When I turned up to Whitley library yesterday at 11.30, tired, a little nervous (as I always am for running workshops), it turned out that twelve children had been booked into the ‘Tales for the Deep’ workshop for that day. With the help of the library staff (it must be said, librarians in Reading are powerhouses in their own right!) we transformed the children’s section of the library into a craft space and at about five past twelve, the children appeared.
There were only seven in the end, but hey, for a free workshop, that’s not a bad turn out. In the first half an hour of origami fish and colouring octopus pictures, I learned three very important things:
- Children are just as fascinated by the octopus as I am, and already come to this space with a surprising amount of knowledge about these bizarre animals.
- The children I work with feel an affinity with this creature for the same reason I do: it is weird. It is misunderstood and the reaction of many people upon seeing it is one of revulsion, but get to know it and you cannot help but be amazed by it. These were children who had experienced this kind of attitude, just as I have. They are different, for whatever reason. They were outspoken, alternative, curious, thoughtful, creative, questioning and, crucially, many of them confessed to being outsiders in the community of their school. The Octopus is an outsider too.
- Give a child permission to create and they will use up all your origami paper creating little books in which to write numerous poems and stories about sea creatures, each more insane and beautiful than the last.
I do not miss my origami paper, in fact, I genuinely believe it has gone to a better place than the bottom of my Ryman’s bag waiting to be folded into fish. It has become story and that is a more valuable identity for a piece of paper.
The exciting thing about yesterday’s workshop was the move from reality into legend—the space of anything-goes. After we had exhausted the mad facts about octopuses (their blue blood, their three hearts, their thinking arms, their changing colour, their doughnut-shaped brains, their intelligence,) we moved on to the horror and fascination of the imagination. Did I know, asked one boy, what the biggest shark that ever lived was called?
I did! MEGALODON! How big was it? Twenty…thirty…forty feet! Longer than three great white sharks! What would it eat? How about giant squid? How big was a giant squid? The largest on record has been noted at twenty feet long. Was it dangerous? Almost definitely! Ancient fisherman believed in a creature called a Kracken, a great octopus that attacked ships and would rise from the deep at the end of the world. Who was more powerful, Megalodon or Kracken? I don’t know, what do you think? Only one way to find out…
Of course, we all should have guessed; write the story of Megalodon versus Kracken and let the subconscious decide.
Suddenly, we weren’t just listening to stories I had written, but creating our own. Children lined up to have paper stapled together into books. We had poems about sea horses, about sharks, about an evil octopus called Fred who discovered an underwater lab, was transformed into a Kracken and terrorised the ocean residents. (Don’t worry, he got is comeuppance!)
Interestingly, it took a lot of guts for any of those children to share their stories with me. There was something about solidifying their imagination in the written word that was both exciting and terrifying. They were willing to do it, they went for it, they wrote and wrote and wrote. But when I asked to see, they retreated into themselves as if I’d just asked them to do something horrific. Of course, I never make children share their stories. Stories are private unless we choose to share them. So when they shared, it was of their own volition and I celebrated the incredible limitlessness of their imaginations. But it did make me wonder…
The book I have been working on for the past year centres on the motif of the octopus for its otherness. In the three poetry narratives it is ostracised, demonised, even destroyed for being different. It made me think of these children, hiding their imagination against their chests and shaking their heads with embarrassed rictus grins if they were asked ‘can I see?’ How many times had they been told ‘that’s wrong?’ or ‘that doesn’t work?’ or ‘you misspelled this?’
I wondered if a teacher, (under pressure and exhausted. I’ve been a teacher, I understand), might have said to the boy who wrote about Evil-Octopus-Fred, ‘would there really have been an underwater lab? Would the octopus really have drunk a fizzing yellow potion?’
As adults, we have a very set way of viewing the world. We know what items are for: paperclips hold paper together, sharks eat fish, the octopus is disgusting, no—the megalodon is not still alive today, it’s definitely dead, sorry to disappoint you!
But what harm does it do a six-year-old child dreaming of underwater adventure to hope beyond reasonable hope that they might one day come face to face with a forty-foot shark? That same child, searching for its encounter, may one day make an oceanic discovery ten times as bizarre and important.
It is not the fault of teachers that we are suffocating this genius in schools. As I said, I’ve been a teacher, I know. The pressure of exam results, of numbers, how we are judged by and paid for the number of A*-C grades, or acceptable SATS results, that we ‘achieve’ as educators. The expectation to visit every pupil premium child in the classroom at least once whilst simultaneously teaching a four-part lesson, maintaining positive behaviour, dealing with meltdowns that may or may not have anything to do with our lesson or outside of it, measuring learning every ten minutes and progressing the children within the space of a single hour. Five or six times a day. Every day. I know the disappointment we feel when a child we have invested so much emotional energy and time in falls off the rails for a reason we could not have foreseen or controlled. I know the pain when a class of students we have sat after school with every day between March and May, faces a particularly tough exam and completely bombs. Teaching is hard. Teachers are superhuman. But that is not to suggest that they (we) don’t make mistakes, that in our exhaustion and fear, we don’t adhere to a system that kills genius with its rigid rules. That is why I left.
So this blog post is not an attack on teachers for the fear I witnessed in these youngsters on Saturday. It is not your fault. Instead, it is a quiet plea to you. Somewhere, amongst your billions of lesson plans, your late nights, your meltdowns, your panic, your piles of marking eighty-books-high, your emotional exhaustion, your teacher’s guilt (we all have it), please, we need you to be rebellious. Close your classroom door at least once a week, throw the dictionaries out the window (or at least tell the kids spelling doesn’t matter today!), build dens under the tables, turn the room into a forest, staple paper together and get the kids to make comics. Teach them about the octopus and what she means, how she is defiant and strong and different. I know how frightening this idea might be. Trust me, if you don’t already do this as I know so many teachers do, you will feel amazing after the first lesson you free yourself and your students. You should be the forefront of our revolution. We need you. You are the arms of the Kracken facing its own Megalodon, the great teeth closing on the throat of free thought, squeezing out the life force of our children. Don’t go down without a fight.