I left school certain that I would never go back and not at all certain that I could ever be a writer. It took a lot of work to pull off writing and while I was concentrating on that, I accidentally went back to many, many schools. From last weekend to the start of next week alone, I’ll have spent three full days in schools as a visiting author and I ran one short workshop for school-age writers.
I’ve also done one workshop for adult writers which doesn’t sound relevant except one of the attendees was a teacher from my old school. In the Venn diagram of things I remember about my school and teachers I liked, she’s in the tiny smidgeon of an overlap. She walked in that door and the only thing faster than her asking if I were the William Gallagher she taught was me asking her if she’d been my chemistry teacher.
I didn’t like my school but she and I had a great natter after the workshop and I’m astonished how much she got me to remember. Good and bad: I told her of the teacher who, heading for a nervous breakdown which he later succeeded at, had worked hard to get me expelled for no reason. That sounds bad and it was but the fight to keep me in there later proved useful in the politics you get in journalism.
I told her of the other chemistry teacher we had who’d spent a lesson having us mark the homework of the previous group. I know I was irritated, I wish I had been older and objected, Mind you, I really wish I’d just turned to the back of the exercise book and given this pupil a 10/10 well done, see me. Just to find out what happened.
There’s no 10/10 anymore. I don’t know how marking is done and from what I gather, I am unlikely to comprehend how teachers are supposed to mark or really do anything. The sobering and distressing part of going into schools is seeing this sliver of how controlled and inflexible things are forced to be.
But the good thing is that I can go in to them, cause a right ruckus and then get out. Usually get out and go right back to writing. I don’t usually do this many schools so close together, I’m a writer who does the odd school visit. I could never be clever enough to be a teacher nor have the resilience they do to go in again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
These three school visits all came via a company I’m just getting to know called Authors Abroad. But I can trace the lot back further to one conversation with Jonathan Davidson of Writing West Midlands, the company currently running the Birmingham Literature Festival as well as around 300 events for young writers – three hundred, every year.
I’d just moved back to Birmingham, I don’t know how I’d found Writing West Midlands. But I met Jonathan for a coffee. This is three years ago and I can tell you every detail of the conversation including the moment when he mused over whether I might be good in schools and I pretended that would be great, every single ferociously bad memory of mine coming back into my head and flooding down to make my stomach twinge too.
I can tell you every detail and I can picture every inch but I can never go back to the same place because we met at New Street Station. I was there yesterday, coming back from a Manchester school, and I tried figuring out where the coffee place had been. New Street is transformed and, okay, maybe I am too.
But those Manchester kids. There’s at least one who I’m sure will become a writer, who I think actually already is. And there’s another who told me that this had been the best day they’d ever had there. I melted them, I’m still melted now.