For a long time now I have struggled in any kind of public situation. I feel especially uncomfortable in the presence of anyone I don't already know, usually regarding them with a degree of suspicion that pervades far beyond those initial encounters. This is a profound issue which has created all sorts of problems that have seriously hindered my life since childhood. On the other hand, one of my friends, when I put this to him, retorted (perhaps as a kindness) that avoiding strangers is "just common sense" and "what British people do". Still, I can't help but feel that I've missed out on a lot because of it.
Last week I remembered something interesting, which makes me wonder if this is where it comes from. It was something that happened to me when I was five years old, in my first year at primary school, and the fact that I still remember it (and particularly the way I remember it) suggests it was quite a formative experience in my development.
It was the lesson about paedophiles.
Not that the teacher (who I otherwise remember as being especially lovely) ever explained what a paedophile is, what he does, what he wants, nor even used the word 'paedophile' - all quite understandably - it is only in retrospect that I understand what this lesson was really about. It was explained to us by the teacher, with a series of illustrations to guide. The illustrations (now forgive me - I was five years old and have only the vaguest memory of most of this) depict a man driving up to a child and offering the child some sweets.
The word used?
We were told again and again, "don't take sweets from strangers!" That line, along with "never talk to a stranger!" were repeated to us ad nauseam so our little five year old minds took the message to heart - I don't remember if we were told why we shouldn't do these things, those obviously weren't the key messages. Just avoid the horrible strangers. Got it.
There was something else about the day of this lesson, the first lesson of the day indeed, that was also notably memorable. This was the day that a new girl started in our class - Elaine, I think her name was. As I recall she was understandably a little meek as the teacher introduced her at the start of the day. I can only imagine it got worse, about midway through the "strangers" lesson.
"Never talk to a stranger!" the teacher repeated, before mindlessly running straight into the next sentence: "Now, when I met Elaine this morning, she was a stranger..."
If there was subsequently a qualification given to this remark, I just don't remember it sadly. This is the version that is forever etched on my memory, and the definition of a 'stranger' was clear in my mind: it could be anyone.
And hence I never talk to strangers.
But I do take sweets from men who drive their cars up to me. It's a strange world.