation that nothing I knew, nothing I felt, and nothing I said would affect the outcome. There was a standard penalty for wrongdoing that involved a force applied to the side of the head that always left me feeling sick with sudden and searing pain, brought tears to my eyes from the injustice of it all and intensified my burgeoning sense of powerlessness, shrinking my estimation of myself to less than a speck of dirt.

When I think about it reasonably rather than emotionally, and that is difficult, I ask how it is that someone can see something that should not be, and then decide, without proof, that a particular person has done it. I had no history of leaving taps turned on, so the judgement could not be based on my crime pattern.

If you have children and ever feel like blaming them for something you suspect they have done, but have no direct evidence for, give them the benefit of the doubt. Even if their history leads you to think that it could be them, donít decide that it has to be them without proof positive. And never convict on the evidence of others who may be pointing the finger at them only because they fear your punishment more that they fear telling an untruth. Even if they have done it, lovingly forgive them.

Always be gentle, generous, and loving to your children. Remember that little ones often make mistakes. Not because they are wicked or wilfully disobedient, but because they are children, still learning what life is all about, and not always seeing the dividing line between make-believe, guesswork, and reality. Your sacred responsibility is to make them feel safe about themselves, safe about you, safe about the world and, most of all, safe about making mistakes.

The soul of a child is a tender and vulnerable thing, easy to crush, easy to hurt, and easy to stifle. When you feel, in your anger, that your child has done something wrong and feel compelled to rush to justice and punishment, take a moment before you do anything to think about taps. Then hug your child and express your love. You will save a soul.

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