Handing out words


November 2016

The Roving Poet Part 6: ‘Don’t Talk to Me About Camouflage!’



This week, I was running ‘Tales from the Deep’ with youngsters at Battle Library. As usual, I set out my little booklets for the kids to write in, my octopus colouring pictures, my origami paper, and waited. Within five minutes of opening, I had seven children, and would have ten over the course of the whole session. What interested me about this group of kids was how incredibly quiet they were. They looked at me with huge, terrified deer eyes. They spoke very quietly, leaning into their parents, watching me as if I was something unpredictable. They coloured very carefully, staying between the lines, yes, but adding their own quirks to their octopus pictures. They added spots, stripes, hearts, stars…and my goodness could these kids write! They wrote about sea creatures so bright they were unmissable, about brave octopuses who rescued mermaids from sharks. Their stories were phenomenal, but they barely spoke a word.

There was one exception to this rule, a very enthusiastic and clearly well-read young man of about nine who, for the purposes of this, we shall name Felix. He talked incessantly. I’m certain that most of what he said was made up, but who am I to judge the reality of a small child? He told me that he and his father had once caught a squid the size of that chair and his favourite snake was a blue one that could hypnotise you to death! I made him an origami fish, as I do for all the youngsters in the workshop, and asked him if it was going to be a regular fish or a flounder. He looked at me suspiciously and said, “what’s a flounder?” I explained it was a fish as flat as a pancake that lived on the ocean floor and hunted unsuspecting sea dwellers, like the octopus. Its scales were so similar to the sand that it was almost invisible, a brilliantly camouflaged fish.

Felix’s excellent response was “don’t talk to me about camouflage! We found ten flounders under the sea…” he then went into another marvellous submarine adventure in which he and his father had caught a flounder or saved an octopus or wrestled an octopus or caught a ten foot shark. I can’t remember. I was trying too hard not to giggle. Meanwhile, Felix’s younger sister, sat with their mother, was quietly colouring her octopus, writing a story about a mermaid. Despite Felix’s protestations about his familiarity with camouflage, it was every other child around that table that was expert at blending in. This was not Felix’s fault. In fact, he was another kind of different. Later, his mother confirmed that Felix had an alternative learning need which meant he did not really care to fit in. He was who he was and I have a great deal of respect for that. I hope beyond hope that Felix remains as much himself as he can, and that the nastiness of other human beings does not make him lose this.

For the other children, it was obvious that camouflage was a way of life. In this sense, they were very much like the octopus; adapting, hiding, tucking themselves away into imaginary places no one would think to look. They were—and are—a generation stripped of their individuality, boxed into a don’t-think-don’t-speak-don’t-question lifestyle through a schooling system that focuses on ‘comprehension’ rather than ‘ask’. In a social set up that favours the extrovert and looks down on the shy and silent as ‘weak’ or ‘unfit’, these are children whose own imaginative power is being suppressed. Much like the octopus, they are ridiculed and sneered at rather than respected.

I watched these children create. I recognised the strength of their minds, the way they stayed within the confines of expectation but only just, the way they never broke the rules, but bent them into such obscure shapes they were barely recognisable. These camouflaged are children with power. They are the cast aside, the bullied, the ignored, the forgotten. But they see everything. And Felix? Well, he was hardly what I would call a conventional child, but he will be brilliant one day. They all will, if we let them.

In the backs of our classrooms are children like these, quiet with their eyes cast down and their minds screaming, if only we could hear the frequency they’re talking in. They are transmitting electro-pulses more powerful than we can possibly understand. The sharks can sense them; the cruel, the manipulative, the greedy. But the ones they need to hear them aren’t listening.

These are not weak children. They have a power that our world will need in years to come. They will be the ones that save the planet, that shelter the homeless, that heal the dying. At least, they will if we don’t crush them first, if we don’t leave them in their hiding places so long they convince even themselves that they don’t exist. Every ocean is a game of deception and revelation. Now it is our turn to be surprised by the incredible things our children can do, if only we will let them be, if only we can appreciate them for all their quiet brilliance, their gentle genius, the breathlessness we will all experience when the silent force of them finally hits us. These are the children the education system will suffocate, the children that some people do not want to grow up to be brilliant. It’s our job to protect them, provide the camouflage, respect their hiding places and listen to their electricity. The fact is, we need them.


The Poet Activist Part 1: Save Our Schools!

Today, I experienced, first-hand, the appalling results of the government’s continuing cuts to comprehensive education, and the delay in implementing the national funding formula. Our basic right to education and knowledge is under threat and it is not good enough. Out of anger and concern, I have written to the MP in the area I work and urge as many others as possible to do the same. As I said to my MP, the letter will be an open letter and I will let it explain my fear. The school in question has been blotted out for privacy reasons, but its location doesn’t matter, as this is a concern facing comprehensice schools across the country.

PLEASE: Write to your local MP, sign the petition below and share this post as widely as you can to urge the government to do the right thing and protect our education system. petition to SAVE OUR EDUCATION SYSTEM

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing out of increasing concern and frustration regarding the delay of the implementation of the national funding formula for the next 12 months, and the continuing cuts to the comprehensive education system across the country.

I am a qualified teacher working as a poet in residence at a school in Hampshire, a position for which the school and I have worked hard, with success, to find external funding to support the school and its students. As I work with these students and the staff at the school, I observe with increasing concern the drastic changes the senior leadership team are being forced to undertake to save money and keep the school running. This is likely to include a reduction of subject areas being offered, a cut to staff who receive TLR and an amalgamation of certain subjects into faculty areas, resulting in cuts to staff pay. This has understandably caused concern amongst a staff who work tirelessly to provide a solid education for their students, despite continuing cuts, long working hours, increasing responsibility imposed on them by their government and little in the way of protection for their reputation as educated, hard-working and compassionate contributors to our society.

I foresee that many of the staff who will suffer from these inevitable changes will be forced to find employment elsewhere simply to continue making ends meet, including taking care of families and paying mortgages. Given the severity of the already nation-wide teacher shortage, and the high percentage of teachers leaving the profession within the first five years (of which I am one as a result of a severe anxiety disorder triggered by the lifestyle of working as a teacher), it will be exceptionally difficult for the school to replace staff. If these cuts continue and the government does not begin to take the importance of a free comprehensive education system seriously, many schools across the country, like this one, will close. The potential closure of schools like those in Hampshire will mean reduced choice for parents and increasing pressure on surrounding schools to provide a suitable education for students, and so the problem will spread.

As a student of the comprehensive system, a teacher in comprehensive education for four years and an artist educator, I have seen the importance of the school system, and of education, to the lives of young people. It is the fundamental backbone of our society, providing people from all walks of life with the skills they require to be functioning, healthy and questioning human beings.

And this situation is not exclusive to Hampshire schools. According to the BBC, a third of parents across the country are spending £50 or more on stationary and supplies, with contributions being asked of parents to support art, Resistant Materials and to buy textbooks for their students. For low income families, this is a severe disadvantage and continues to put pressure on the most vulnerable members of our society. The governments continuing rhetoric around expanding the grammar school sector, which will favour only those within positions of social and emotional privilege, and the continuing cuts to education, are causes for severe concern, and harp back to the Victorian system of ragged schooling, run by volunteers.

These cuts to education are utterly unacceptable and should not be tolerated by a nation which prides itself on being fair, caring and safe for those in its society.

I urge you to take this concern to government and impress upon them the importance of increased funding for schools, and implementing the national funding formula as soon as possible. This should be a priority or our young people, the future of this country, will suffer. I also want to inform you that I am treating this as an open letter. It will be published on my artist’s blog and will be accompanied by an online petition urging the government to implement the national funding formula and increase funding to comprehensive schools rather than open or convert new grammar schools.

This is a matter of utmost importance and I will continue to write until I feel satisfied that something will be done to save our education system from the danger it has been put under by our government.

Thank you.

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