In July 2010, I took to the road with my children’s novel, Crackpot, to 45 schools scattered throughout Victoria, over a period of six weeks.
The toll of travelling and presenting the same story, the same gig, the same gags, the same message, over and over was wearing. At a few low moments I’d ask myself the ‘why’ question: “Why am I doing this?” On this particular morning, nearing the end of the tour, I didn’t have an answer.
I’d hit a slump. I’d had enough. I was tired. I was bored with myself. I felt ineffective, drained, and unable to muster up any enthusiasm for the ‘difficult’ school I was about to visit. (After researching its demographics the night before, I’d learned that 85% of the children – many of whom were indigenous – came from families where both parents were unemployed.) I doubted I was up to the task.
As I left the warmth of the house, with my wheelie case dragging its sorry wheels behind me, I wished for a miracle of a flat tyre that would prevent me going. But alas, no: all tyres were pumped. It was, however, very foggy. Perhaps too unsafe to drive? Nope. As soon as I left the valley, the fog lifted and sunshine broke through. Rotten sunshine!
As I pulled into the school grounds, I took a minute to visualise a positive, happy outcome – it can’t hurt, I reasoned – before making my way along the path that lead to the school. Rushing towards me at break-neck speed was a teacher (you can spot them a mile off). She was smiling. ‘You must be Fiona! Thank you so much for coming. I have to rush off to pick up some kids who can’t get to school today, but if you head into the main office, someone will take you to the class. I’ll catch up with you later!’ – and then she was gone.
Kids who can’t get to school? Boy. She’s committed.
Once I’d signed in at reception, a grade six girl, coughing asthmatically, welcomed me and took me to the class. As we were reaching the end of the corridor I heard the raised voice of a teacher: ‘If you kids use that kind of language again, you’re in serious trouble! Take this as a warning, okay? Now show some respect!’
Don’t let that be my class, don’t let that be my class…
Kids were scattered everywhere: on the floor, on tables, on couches, on chairs. They looked like a motley lot, but seemed happy enough, as did the teachers. As I was introduced, I scanned their faces: there was a look about them, as was the room. It wasn’t unpleasant, just different to what I’d been in so far. It was chaotic, but ordered; rough, but with softness; sad, but with life. I took a breath and decided to go off-script. These guys needed me to tell them something a little different: not a mamsy pamsy, soft-centred feel-good talk, but a real, down to earth, relevant story.
I took a breath, and began.
‘I used to think I was dumb. Stupid,’ I said.
‘My prep teacher told me this when I was five, in a school not far from here. ‘
There was an audible, collective exhale from everyone in the room. Kids lent forward to listen more intently. Their keen attention spurred me on. ‘And guess what?’
‘What?’ they chorused.
‘I’m not dumb. I’m not stupid. And guess what else?’
‘I believed I was for about 30 years.’
I can’t remember how I segued from my Stupid Story, to telling them about my journey as a writer, and then onto what it was I came there for: to tell the kids there was more right with them than wrong with them. That they had more strengths than weaknesses.
For many of these children, this was new information. Just like it had been for me when I was told the same thing.
The lights were on, and everybody was home.
For four weeks I’d been going from school to school, from one country town to the next, and it had been long and hard. It was moments like this one though, that affirmed why I was doing what I was doing.
I felt humbled by these kids’ openness, their engagement, and the commitment and dedication of their teachers. And I left feeling energized, fulfilled, and gratified.
Yes, gratified. That’s the word.
This is why I do this.