Last week I went back to school after a 21 year hiatus to judge a spoken word poetry competition. It was like returning to the scene of a crime. So much had lain undisturbed for all that time, memories mostly, gathering dust and in hindsight warping themselves into things they never were. Very little had changed: the same smell, the same atmosphere, the same girls with the same flicky hair seeming to enact the very same dramas – though this time with different faces. The library still had the same books I used to thumb looking for answers I wouldn’t find, the assembly hall had the same lectern and there was still the same ancient phone box under the polished, curved stairs where I used to fantasise about phoning my mother in floods of tears (but never actually did). I can’t quite explain the oddity of going back as an adult, but only having access to my childhood feelings about the place. It felt wrong to go into the staffroom for example and call teachers by their first names, I had a vague sense of not being good enough at what I was doing and being on the cusp of getting told off, I wanted to giggle during assembly when I was asked to speak about my life as a writer.
The girls astonished me. I was judging (and reading to) years 7-9. They were attentive listeners and asked me interesting questions, the Year 8 group did a 10-minute writing exercise and produced the first drafts of some pretty decent poems. Then, one by one, as their names were called, they stood up and recited poems they’d learned by heart. I could not have done that at their ages, I would have run away screaming and locked myself in the toilets (in fact, I think I did actually do that once during a Public Speaking exercise in a History lesson). Some of the girls were actresses, some were comedians, some had the most enormous capacity for memory – all of them entertained me. But then there was Kitty*, a slight, shy girl who seemed all lost and uncomfortable in her too-big blazer. She looked terrified and as though she wasn’t sure what she was meant to do, she went red, she pulled at her shirt sleeve and bit her lip. She looked at me before she spoke and I wondered if she was going to cry, all I could do was nod in encouragement. And then she spoke and for the next few minutes, I was mesmerised – to such an extent that I couldn’t write anything down. She wasn’t churning out something she’d learned by rote, she wasn’t pretending to feel something she thought she should feel, she wasn’t trying to impress me, her teachers or her friends. She was experiencing a poem that mattered to her (The Sunlight on the Garden), almost channeling it from Louis MacNeice’s pen to my ears. She was awesome.
I suppose, in some ways, Kitty* reminded me of myself at that age – perhaps even myself now (especially just before a reading). I was uncertain at 13, I was bashful, frightened and small-voiced. I was also at the mercy of two defining forces: The first was a very big and very secret passion for John Clare at a time when most of my peers were having similar feelings for our friends’ brothers or members of Aha. The second was a very big and (as much as I tried to hide it) not very secret crush on my female French teacher. I adored this woman with an intensity that made me tremble. I daydreamed she would adopt me or save me or just merely notice me at a time when I was searching for understanding in the Claudine novels by Colette; The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence and my still, all time, favourite Olivia by Dorothy Strachey. My crush was agonising, protracted, humiliating and exquisite. It wasn’t a sexual desire that the teacher awoke in me, but such a longing to matter and to be special to her. For three long years I thought she didn’t have a clue who I was, or if she did she thought I was an idiot or an oddball. So last Thursday, sitting in the staffroom with the grown ups, I winced when the Geography teacher who had taught me at the time asked: ‘Are you still in touch with Mrs -?’. I shook my head, cheeks burning. ‘That’s a shame…’ she said, ‘…she was incredibly fond of you’. I looked at her with what I can only describe as a Huh?! expression. ‘Yes…’ she said looking a bit confused and gathering up her books for the next lesson, ‘…you were always her favourite. Didn’t you know?’.
I had no idea that I had made an impact on anyone at all while I was a pupil at the school, least of all on the object of my affections. I was silent, lazy and not academically gifted like my sister; I preferred to daydream and write poems about the school magnolia tree than learn my periodic table; I hid in bushes at the end of the garden and smoked instead of attending my Italian oral lessons; I did anything rather than show a willingness to explore my own intelligence and drove most of my teachers demented with frustration because, as Sister Ursula wrote in my English report when I was 13, ‘Kaddy seems to be the unfortunate mix of great potential and great fear‘.
Although there’s a certain sadness in receiving this information 21 years too late, only now do I see how knowing it at the time could have stalled my burgeoning career as a poet. If I had known that I had mattered then, I wouldn’t have felt the vast amounts of agony that fuelled and filled my teenage notebooks. I showed the girls those notebooks as part of my talk last week and realised for the first time that they are quite beautiful: they are scruffy, creased, falling apart and taped together – but they are the scrapbooks of my mind; the documents of a self becoming a self. They are at the root of all my writing and I am so glad to have them and the experience they came from.
*Not her real name.