My first school residency was with a class of seven- and eight-year old boys from an inner-city area, designated as disadvantaged, who either had poor literacy skills, or were learning English as a second language. The teacher was a veteran campaigner and got me in because I could draw as well as write. I had no teaching experience, so this was a very steep learning curve for me.
Never short of ambition, I decided that they would each produce a ten-page illustrated story.
Some of them really struggled to write whole sentences – and if these lads could have spelled the kinds of swearwords they used when they thought their teacher wasn’t listening, I would have been very happy. All the work was done orally and using pictures to start off. This was just as well, because it gave me a chance to explain that, as this work was going to be displayed in an exhibition in the children’s section of a library in Dublin, we couldn’t really have things like hash pipes, stabbings with syringes or flaming penises in the stories. When I told the boy we probably wouldn’t be allowed display the burning penis, his response was ‘What if I just had it smokin’?’ It broke my heart to restrain his imagination.
But what I discovered was that these kids were bursting to tell stories. They had a wonderful way with vernacular language, loads of imagination and no inhibitions. And they had a kind of savvy that you’d never get from kids in a more protected environment. All they needed was the confidence, and we gave it to them by carrying them for the first few steps, by making everything as easy as possible, to the point where a support teacher might write out what a child told them and the child would then copy out what the teacher had written down. Or I would get them to trace the shape of a drawing and then they’d fill in the details themselves so that they could feel what it was like to create a drawing with form and proper proportions. We played and we cheated and mollycoddled them until they had each produced a ten-page illustrated story… although, granted, some of them only had two or three lines on a page.
These kids had been given a tough start in life, not just because many came from disadvantaged backgrounds, but because they had not been given much opportunity to learn one of the most fundamental lessons in life: how to try and fail and try again. We took the first few steps in helping them overcome this fear of failure, if only in the realm of storytelling. Children in these circumstances are capable of so much; they just need encouragement and a bit of guidance. But as long as they are forced to live in the kinds of unforgiving environments that poverty creates, without the necessary encouragement, they will always be reluctant to strive, to show initiative and to think long-term. And that is bad for our society as a whole, and reflects poorly on us all.