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Heroes and pioneers of child and youth care work

Larry Brendtro

An address given at the graduation of the first nine students from Durban's Ethelbert Training Centre in 1993.

This is truly a time for pioneers. We are honouring a group of young pioneers here tonight who are the first to graduate from this training programme. There are some other pioneers present: their teachers Lyris Rielly and Emie Nightingale, and Brian Gannon and Lesley du Toit from the National Association of Child Care Workers. But tonight I should like to give each of our graduates their own 'pioneer'.

This field of child care which you are entering here tonight is one which has been developing over many years. It is a very important work. In the front of your programme I see a poem by Kahlil Gibran, who was very interested in this work, and upon his death his executors sent the manuscript of the chapter on work from The Prophet to Starr Commonwealth, the residential school which I was running, and he must have been describing our work when he wrote, speaking of work:

'Work is love made visible, and if you cannot work with love but only with distaste it is better that you leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with love.'

And so, into this 'love-made-visible' work of ours, we are sending out from here tonight nine people.

Anthea, I want to give you the first youth worker from my country: Jane Addams, who at the turn of this century reached out to people in America from very many culturally diverse backgrounds, at a time when we were trying to pull together a nation from many factions. She was unique in believing that in every problem we can find some strength, some potential to use in its solution. In fact, a most troubling problem at that time was juvenile delinquency, and while everyone else could see only the negatives, she said “You know, the one thing about juvenile delinquents which is so different from other young people, is that they have a greater spirit of adventure".

Vanessa, I understand, has already had a paper on child child care published in The Child Care Worker, so I give to her a writer: my late colleague, Dr Al Trieschman. In 1969 three of us wrote a little book called The Other 23 Hours. This was a a take-off of a work by psychoanalyst Robert Lindner who had written a very popular book on psychotherapy called The Fifty-Minute Hour. (He also, by the way, wrote Rebel Without a Cause of which many of you have probably heard.) The three of us said “Well, a fifty-minute hour is fine, but what about all those other hours?" Al Trieschman, a remarkable author, Harvard-trained, clinical psychologist, would often stun groups of brilliant child and youth workers, psychologists and social workers, by saying “I now will tell you about the most important observation you will ever make in this work ..." and they would all take out a pencil to write this down: “The most important observation you will ever make is when you become a twinkle in the eyes of some child."

Thandl already, as we know, has her own family, so she already knows some things about child care which others are still having to learn in a practical way. We give to her Pestalozzi who built his whole theory of child care on the mother, Gertrude. In the book Leonard and Gertrude which he wrote 200 years ago, he points out that within the experience of that close interaction between mother and child, the most important teaching exists. In fact, he says, teaching is not the essence of education; love is. And the most important skill you can develop in teaching children is to be able to criticise them and at the very same moment convince them of your fervent love. When he opened his school for waifs two hundred years ago, he said: “When they came they were filthy and ignorant and vermin-covered and arrogant but I knew that that was just the surface; that underneath there would be precious faculties". And before the snow had melted on the Alps in the spring those faculties were to be seen.

Ruth, I am told, is interested in work with teens in crisis. Some of you may ask: What on earth for? because there is, as you know, quite some negative attitude toward young people who cause problems. My teacher, Fritz Redl, used to put it this way: “Modern society loves kids, neglects children and hates youth!" So here tonight we have a brave young person moving out into this very work, work with troubled adolescents. But I want to show you how we are all connected in this. We all come from different places, but as Martin Brokenleg's people, the Sioux, would say: “Be related somehow to everyone you know", so I would like to show you how you here tonight are related to others. Tonight, for these few minutes, I am your teacher. My teacher was Fritz Redl from Austria who came to the United States before the war. His teacher in Austria was Anna Freud – and of course Anna Freud learned some things from her father Sigmund Freud. So you see the family tree! (Of course Sigmund didn't know all that much about working with children, but Anna certainly did.) Fritz Redl, the great worker with kids in crisis, taught us that a crisis is not a time to strike out at a young person; rather crisis is a teaching opportunity. So, young people here, as you go out, whenever you encounter a problem tell yourself: “A problem is a window of opportunity for teaching".

Alison has come back to us in Durban for this occasion all the way from her work in a Jewish children's home in Cape Town. For her, there is my friend Gisela Konopka, now eighty years old. Gisela became a youth worker in the turbulent and exciting democracy of the Weimar Republic in Germany after World War I and before Hitler. In her youth movement she was trained to believe that in this new democracy the old, punitive, obedience-oriented and over-controlling approaches would give way. So she was part of a movement which included many people (including Karl Wilken) who moved into the worst children's institution in Berlin and taught responsibility to those young people. She said: “You see these bars? They were put there by your behaviour before, and it will be your responsible behaviour that will take those bars away, and here are the hacksaws – so go to it!"

I would never have known about that because all of the leaders of that period either had to flee the country or were killed by Hitler, and all their books were burned. Gisela Konopka, that young youth worker perhaps your own age, almost didn't escape to tell us the story. She was imprisoned by the Nazis. They thought she was involved with the underground, so they let her out of the concentration camp, but instead of leading the Nazis back to her friends she came to the United States and she spent her lifetime trying to reconstruct the story and the spirit of that great youth movement. She said to me most recently “When you are in South Africa, try to find out something of Karl Wilken, for he left Germany at that time and went to South Africa to teach black children there" ... so, again, we see we are all somehow tied together. Later, this same young girl was to be a professor of social work and was sent back to reconstruct the child welfare system in post-war Germany with the occupation allied troops – just as many of you young people are helping to reconstruct systems in South Africa for a future day.

Caroline is working with deaf children. It would be only appropriate that we give to her Annie Sullivan, the teacher of Helen Keller (who also, by the way, came to my school in Michigan and planted a tree). Annie Sullivan is the only one on this list who and was herself in a children's institution. She had a hearing problem, and was put in an institution, but not one which would help her hear; it was, as far as institutions go, the pits, and it was likely that she would dry up and lose her spirit there, but she was a bright girl. Things were so bad that a government investigation was planned. She heard the staff talking about the coming inspection, and particularly about a Mr Sandborn, the head of the investigating team, and the staff all seemed afraid of him. During the visit of inspection she waited till the team was close to her, and then she suddenly called out 'Mr Sandborn, Mr Sandborn, I want to go to school.' So he stopped, asked about this girl, and took her out of the institution, she received appropriate training, and went on to be the teacher of a deaf blind child.

Varsha, it would perhaps be appropriate that you pioneer should come from India. In the early days of my school the word came to the Founder that the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was coming to the United States, Rabindranath Tagore. So he was invited to visit our school. Here was a man who won the Nobel Prize for writing poetry about children – but he didn't write it in a vacuum; he had established an outstanding facility for cast-out children at Balpur in Bengal.

When he visited our school (I have seen the pictures and I have talked to old men who were little boys at that time) he came in his long white robes and his white hair down to the middle of his back. One of the children there at the time told me “He was to sleep in the houseparents' room and we were put to bed very quietly, but rather than wanting to be protected from the children, Dr Tagore asked if he might see the boys." So they came out in their pyjamas and gathered around him and talked to him. One old man I talked to who was there as a child told me, “As a little boy, as we sat around him and talked to him, he in his long white robes, I thought he was God visiting earth!"

When he went back to India, Dr Tagore wrote a letter which is still there today in our museum at Starr Commonwealth: “Amidst a desert of unprofitable experiences, my trip to your school was an oasis, for there I found that little bit of love that I had not seen since I left my boys at Balpur".

Susan is to work with small children, so we need a hero from the little people's world: the first female to receive the Doctor of Medicine degree in Italy, Maria Montessori. Here was someone who had no patience at all with those who believed that work with little people was somehow less important. She said “The mind of a child is a very challenging thing which is something very difficult for adults to understand". She also attacked the notion that adults should move into the lives of children as all-powerful oppressors playing an obedience game. She was particularly hard on the schools of her time, saying that they were practising scholastic slavery!

While she could have had a distinguished career with her medical degree, she chose to work with disadvantaged children, and she saw a beauty in them – and an ugliness in what we do to them. She wrote that “The children sit like mounted butterflies pinned to their desks, and we should let them fly".

Ansylla is the last, so she will get our last pioneer hero, a great one. The greatest worker with problem children in this century, in my opinion, was Janusz Korczak of Poland. Trained as a paediatric physician, he also shifted from medicine, and in 1901 wrote a book Children of the Streets describing what could be done with street children, something which remains today a big problem in your country and mine. In 1911 Korczak established The House of Children for 200 Jewish street children. He once took one of his young children in front of a large audience, placed him before a fluoroscope (an x-ray machine) and said “Tonight we are going to look at the heart of a child. Here are the ribs, you can see him breathing hard (the kid was, of course, scared to death) and see how his little heart is beating. Look at that heart. Next time you become angry and frustrated and feel like striking out, remember what the heart of child looks like." He was so good at his work, that the Roman Catholics also appointed him as an associate worker at catholic orphanages that was quite some ecumenism in 1921! He also had a radio programme, but the station didn't use his real name for they weren't sure that Christian people would like their children to be raised according to the principles of this Jewish doctor who gave advice on raising difficult kids. (In fact when it became known that he was Jewish, the programme was taken off the air.)

But, of course, the worst was to be when Hitler invaded Poland. What were they to do with this Jewish youth worker and his two hundred children? In the event Korczak was now so famous that the Nazis offered him a chance to get away, but “Who would leave children at a time like this?" was his brusque reply. So they took him and moved the children and staff into the Warsaw ghetto. Some years earlier Korczak had written a book called King Matt the First about a boy king who would save the world which had been so messed up by adults, and in the story the 12-year-old king leads the children in a crusade marching under a green flag. So he thought it only appropriate that when the Nazi's took them to the ghetto that they should march in under a green flag.

As time went by it became clear what was going to happen. He had told a Christian friend on the outside where he was keeping a secret diary in the hope that it would be recovered to tell the story of the children during these days – which it was and published as the Ghetto Diary.

Janusz Korczak knew then that he would have to teach his children a lesson that most of us never have to teach: he would have to teach them how to die. So he went to that great youth worker Rabindranath Tagore and found one of his writings about a dying Hindu boy, and they made a play out of that and acted out the parts.

When the time came, he made his final entry into the Diary and hid it behind the bricks. The children were dressed in their best, the green flag was brought out, and they marched two miles through the streets to the chlorinated box cars, and from there were taken to Treblinka.

Some of you will have a chance, now that the walls are going down everywhere in this world, to visit Poland. If you go to Treblinka you will see that there are no more buildings; only green grass and pine and birch trees, and a memorial consisting of a ring of rocks. On each rock is the name of a city or a country from which some Jews came, one million of them, to their end in that place.

Only one person has his individual name on one of those rocks. In the centre, on the largest rock, is the name of someone in our profession: 'Janusz Korczak and children'. His final entry in the Ghetto Diary in 1942 said “I don't know who will ever care about what I am writing here; perhaps fifty years from now, someone will care."

Then he closes his diary with the simple statement, which could be the battle cry as you go out now, fifty years later, with our good wishes, into your work with children:

"I exist, not to be served or loved, but to love and to act."

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