I want to be the first whisper first heard by a deaf man: Writers in Schools revisited

Terry, a big Scouse presence appears as if by magic on the floor of an imposing, oaken school library dressed in the hybrid clothing of part teacher gown, part trainer top, part designer trousers and complete black and white brogues.

The seats and tables are shoved back to the walls, giving him the floor space which he takes to like a duck to proverbial, slurping out of his bottle of noisy water, telling me about the fecundity of the group’s work from the previous week. An awkward gaggle of angular faces, beaks and folded arms look on and I’m reminded that despite all the experience in the world, you never know what you’re going to face: all the preparation, all the theory, all the lesson plans, all the tricks and tips and turn ons is fine but… in the end…. you’ ve got a line of expectations, gazes, hopes, resentments, gaps, blank minds, active minds fidgeting just waiting for you, for someone, for something to switch them on….

He starts with an impromptu solo improvisation about his own experiences of education and the resistances he encountered: “what are you going to night school for, you poof?” before launching into the session proper by reading some of his own poetry, a love poem about a boy and girl on Wigan Pier. Straight into a flip chart exercise, the rule being to complete the phrase, ‘I want to be the first…’ “I want to be the first whisper first heard by a deaf man.’

Momentarily, we’re all stunned. How do we acknowledge, consider and value that moment produced by a young lad who looks as bemused as his contribution as those of us who have just registered it? I’m reminded of the moment in another writer’s class when a boy calls out, in response to a question about film making, how do you squeeze real time into 90 minutes film time? A huge question but not followed through: perhaps we’ve forgotten how to follow through? For all the talk about personalised learning in the classroom, can we ever have the wherewithal to respond to moments of beauty that don’t entail ticking off an outcome within the confines of a cell in an excel spreadsheet? But we move on and gloss over.

Back to the rules. Rule 1: it can’t be wrong, whatever you write. Followed by a quick exercise: complete the following phrase: In case of… X then Y. Rule 2: the last word starts the next line: but remember Rule 1: all answers are equally valuable “it doesn’t matter what you say, it can’t be wrong…” he urges. Rule 3: the first line and last line have to be the same, “like a jigsaw puzzle: ironically meaning that the final rule negates the principle of Rule 1. But we’re not worried as we frantically scribble, trying our best to fill that empty page of lined paper. In the fluidity of the writer, child, teacher relationship, the writer establishes the rules, yet breaks them rapidly, easily, without consternation or complaint. “It can’t be wrong, you’re the author”.

From the transience of the writer’s rule setting regime an essence emerges of a kind of super-author who makes and breaks the rules for his apprentices, his minor authors. Through the walls he drifts, from the floor he rises: the meta-author, the author of authors. Welcome to the world of the writer in residence.

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