“Mr Torpey Nick Sir!” messing with identity. Writers in Schools Revisited

Tony, a professional animation artist has entered a classroom of a High School in Liverpool and greets a teacher who is about to introduce him to the class he is about to work with that afternoon. Tony is visiting a school which he used to attend as a teenager. After having not visited the school for over 25 years he has now been employed as visiting screen writer and animator on the NAWE Writing Together programme which has placed him in that school for what will be six half days of work with a group of year nine boys in order to get the ‘pleasure back into their writing, and to develop more ‘colour’ and expressiveness in their creative writing.’

Nick Torpey – a teacher of Tony’s when he was 11 – is still teaching at the school; and the first two words of Tony’s greeting – Mr. Torpey – are the words Tony was accustomed to using whilst being a pupil the school. A split second later, Tony realises that this formal approach is inappropriate for the enactment of the role Tony has now found himself in and adds to his greeting the less formal “Nick” – only to realise immediately afterwards that given this interchange is taking place in a classroom in full view of the on looking boys that Tony is about to work with, that this informality is too informal and that he must resort to another type of formal style which is used by many teachers in their communications with each other – the tendency to refer to each other as ‘sir’ or ‘miss’. Hence the birth of the rapid fire utterance, ‘Mr Torpey Nick Sir!”

Tony is introduced by his new colleague – Mr. Torpey Nick Sir – to the class as a freelance, professional animator who has come to share (as opposed to teach or instruct) his writing skills with the class in front of him. Tony doesn’t recall having anybody similar being introduced to him when he was at school and for this class, they too have not been introduced to this type of adult presence in the classroom by the current school managers before. It is clear from the start that the relationship that the pupils can expect to have with Tony will be of a different nature to the one they are accustomed to with the regular teachers in the school. They are encouraged to address him by his first name and discouraged from calling him either ‘Mr Ealey’ or ‘Sir’. Discouragement comes in the form of explicit, friendly guidance that using the artists first name when addressing him is acceptable, or the occasional joke with a pupil who stumbles over the construction “Tony Mr Ealey Tony Sir.”

They are led into a series of exercises by the writer which are different in terms of both style and content to their usual classroom exercises. They have been asked to describe ‘pitches’ of films and stories they have known (short descriptions which aim to capture the essence of the story of that film in as few words and as punchy a way as possible) and are soon developing pitches of their own for film stories they are encouraged to imagine. The class is marked by an atmosphere of attention and focus on Tony; contributions from the majority of the class to Tony’s questions and suggestions; a lively, informal and good humoured interaction between artist and pupils. The teacher who is present sits at the back of the class, scanning the room for any signs of distress, discomfort or potential trouble. Mr Torpey Nick Sir left the room some minutes after the class began.

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