The teacher is on the edge of tears but holds it in. She take me from the drama studio to the carpark. “I’ll just go and get my things” she says. Her husband sits quietly in the car and waves me into the front seat. .I tell him a little about what just happened. “it’s Thursday” he says “it’s when the drugs arrive. They get excited.” He’s talking about school kids. He tells me that on Thursday the drug dealers, ex students, used to let
off a rocket on the hill to let everyone know the drugs had arrived. The teacher
returns. She’s clearly wept. “I’m so sorry” she winces “so very very sorry that you had to experience that”. The car draws out of the car park and as we leave the school in shocked silence I see two policemen walking through the school fields.
An hour and an half ago I got off the train after a two hundred and fifty miles journey and breathed the bracing burst of Yorkshire air. I’m in Bronte Country. Directly to the right of
the station exit is a taxi firm. A young Asian man sneers from behind the reception glass. The Controller. I ask for a taxi. There’s an interminable pause. His gold chain glints around his neck. I am going to guess that he is the son of the owner and that he filters all the good jobs (the ones to the airport) for himself. “yes” he replied and threw his head
backwards in a spasm. It was a sign for the gentleman behind him to get in the cab and take me.
“to XXXXXXXXX high school?” the driver says
“yes” I reply ”. “What do you think of the school?”
“Shit hole” he says “absolute shit hole”.
The car pulls by the school. It’s a great start for me. I take pride in what I do. These are the children who need and deserve a visiting writer. I am going to the right place. What I didn’t know is that this was the eye of the storm and I was entering the vortex – an institution right in the middle of melt down.
A few weeks ago I was visiting schools in Los Angeles where most of the chldren knew someone who had died by the bullet – often a family member. I have given workshops in townships of South Africa, International schools in Switzerland, and Zimbabwe, public schools in hampshire and inner city schools in London. Pupil Referal Units. Twenty years of experience could not have prepared me for this. I pride myself in being able to connect and perform through poetry.
The school was seventy percent Asain, mainly from Pakistan. The other thirty percent were polish chinese and english. One hundred children sat in front of me on raised seating in the drama studio. I was introduced onto the stage. It was as if I was not there. The children talked all the way through the reading. I stopped and changed the lighting so that they were no longer in the dark, so that I could see the’r eyes and they could see mine. I told them this. Not as a disciplinarian but as one individual to another. They continued to talk as if it were dinner time. They were not talking about me about the reading. They were talking about their own business. It was incredible! It was loud. They simply ignored me. I was of no consquence. I wasn’t even a disturbance.
And it didn’t happen once or twice but intermittently throughout the entire hour and fifteen minutes. I could spend a long time in this blog taking you through the why and wherefore. But I shalln’t. Ninety nine point nine percent of the time when I do a reading in a school I blame myself if it does not go well. I think what could I have done to have improved their experience. But you really had to be there to see that this had nothing to do with me, this was the edge of melt down madness.
The saddest and most telling comment I shall make about this damned experience is that none of it was the fault of the children. In the car park: “just last week” said the husband “just last week three drug dealers walked into the school with basebal bats and beat a
student”. Back at the train station I pop into the newsagent. The local paper is on the counter. The school I have just visited is FRONT PAGE news. And it’s not good news. It’s not good news at all.