Melinda was only 15, but everyone agreed she was “going on 22”. She had a way about her whereby she often seemed one step ahead of us all. Somewhat aloof, even superior in attitude, she was often overheard in philosophical discussions with staff. We all “got on” with her and would often find ourselves in a one-on-one chat with her or in a group where she was present.
Today we were all called into what was termed an “unscheduled” team meeting. How we hated these ... the name was just a euphemism for some staff panic attack. Some kid had run away, beaten someone up, refused to go to school, got drunk ... and we would sit for hours agonising over what to do, who would do it, etc.
It was Melinda. Last night she had come back to the unit floating on a cloud. She had, she declared with appropriate sincerity, found the man she was going to marry. He was 25, was a university graduate with a steady job, had just moved in to a small home he was buying and was in love with her. She wanted to petition the court for emancipation so that she could marry him ...
It wasn’t the usual sort of “unscheduled meeting” story which involved policemen, bloodshed or illegal drugs, but from the look on all the faces around the table it seemed just as bad. Sonja, our social worker, frowned deeply. Kathy, academic counsellor, threw her eyes upward. Iris Begby, who always reminded me of an Edwardian chaperone and who was the sheet-anchor of principle and order in our program, sat stiffly and stared straight ahead of her. She was past middle age and was what some people call “a brick”, a solid character, a companionable lady who, if she had been male, would have been something of a Mr Chips. Graham Edwards, our team leader, looked exasperated “as if a soccer team colleague had tripped him up just as he was about to score a certain goal. “What a damned business!” he muttered.
There was the briefest silence as Melinda’s news sank in, and then everyone spoke at once. “What about her school work?” wailed Kathy. Sonja said “Her mother is going to hit the roof!” “Well, at least she hasn’t come home with the deed already done,” shrugged Weston, one of our volunteers, “or pregnant for that matter!” We didn’t need Weston's further depressing prognostications and he was studiously ignored.
Then there was a brief detour through the blame phase common in our “unscheduled” meetings. “Why haven’t we heard about this?” demanded Graham. “Has Melinda talked to any others of you about this?” asked Sonja. Someone else enquired “Who is this chap anyway?” “What can she be thinking of?” asked another.
But soon enough we got to the issue. The team
quickly notched up an impressive list of reasons why the announced match
would not be possible. It was as though the minister had asked “If
anyone knows of any impediment to this marriage let him now declare it
or forever hold his peace!” Her schoolwork, her career, her status as a
ward of the state, her family’s view ... and then even some personal
characteristics of Melinda herself “her age, her immaturity, her
inexperience. It sounded very much as if the trial was over. Guilty as
charged. All that remained was the actual sentence. Who would “explain” all this to Melinda, what else should we do to put this whole thing to
bed? The tension of our unscheduled meeting subsided ...
Iris Begby cleared her throat. She remained sitting upright, her hands in her lap, her head erect in her high collar.
–May I say something?” she asked diffidently. Oh God, I wondered, what further objections and barriers could she raise?
The room fell quiet.
–I was married at fifteen,” she said quietly. This was no declamation or apology, it clearly was not said in support of some strongly held view, for or against anything in the recent debate. It was just a matter of fact, stated modestly in her residual Scottish accent.
Nobody quite knew what to say. It was not as though we were being rebuked for equating Melinda’s age with immaturity or not knowing her own mind. But her words added the formidable weight of new data into our discussion, to our responsibility for Melinda and her well-being and her future. Iris Begby was not a “force to be reckoned with” but rather a pillar of common sense in our program, someone to whom we had admittedly referred somewhat adolescently as “Old Beggars” when she expressed her always sensible opinion “and, I might add, someone whom the girls particularly confided in and trusted.
Iris had lost her husband some years ago after nearly fifty years of marriage. Before retiring she had been a teacher, and now, with plenty of energy remaining, she was a most useful member of our child and youth care team. She commanded much respect.
A totally different light shone on Melinda’s announcement. It seemed no longer outrageous, unrealistic and inconvenient. Didn’t we remember her mature bearing, her intelligent conversation and her good company “and if a 25-year-old graduate (whom we would, of course, all like to meet) was in love with her, shouldn’t we be glad for her? We realised that we had been thinking very much “inside the box”, the box of our preconceived role and status for Melinda as a young girl, and of the various pathways we had each expected her to follow.
Graham and Iris, between them, balanced the changed
mood of the team by reminding us all that whatever might happen, there
were all sorts of hurdles yet to be negotiated “but now in the shared
spirit not of disapproving staff members in Melinda’s life but of her
well-meaning and positive adult friends.