Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Rainbow Child & Her Paper Mom

Anyone who has read some of my articles will know that one of my passions in being a children's author is child literacy. I can't imagine any author not being concerned with literacy. Literacy is a skill that has to be learned, and this simple skill can deliver a child from a life of drudgery to a life filled with opportunity. Living in South Africa, I have become so aware of the deficiencies in our education system. The number of final year scholars not making the grade has become worse than alarming. It all starts at home, where children should grow up surrounded by books, and with parents encouraging them to read and discover the wonderful world of books. That's in an ideal world, of course. The truth is that in South Africa, and indeed in many places around the world, "at home" for thousands of children offers no source of education when their parents are either still illiterate, or simply do not have the skills to assist their children with homework. One fifth of South Africa's population is still illiterate. Poverty also means that food comes before books. When South Africa achieved democracy, Nelson Mandela called this country a "rainbow nation." Sadly, there aren't a large number of pots of gold at the end of the rainbow for some children here. But one little girl, my rainbow child, has found her pot of gold. I was recently asked by a great kids' site in Johannesburg, Jozikids, to write about adopting my foster child, Mabel. Here is the story of the rainbow child and her paper mom. I hope it will inspire others to help children read.

The Rainbow Child and Her Paper Mom

I never ever imagined myself as a mother. Growing up with four brothers, three of them younger than me, meant I had my fair share of bottles, nappies, homework, bedtime stories and all the things big sisters do. My studies and career came first for a long time and the men I dated weren’t interested in having kids. Then the biggest drawback of all: I never felt “grown-up enough” to take on the responsibility of my own child. The year I went overseas with my two nephews, the year that inspired my first children’s book, (The Secret of the Sacred Scarab) I suddenly had this desire to adopt a child. Not give birth, please note, but adopt some little mite who needed a home. Two weeks in Egypt with my nephews aged 10 and 12 were enough to rid me of any maternal feelings and make me decide to just stick to being a good aunt. I had changed my mind about children.

About three months after this trip, I had a visit from a domestic worker who had worked for me a few years back—she had a problem. She arrived with her daughter Mabel, now aged eleven. I remembered Mabel as an enchanting child aged six, all arms and legs and a big smile. But I got married, Josephine left my employ, and we didn’t see each other for another five years. Josephine came straight to the point and asked me to foster Mabel so she could get a better education.

Thinking for the briefest of nano-seconds that “nothing would change,” I said yes. Of course, everything changed. I developed maternal feelings worthy of a lioness guarding her cubs from danger. I also became an expert on the shortcomings of our ever-changing education system, the life-cycle of any insect, reptile, or bird you care to mention, and in anything to help my foster child get an education. Mabel had already failed Grade 2, was advised to repeat Grade 4, and was basically illiterate. How is that possible, I asked myself? I began the slow and often painful task of teaching her all over again, supplemented by many extra lessons.

Mabel baulked at first, having never had to apply her mind or develop motivation. She’d been told so many times she was a failure—what else was there to look forward to? I rose to the challenge, and happily for her, so did Mabel. Eight years later, she is scoring 70-80% in most of her subjects, plans to be a writer (just like me!) and is an amazingly well-adjusted, charming, sunny-tempered young lady with a delightful sense of humour. She is a credit to her mother, Josephine, and to me, her Paper Mom (as she calls me, since I am legally her ‘mom’ on paper). I adopted Mabel in February 2009 at the specific request of both her parents, since they believe that with me she will “have a real life.” Those are her mother’s words, one of the bravest women I have ever known, for who else but a brave and unselfish woman would willingly give her child to someone else for that child’s sake. Mabel has a bright future and I am proud to be part of it.


Julie Musil said...

Wow, what a beautiful story.

Fiona Ingram said...

Thanks, Julie, it has been an amazing experience. I am thinking about writing a book and using mMabel's own words as well to decribe her life experience.