Within 3 minutes of settling down they are writing.
2 minutes later, I have a plethora of raised hands to choose from – all keen to share aloud the words they’ve just written. An observer would be impressed. And that’s just the warm up.
At this halfway stage (week 10) in the mentoring programme, looking around the room, there’s a genuine sense of community here among the 17 year 9 & 10 writers. Their responses to my invitation to share aloud are proof of their developed skill and self-belief in what they write, as well as a manifestation of the trust they put in each other, and in me.
We move on to look at today’s poem: ‘Jaguar Girl’ by Pascale Petit, from her shattering, stunning collection Mama Amazonica. You could hear a pin drop as I read it to them and they follow with their eyes on the page. They respond to what they’ve read/heard in an open, democratic round table discussion. We deconstruct the layers of metaphor within the poem’s worlds.
The students always amaze me with the depth of their perceptive responses to the poems I bring and today’s no exception. Petit’s poem is an uncomfortable, visceral, complex one, but, when I invite any and all responses to the poem (and everything IS allowed), no-one says ‘I don’t get it.’ Guided by their responses, I build a diagrammatic response to the poem’s imagery on the classroom whiteboard. The concentric circles of metaphor spill out across the space.
(I note that this reminds us that things are messy, in our heads sometimes; in the world, often.)
One student who has recently experienced a trauma, has sent me some writing in the week, in between our school sessions. I receive a lot of work from the students by e-mail, in between times, and it thrills me to read what they have been working on in their own time. Whilst the rest are writing away, exploring their own real/unreal places, I sit with her and we sift her draft poem, me explaining my thoughts and suggestions for improvements, her eagerly listening and quietly taking it all in. No, she hadn’t been aware that she had written an elegiac poem. No, she wasn’t aware of her intuitive sense of rhyme, that has surfaced in the piece. When we’re done, she walks away from this feedback conversation a whole foot taller. It’s evident that she is starting to process her trauma through writing.
When our hour has rushed by, as I’m tidying up my things, getting ready to leave, one student lags behind to speak to me. She tells me quietly, and a little awkwardly, that she has something in her mind that she wants to write. It keeps coming back but she can’t write it. After a brief conversation, it’s clear to me that the only obstacle in her way is permission. I ask her if she’s afraid of failing, worried that after she’s finally committed the ideas to paper, she’ll re-read them, and they won’t be any good? She thinks that’s it, that’s the problem. I tell her, one writer to another, that we all feel like this sometimes. I tell her to write it imagining that she’ll immediately throw it in the bin. I tell her that it won’t matter. I give her permission. She smiles and walks away.