No, this post isn't about the Tennessee Williams play – I just liked the title. And this is about youth and some fine representatives of the condition I met recently at book-related events, though my story meanders a bit, but then you know that about me by now.
First up, a visit to Sierra Madre, a lovely town close to Pasadena, CA. My book Maisie Dobbs was chosen for their 2014 One Book, One City program, which was a huge honor – so I was thrilled to visit in February to give a talk organized by the library. Now, just to let you know how important this was – my husband came with me. John almost never comes to events any more, mainly because he hears me quite enough thank you, so who can blame him?
The event was held in the Gooden School hall. When you walk into a school where children are encouraged to post notes on the wall listing all the things for which they are grateful, you know you’re in a good energy kind of place. Every wall in the main hall had a positive message for the students, and it was infectious.
Before being ushered onto the stage to speak to the very large gathering, two girls, probably around 12 – 13 years of age (and I am sure I will be corrected here), were introduced as “teen history docents.” I was blown away. Teen History Docents – how great is that? Putting the town’s history in the hands of the town’s future to bring it to life – a brilliant idea. The girls explained that, after the presentation they would be at the library giving “virtual tours” of Sierra Madre during the WW1 period. They were articulate and engaging, and though I had to rush off after the event, I am sure it was a hit! But what an idea – bringing history to life through young people and “their” technology for the entire community to become involved. Impressive.
Moving on apace, last week I was in Tucson, first for the Brandeis University Book and Author Luncheon – and a chance to meet more local young folk. It was before the event began that seniors from a local high school were ushered in by their teacher. The authors each sat at a table while groups of students moved from table to table. As one of the kids observed, “It’s like speed dating.” And what an amazing date it was. I loved talking to these young people, asking them about their dreams and aspirations, what they liked to read. I answered questions about writing, about books – it was great. I spent some time with the teacher, asking about her students – all the kids were in AP English, so they were pretty motivated. We talked about the fact that they were just finishing up The Great Gatsby in class, and she commented that she wasn’t sure what to follow it with. I was so pleased when she liked my suggestion (How about John Dos Passos?). The whole conversation reminded me how much I enjoy teaching.
If at this stage you’re thinking that my enjoyment in the company of these young people was colored by the fact that they were among the more advantaged and motivated kids of this world – I would have to tell you that it wasn’t.
At college in London I studied Education and English (taking what Americans might call a double major, though the Education was part of the whole deal, because it was a teaching qualification I was after). When I started college there was a huge shortage of teachers in England, but by the time I graduated, there was a glut – and I’d decided I didn’t want to teach – well, not straightaway. I wanted to experience LIFE. However, in each of the three years at college, we spent a whole term (a term was about three months) teaching in a school – and I don’t mean sitting watching while the real teacher went about her job. No, we were thrown in at the deep end and the class teacher effectively had the term to herself. At least one of the high schools where I taught was in what could be called an “undesirable area” with kids that were far from motivated. In fact, motivation wasn’t something you were after – a sense of order and enough quiet to make yourself heard was the main goal. My hardest “TP” – teaching practice – was in a school that should have been condemned. In some of the classrooms – still suffering bomb damage from WW2 – you had to step around joists holding up the ceiling.
On most days there were significant student absences. In one class a boy and his brother shared a pair of shoes, so only one could attend school on any given day. Probably 30% of the kids had at least one parent in prison, and gypsies let their horses graze on the sports fields at night - and this was a London suburb. The head of PT would come in with sacks and a shovel to collect manure in the morning – his wife ran a nursery and liked it for the shrubs. The kids in that school were hell for a student teacher. After two days I made the decision that if it was them or me, well, it wasn’t going to be me. I’d already seen a fellow student broken by a class – we'd started on the same day, and she was gone by day four.
I struggled with those kids at times, but I found I could bring shafts of light into the classroom when I threw out my lesson plans and just went with my gut, turning to stories to engage them, and giving them images to inspire their writing. One of my most troubling students – it would not have surprised me to learn that he was in a young offenders detention center before another year had passed – knuckled down and wrote a beautiful poem in class one day. There was the usual struggle before we reached that point of creative endeavor, but I set them to work on prose or a poem about someone they saw every day but didn’t know. We did all the usual things – talked about the senses etc., and then I let them get on with it. I had never known the class so quiet – you could hear the rickety roof creaking. The troublesome boy put his arm around his work and began writing, running his teeth across his bottom lip as he wrote. When everyone was finished, I asked for volunteers to read. As the gang ringleader, this boy obviously could not be a shrinking violet. We all expected a poem filled with expletives and perhaps a description of the girl he fancied. Instead he wrote about an old lady he saw every day, and how he imagined her going home to a cold flat, empty, without family or warmth. His poem was filled with compassion, and everyone was silent, if only for a brief, fleeting moment.
I don’t know why, but I thought about that boy over the weekend while at the Tucson Festival of Books. It was packed with parents and children; there were teens and grandparents and everyone came together around books. Lucky, lucky children, to have family who encourage reading and learning. And kudos to those teachers who work hard to bring creative opportunity to kids less fortunate. At age twenty-one I walked away from it.
I’m off to Monterey this weekend, for Left Coast Crime, my favorite meeting of mystery authors and readers. Here’s wishing you a lovely weekend!