There is a photograph called ‘Migrant Mother’. It is an arresting black and white shot. The woman is centre stage and gazes sideways on. She is beyond exhaustion: every line etched in her face tells its own story.
At first glance, she appears to have two children. Look more closely and you will see she has three: a child asleep on her lap and two other children, faces averted from the camera, hair cropped, revealing their fragile necks.
I was startled to discover that this iconic photograph was taken in 1936. The image could have been yesterday – in Aleppo; in a refugee camp in Greece; on a packed, rickety boat scuttling across the Mediterranean. The photograph, part of a collection owned by Elton John, has recently been on display at The Tate Modern. The photographer – Dorothea Lange – was trying to capture the human cost of the American Depression. She later recounted her experience of taking that photograph:
I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet… She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed.
‘Every few hundred years throughout history’, Peter Drucker wrote some time ago, a sharp ‘transformation’ occurs. ‘In a matter of decades, society altogether rearranges itself. Fifty years later a new world exists. And the people born into it cannot imagine the world in which their grandparents lived and into which their own parents were born.’
Today’s world – in which more than half the world’s refugees are children – seems to be at one of those points of transformation: and it is the children and young people in our schools who will shape the new world order. This is why schools need to be places of belonging. ‘Belonging’ is that sense of being somewhere where you can be confident that you will fit in and safe in your identity.
While schools may not be able to protect today’s ‘Migrant Mother’, in a volatile global context – in which new ideas can as easily be built on quicksand as on solid foundations – schools are important conduits of information and one of the few shared social institutions which can create a sense of belonging for the young people who pass through their gates. Schools are ever-changing kaleidoscopes of people, ideas and attitudes which have the potential to coalesce around shared beliefs and understandings. Through creating that sense of belonging, schools can help young people recognise that what seems a ‘given’ today can change tomorrow, and that tomorrow belongs to them.
Photo by Lange, Dorothea(w), photographer. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
 From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960.