On a bitterly cold Friday afternoon, teachers, parents and children linger at the school gate, reluctant to head home. Some of the grown-ups, including me, struggle to keep it together while the children gather around two little girls to give them one last hug.
Something quite momentous is going on here, in the courtyard outside a village school in the Sussex countryside. For this is our foster daughters’ last day, and they are saying goodbye to the community that has embraced them as two of their own. These are the teachers and families whose extraordinary kindness and compassion has helped two of the most vulnerable children learn to smile again, and to sing and dance. They feel loved and cherished, and not just in our home but wherever they go.
They say that it takes a village to raise a child. You probably are familiar with the refrain. I have used it myself from time to time, without truly considering its real significance. Then we became foster carers to sisters who arrived at our doorstep one November evening. They had not met us before, never heard of our village and had little sense of the kind of life that we live. They entered our home, shy and not a little frightened, carrying their meagre belongings in small bags. They, like us, had no idea how long they would be staying, be it for a week, a month or even a year. In the event, their placement has lasted two years.
Now they are joining their forever family, and this gathering at the school gate takes place just a couple of days after they have met their new parents for the first time. For Show and Tell our youngest chose to share with her classmates the booklet introducing her new mummy and daddy. A nipper who barely could speak when she first came to live with us stood before the class with a confidence and maturity that belies her years to explain why she would be saying goodbye at the end of the week.
Her short presentation prompts so many questions from the children, most of which are left to their own parents to answer at the end of the school day and, no doubt, over the next few days and weeks. For most of the pupils this is the first time they have been confronted with the reality that not every boy and girl is lucky enough to be born into a loving, stable family, and that sometimes parents cannot be trusted to care for their own children. It is also likely to be the first time they have heard about foster carers. It is the toughest lesson of all. I can only express my admiration for the teachers, mums and dads who have handled this difficult situation with sensitivity.
In many ways we are also saying goodbye to the parents who have accompanied us and the girls. We shall no longer be running down the hill to school behind the girls on their scooters in the morning, nor joining parents in the afternoon to greet the children after class. We have bid farewell to Saturday gym lessons, Monday’s swim club and the Friday afternoon Bible class. Birthday parties will be celebrated in the village without our two little’uns, and without us fretting over whether they are enjoying themselves or feeling anxious.
We hope that friendships forged at the school gate will endure, but the shared experience of having children who learn together and play together has come to an end. There is almost a generation between us and many of those whose children sat with our girls in class and we know, from previous placements, that life moves on. After a pause, we shall foster again: new children, a new school gate in a different community, new relationships. And so it continues.
Despite our long experience as foster carers, farewells do not become easier. We are excited for the futures they will have, loved by their wonderful new mum and dad, who are everything we could have wished for in their forever family. We have done all that we can to prepare them for this moment, but will it ever be enough? Here stand two children, who have spent such a significant part of their lives with our family that they sound like us, have the same tastes in food and music, and actually laugh at my jokes. They are starting all over again, with a new family, new friends, new school, new county. They are excited, delighted, relieved, apprehensive; sometimes all of these things in the space of a few moments. Two years may seem like a long time, but the healing process remains a work in progress, and we are simply passing the baton.
Whatever the future does hold for the girls, we want them to know that they will forever be part of our family, and that there always will be a small Sussex village rooting for them. There simply are no words to explain how much we shall miss them.