Lately, I’ve been doing quite a lot of travelling and performing with my parrot, Maya. Over the last two months or so, we have done performances in Caversham and Henley, we have spent a weekend staying in an 800 year old Franciscan chapel and performing to kids in Canterbury, and this week we ran workshops at one of the most amazing schools we have ever been to.
Maya and I have had a lot of experience recently, but we have both learned that peoples’ generic reaction to poets and parrots is almost identical:
- a look of fear upon realising it is in the room with them
- Fear turning into intrigue as they take time to get to know it
- Surprise and confusion as they are offered a closer look
- They hold out their hands uncertainly, and as they feel it step onto their fingers, their faces turn to utter amazement and excitement.
This is true when Maya steps delicately onto a stranger’s hand, or that same stranger discovers what poetry really is. I think this is why I like bringing Maya with me wherever I go. Not only does she draw conversation, she is like a little feathered poem, something that touches people’s hearts and stays with them. So, I’d like to take you through a few of my adventures over the last month.
The Wise Words Festival 2017, Canterbury
I love this festival. I have gone every year for the last five years and have been so excited by how it has grown from a single yurt in a garden to a fully blossomed, beautiful festival that is like walking straight into A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This year, with the parrot in tow, the festival struggled to find somewhere for me to stay that would allow pets, and so, in true festival style, I was granted night-time sanctuary in the Franciscan chapel on the garden grounds. Correction, the 800-year-old Franciscan chapel. The oldest Franciscan chapel in the country. I’m not a religious or particularly spiritual person, but I have a great deal of respect for sacred spaces, so listening to the way that building talked to itself as the night drew in, as the beams relaxed, as the doors and locks and floors and stairs groaned, as the river rushed by underneath it (yes, it is built over a river! There’s a trapdoor straight down to the rushing water in the room that used to be dungeon…) was magic. In the morning, Maya and I waked under trees hung with origami and decorated lampshades, under an archway of books, into a garden full of smiling people in muslin trousers and sandals. My kinda people.
I also had the privilege of performing my children’s story in this same chapel, draped in a velvet cape, with a fedora hat and a parrot on my shoulder, I had a very interesting conversation with a seven-year-old about how she doesn’t like shops that sell fake broomsticks because it puts magical people like her off, and you should only buy proper broomsticks that can properly fly, otherwise it’s much harder to learn. She reminded me of me. There is a magic in children, in the way they believe with a conviction that we have forgotten how to feel as adults. The world is magic. Just because we can explain some of it, doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful. Electricity in the sky? What’s with that? Sea creatures that can live for hundreds of years? Glowing creatures deep in the ocean? Flight? Gravity? How are these things not magic? Under the rafters of that chapel, watching a parrot fly about over their heads, those children bought thoroughly into that narrative of magic, listened to the rolling lilt of a language that has developed over thousands of years and understood. Their hearts are open. For a whole load of reasons not entirely relevant to this part of the post, I think this is something we are taught to forget as we grow up. Which brings me to my second adventure:
The Treehouse School, Cholsey
At 8am on Wednesday this week, Maya and I rocked up to Cholsey station, four platforms surrounded by fields. We had never been their before. We were met by one of the teachers at the school we were visiting, and three students, all of whom had come to escort us. We walked. In the humidity of bizarre May-time weather, the scent of horses, the occasional rumbling of 4 by 4s with mud-caked wheels until, abruptly, the teacher stopped and said “here we are!” I looked around me. There was no building that looked remotely like a school. We were on a residential street. But the kids opened the gate of the nearest house and trudged right in. We walked past the metal sculpture of a giant eagle, into an enormous garden that looked like something right out of my childhood daydreams. The climbing frame was a Trojan Horse (yup, genuinely). The hedges had in-built dens. There was a little teepee village right beside the vegetable gardens and the kids started the day by weeding.
While they worked, I explored. The school was a house. Or, the house was a school. It was a beautifully converted house with a classroom in the conservatory, a craft room, a carpeted work space where the living room once was. The kitchen smelled amazing as the staff and students prepared a healthy veggie meal. It is an independent school, but the parents do not pay fees. Instead, funds are raised through campaigns organised by the staff and students. All fifteen students in the entire school, who spend time running around outside, cooking, exploring, going on trips, taking care of animals. Now this might sound like the airiest and fairiest of all airy fairy places. You might think ‘but what are they actually learning? Are they progressing like other kids?
I have worked with secondary age students for four years, and I’ve met sixteen year olds who couldn’t do what these kids could do. Their independence in learning, their resilience, their maturity was unbelievable. Throughout the whole day, they surprised me. To a child, their poetry was better than anything else I have read from any other child I have worked with, and the oldest kid in that school was ten. One of the oldest lads wrote the line ‘I am the small, dark room you are trapped inside.”
And a seven year old girl, sweet as anything, and enthusiastic to boot, wrote ‘I am the blood of the rainbow because I keep all happiness to myself.”
THE BLOOD OF A RAINBOW!
She was seven. I had brought writing frames for some of the youngest students, frames I had previously used to support eleven- and twelve-year-olds doing tasks like this. Even the five-year-olds in this school didn’t need it. They didn’t even want it. All fifteen students produced a poem of at least five lines, some over two pages, of the most beautiful, stirring, evocative and original images. They wrote lines I wish I’d come up with at twenty seven.
With all the wonder of that place, the contact with the natural world, the excitement and interaction, it almost looked like the kids weren’t working at all. But they remained focused and determined for the whole morning, proud of their writing, always aiming to make it better, crossing out and improving. Even the younger ones. Those students must go home at the end of the day and sleep so well. But I know that, if I had gone to that school as a child, if I had had an environment like that instead of the terrifying, whirling madness that was my state comprehensive; the bullying, the loneliness, the cruelty of other children, the rigorous terror of testing, the relentless unhappiness that I experienced, my anxiety may not have spiralled so badly out of control as it did when I was in my twenties. I’m willing to bet anything that that school has saved as many children as have passed through its wonderful doors. Because they are taught to be who they are. I know it’s an old, cliched message, but no one ever tells you how terrifying, how difficult, how lonely a task it can be.
If I were to tear the entirety of the education system down and rebuild it from the foundations up, I would build it in the image of that school. It is the first place of education I have been that also feels like a sanctuary. And, if nothing else, that’s what learning should be, the developing of our own, internal sanctuary. That place was a glimmer of what-could-be in a climate of over-assessment,an epidemic of young adult mental illness, the growing trend of depression and anxiety in pre-teens, the disconnection and disenfranchisement of a generation of young people who represent our future. I left and felt hope. I know it was hope, because I had to think very carefully about it. I knew I recognised the feeling, but also that I had not felt it in a very long time. Not like that.
Although I am proud that Maya and I, the poet and the parrot, delivered a whole load of words to people who came asking for them this past month, I feel humbled by the staff and students at the Treehouse school, by the incredible organisers of the Wise Words Festival, by amazing individuals who develop these places of safety, of imagination, magic and power. I am a roving poet, a quiet whirlwind with no defined path. These places give people like me a home. They are places we can recharge, regrow, remind ourselves of our missions and draw strength. Without these places, artists of all kinds would cease to exist. Like the school I went to when I was young, the world as a whole can be vicious to people who think differently, who are idealistic and hopeful. If we are to change it, we need to preserve our havens.