'It is diverse brains and the consequent breadth of talents and abilities that are pivotal to our future'

Joyce Hargrave-Wright reminisces on a life in psychology.

In my early teens, I began shakily but determinedly seeking to understand the behaviours of my family, my school, the workforce. The question ‘Why?’ became the basis of all my thinking, remaining so ever since. In particular, ‘Why did you choose the job/career direction that you took?  Peer pressure, parental insistence, careers officer’s persuasion, the job situation in your area, the need to work for financial reasons, your own ambitions?’ I questioned those of middle years and older, and was astonished to find that 75 per cent had never achieved fulfilment and had worked to exist, to keep a family. They had never followed a path they would have selected themselves.

As for my own path, my father had me earmarked for an academic career, but he was thwarted in this ambition by the war and my own desire to take a different path. I became a school secretary in a secondary school for boys, with some unqualified teaching in English and music, as the men were being called up into the Forces, leaving gaps in the staffing. I was 19 years old. The Head recommended that I train to be a teacher on the future. Meanwhile I received a scholarship to Brighton School of Music and trained to be a singer.

Peer pressure then led me to entering the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and I was put on special duties. I never knew quite why I was chosen. I trained in traffic control, at Uxbridge and Stanmore. In 1948, I was whisked off to Germany overnight to a place I had never heard of and for a reason I was not told. I was to be in the Headquarters of the Air Traffic Control, at Bad Eilsen, near Hanover, where I gradually realised the seriousness of our presence there – to drop food, coal, medical supplies, everything that could keep Berlin alive for a whole year. The Russians had barricaded the city in order to take over Berlin and finally, Germany, Europe and probably the UK.  

Germany was a revelation to me, and I watched the attitudes and behaviours of the local people and how they had viewed the war of 1939–45, and now their horror at the siege of Berlin. We were out in the countryside but the effects of the blockade were still very apparent. I was sent down to the American Zone to stay with some ex-Hitler Youth, tasked with finding out why they had joined the movement, their feelings whilst members and the impact on their lives and how they felt then, in 1948.

We went for long walks over the hills and talked for hours. In some ways I was amazed by their conclusions. I was told very firmly that Hitler had given their fathers jobs and the families homes and food, sadly lacking after the First World War. Two at least felt that the Hitler Youth with its camps and singing and marching was, ‘just like your Scout Movement’. Only one felt very strongly that the ideals were right and they should hate ‘Juden’. He had fixed ideas and would not discuss any deviations. The group were surprisingly ignorant about the Holocaust and were completely unaware of the concentration camps, although they had seen some newsreels at the cinema recently. Two of the group, a boy and a girl, then aged 19, wrote to me upon my demob. I have put those letters in full in my book, The Bridge of Wings, as they were similar to letters that might have been written by any teenager in the UK.

I also became involved with the Lebensborn. This means ‘spring of life’ and was probably one of the most secret and terrifying projects of the Nazis, created by Himmler. From 1939 one policy was to kidnap women from the eastern occupied countries with suitable colouring, to become ‘mothers’. Children would also be kidnapped if they had the Nazi’s racial criteria (blond hair, blue eyes). Thousands of children were transferred to these centres to be ‘Germanised’ and they were forced to reject their own country and parents, and indeed forget them. In 1936 it was estimated that 250,000 children were kidnapped from Poland, and surrounding countries, even from Norway. Only 25,000 were retrieved and sent back to their homelands after the war.

All those concerned were emotionally touched, for life. After the war, many of the Aryan babies born in these baby farms were hidden away from society, or spent their lives in mental institutions or orphanages. Some tried to attempt a normal life, without having ever known who they really were and their original country. I had a great interest in them at the time and researched for any news as to their lives or at least their whereabouts. There will still be many, in their seventies now, who have lived in this ‘non-world’ all of their lives. One (I will call him Peter) says that today he is a broken man. He feels ashamed still to talk about his abuse and mistreatment, with a register number all that remains of his Lebensborn childhood.  

In 2001 Norwegian Lebensborn children sued the Norwegian government – ignoring them over the years was seen as a violation of human rights. The prosecutors demanded up to two million kroner for each case – a slight reward for a lost childhood, a lost life. The case was rejected on the grounds of invalidity. I remain interested in the state of their minds, how has the bitterness affected them on a day-to-day basis, both mothers and children, with neither group having a place in the world.

War is not just about fighting and scoring victories. It is about people on all sides of the operation. There are no winners; we are all losers in the long run. It alters us.

When my own children started school, I went to teacher training college. Once qualified I taught for several years, with one year being seconded to London University for the postgraduate Diploma in Child Development. I had to visit many schools and at one primary school met representatives of the then Word Blind Society. It was the forerunner of all the dyslexia associations and was largely organised and run by eminent psychologists: Professor Tim Miles, Beve Hornsby, Sandya Naidoo and many others. These meetings introduced to me the subject that was to dominate a large part of my life – dyslexia. Our son was assessed as dyslexic and, at the age of 41, so was my husband. I watched their behaviours and the area of their struggles and the lack of support at schools and in the workplace. I helped to instigate the ‘dyslexia movement’ in this country – teachers, psychologists and neurologists working together with parents in the Staines area to form the first Dyslexia Association. I became an Affiliate Member of the BPS. Later I applied for Chartered status, and then became an Associate Fellow. I have worked with psychologists and psychology throughout my career. I still do.

When I became a headteacher, I began the constant battle to convey to teachers, parents, the local education authorities and the government that dyslexia was a great deal more than a literacy difficulty. I fight for their ‘rights’ and to encourage strengths as well as accepting weaknesses. My ‘mantra’ has always been diversity, flexibility, positive differences, creativity, imagination and intuitiveness. It is diverse brains and the consequent breadth of talents and abilities that are pivotal to our future. Producing ‘clones’ that think alike, learn and ingest and produce the same material, as seems to be the aim of our present educational systems, is not the way forward. We all have much to offer, given the chance.

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