Many years ago I had an experience that made a profound impression on me, and which, and showed how caring for a space can contribute to reinforce a foundation on which our social and pedagogical work can thrive. It strengthened my conviction that we should never underestimate the importance of lovingly caring for our surroundings, and the opportunity it can give us to create space for something new. These are the precious moments that enable us to constructively contribute towards peace and renewal.
I was requested to do a thorough cleaning of a residential home for juvenile delinquents because they were planning an open day. I was shocked by the state of extreme neglect and filth the house was in. I could smell the toilets all the way from the basement. I could hardly see through the windows, there were cobwebs and cigarette butts everywhere, and the door had black marks, indicating that it often opened by feet. The stairwell to the three stories and was painted with the most horrific, malevolent pictures in black and very bright colours.
I wanted to know who was responsible for the upkeep of the place.
“The boys” replied the principal.
“But who teaches them how to clean?”
“The teaching staff do that”.
I then wanted to know if there was an area that was cleaned by the staff, and he showed me the quarters used by people in charge of the night shift. Of course, this was no better, and I told him so. Slightly annoyed he wanted to know whether I wanted the job or not. I said that I was keen to do it, but not with my own employees: I would bring all my equipment and material, but clean with the boys and their staff. My offer came as a bit of a surprise. As this had never been done, he had to consult with the board first. I mentioned that the charge would be less than a quarter of that of coming with my employees. Perhaps this had an effect, as it took him less than an hour to return with a positive answer. As soon as he told me that I had the job, I was suddenly filled with panic. I had no experience with teenagers as my own children were seven and three at the time, nor had I ever seen a juvenile delinquent. And now I was supposed to work with ten of them. So I asked to meet the ten boys and learn their names beforehand. A breakfast was arranged, and I met the ten boys, aged thirteen to seventeen. I now had twelve days in which to prepare myself.
My father had advised me, on becoming a mother, that if I found no solution to a problem regarding my own children, I should address their guardian angels, who knew better than me what their real needs were. So I now tried to enter into a relationship with the guardian angels of these boys.
Every night before I went to sleep, I would line up the boys in front of my mind’s eye, calling them by their names and addressing their guardian angels. I believed that this was the only way I would be able to get through to them.
As five of them spent weekends with their family at a time, the work was planned for two weekends. Our job was to clean windows, radiators, lamps, doors, floors, showers and toilets. Once they started, they wanted to clean everything. Of their own accord, they started removing (some very explicit) posters and stickers from their walls and wardrobes. One boy felt the need to thoroughly clean his bed, taking it completely apart and in the process finding a whole pile of missing clothes hidden and forgotten underneath it. Another wanted me to show him how he could clean his stereo set “ecologically”. Of course, they could not work without music; and some music it was. To my ears it sounded like a mixture of an express train and a machine gun. The boy who chose the music told me that it filled him with energy, although I could not see a trace of it. He wanted to know what I liked listening to. I told him that I still liked some of the old sixties music that I used to listened to when I was his age. All of a sudden, I heard Cat Stevens’ “Morning has broken” It sounded like a symphony in comparison to the earlier noise. I was even able to convince the boy that it was easier to clean a window to the rhythm of “Morning has broken” than to the “tu-dum, tu-dum, tu-dum” we heard before.
After a fairly strenuous start, the house was soon buzzing with laughter and joyous activity. It was a wonderful working atmosphere and we managed to get a lot done.
Upon my return the following Saturday, the most wonderful surprise awaited me. The five boys who had cleaned with me previously had – with their own money – bought white paint and painted the stairwell from top to bottom. But they did not leave it at that. The surfaces were covered with naïve childlike pictures: a house with a green door, pink curtains and a smoking chimney; trees covered with red apples and cherries; daffodils and tulips; children flying kites under a beaming sun; and even birds, butterflies and tiny little snails crawling in the grass.
Through the experience of the communal activity of cleaning their own living space, something had awoken within them which they probably never even knew they had – a longing for beauty and harmony in a wholesome world.