It’s 1967, my first teaching post. I’m covering for an absent English teacher at a girls’ comprehensive school in Islington, London for the summer term. After a bewildering and personally very difficult year or two post-university including a number of very short-term jobs I’ve managed to find something I think I may want to do. I’ve no idea how to manage recalcitrant individuals or whole classes when they get “lairy”, and they can spot my hesitancy. Children in groups are psychological instruments of great accuracy and merciless intent. I had had no teacher training – in those days it wasn’t an absolute requirement, one learnt on the job – and indeed I’ve always been glad that was how I started.
Anyhow, to the issue on hand: a miracle happened in my first few years in the classroom. Despite any number of disciplinary problems I also had some success, but there was one area in which success is simply the wrong word. I was witness to, and indeed helped to bring about, a river of jewels, a cascade of poems written by children, mostly sitting in front of me in the classroom itself, that has refreshed my entire life since. From time to time in this blog I’ll mention one of these poets and poems. This was from one of the very youngest, a girl of 11 or 12 years old called Jacqueline Campbell.
Lined up, Straight backed,
Lieutenants that’s the fiction books,
Quick Quick straight backs,
All in a row
Stand the books.
It’s a kind of proto-poetry that deals in the very essence of the alchemy of art. The moving world joins forces with the still. The reader’s mind is opened, a play is enacted, the curtain is drawn. The image is alive. To say any more is to interfere with the adventure of her statement and I may already have said too much. I didn’t even teach Jacqueline – I had been asked to take a library lesson, where the children read a book quietly, as a brief swap in the timetable – and she handed me this. Later her form mistress gave me a few more she’d written but for some reason I didn’t get round to seeing her again and then the term was over and I left the school.
Later there were to be many more, from older children at other schools; but these priceless sheets of paper gradually dried up after a few years. I became too distant from the pupils, perhaps, in terms of age; I was more preoccupied with running a department; or simply, the precarious position I was in when I joined that first school had more or less evaporated: I had grown up. But as a welcoming-gift to a profession that snow-drift of paper sheets, with its glittering array of words, can rarely have been equalled.