As a writer in residence, Gerry Cambridge found himself teaching children the beauty of language and poetry - and enjoying it
The prospect was unnerving. I had just been appointed to the Brownsbank Fellowship, a writer's residency based at Hugh MacDiarmid's former home near Biggar, South Lanarkshire.
Part of the remit involved visits to schools. Though I had written nature articles for Animal World, the RSPCA's house magazine for children, in my twenties and illustrated them with my own photographs, I had not been inside a school since leaving Irvine Royal Academy at 18.
"Go into schools? The kids'll demolish you!" a friend said with gloomy conviction.
"Cut your teeth on a little primary school," another friend advised.
About six weeks later, I booked an hour's visit to a small local primary. I prepared for the occasion assiduously, and turned up armed with sufficient back-up material and props for a whole week of workshops, including a dirty sock, a toothbrush, a harmonica, a fountain pen and other items. To my surprise and relief, the hour went well.
"Are you coming back next week, Mr Cambridge?" the P7s asked. The teacher said this meant they would like me to.
In the 18 months since that first visit, I have visited schools throughout South Lanarkshire, and worked with every year from P4 to S6. I feel that I've learned as much from the pupils as they have from me and I now look on school visits as among the most rewarding aspects of my remit.
As holder of the Brownsbank Fellowship - one of some 18 writers' residencies in Scotland, joint-funded by local councils and the Scottish Arts Council - I feel privileged, for if I want to visit a particular school, I just pick up the phone and ask.
Some teachers assume that a visiting writer is a teacher who has written a few books and will therefore share their preconceptions, especially in upper secondary where creative writing now is exam-focused. But I know of no writer entirely comfortable with the concept of writing as a means to passing an exam.
Enthusiastic Sixth Year Studies pupils are delightful, but occasionally I've had reluctant pupils and asked: "Have you ever written a poem before?" No. "Have you read many poems?" No. An activity which should involve the exhilaration of creativity can become a grim business of getting a pass mark.
My respect for teachers has increased enormously since I began working in schools, with occasional exceptions.
As I prepared to take a class of S3s, one teacher said, "You won't get much from this class. They're a very dull lot." The class contained two of the most enthusiastic young writers in the year, as I knew from other workshops.
"Dear Mr Cambridge," one of them wrote to me on a Christmas card, "thank you for being so enspiring(sic)."
As a writer, I see my visits as attempts to enthuse and encourage. I try to give the children something a little different. I want to open up their imaginations, to help them see things in unexpected ways. I'm less concerned, at least initially, about strict grammar, spelling and punctuation (even WB Yeats couldn't spell).
The important question is, as Emily Dickinson once asked, does the writing "live"?
I often begin a series of workshops with a look at the magical nature of language, using riddles. Because I have a background in natural history, I use my own photographs as starting points, along with numerous other items: a redpoll's tiny nest found in the top of a hawthorn bush; the uniquely designed feathers from a barn owl; a x6 magnification lens, the significance of which is, that anything, looked at closely enough, is fascinating. Language too.
Sometimes I have the children imagine themselves into other existences. One class of P4s had a particular liking for writing as if they were snails. "Everything is HUGE," wrote one little (girl) snail.
Having noticed that younger children are keen on drawing, I often incorporate "concrete poetry" - poems in the shape of the animal or object being written about. As a harmonica player, I use the instrument to demonstrate the idea of rhythm and syllables - useful for encouraging classes, down to P5, to write haiku. ("Who knows what a haiku is? No, it's not saying hello to a Scottish cow.") One discovery (for me) is that children as young as P5 thrive on being given a writing task with a sense of structure, and often produce better quality work as a result. The small discipline of the haiku's 17 syllables often produces work of unexpected quality, as do acrostics. And children love rhyme. I asked one small P7 class to bring in their favourite poems. Invariably, they rhymed and scanned.
The American poet and teacher James Hayford once wrote of the unexpected rewards of teaching. These included hearing, when passing a window, a young girl singing a song he'd taught her class earlier that day.
The visiting writer, too, has such moments. I recently showed some S2s one of my photographs, a dramatic face-on close-up of a wolf spider, showing its eight eyes, and asked for caption suggestions. "Sir, what about 'I'll never drink again'?" said one boy.
I became a tree for the purpose of being interviewed by a class of P4s. Out came the first question: "What's it like not to have to do homework?" And I now know of at least two methods to get the undivided attention of 30 P5s at once. The first is to let a bumble bee crawl up your finger. The second is to blow into your cupped hands and show them how to hoot like owls.
Gerry Cambridge's book, "Nothing But Heather", is published by Luath Press, Edinburgh, pound;15