The curse of school visitors

19th May 2000 at 01:00
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for having visitors into schools, but they have their downside. Like the industrialist who stopped midflow at a careers session and said to one of my students: "You still suck your thumb!" Which she did - and never lived it down after that. Or stopped. Or the visiting poet who told my daughter: "You're fucked, baby, if you do that in an exam." She had reinterpreted his poem. She hasn't forgiven him yet and remains suspicious of poetry generally and disillusioned by the way poets express themselves in prose. It was the word "baby" that particularly upset her. Or the visitor who called a student-made video "crap". Which it was in a way - by professional standards, or whatever standards he had.

Now I'm not saying leave teaching to the teachers and let visitors in, but there should be a list somewhere to warn schools what they might be getting.

When I was on an advisory panel of an arts association I read many comments from schools on their visiting writers. "How the children loved Gumdrop," teachers wrote after a visit by author Val Biro. I used to wish they'd had a more literary input, or a visit from an impoverished young writer with promise, but at least the stories of that old car gave nobody any offence, despite draining the association of petrol money.

Of course some outrageousness gives no offence at all. It's an example of what you can get away with in a school when you don't have to go back the next day.

The poet Ian McMillan, for example, regularly goes to schools with a performance poem on dinner ladies. It begins "We're in charge" and has the audience waving an imaginary fork in an imperious salute while chanting "dinner ladies". I have yet to meet a dinner lady who hasn't seen the funny side, or claimed to have done so.

Of all the writers I've seen in schools my favourite was a real gentleman, George MacBeth, who died in 1992. He was a dear man and would never have offended anyone. His material was exquisitely matched to the audience. In addition to his poetry he had a sideline in erotica and publihed a louche series of books about a female secret service agent called Cadbury. "How are you going to introduce me?" he asked once just before an august gathering of local worthies in Farnham. "I thought I might mention Cadbury," I said.

"I say!" he said, adjusting his cravat. "Not many people who know about my poetry know about her. And not many people who know about Cadbury know about my poetry. Are you really going to mention her? In Farnham?" Of course I didn't. I introduced him with the story I'd heard him tell himself, how he became interested in poetry after hearing his English teacher read Masefield aloud.

It's amazing how people don't adapt themselves to their audience, however. They make bad teachers look good. We should give our visitors some guidance. Don't pick on people. Don't swear inappropriately. Don't mumble. Don't give the impression you wish you weren't here.

And I have an idea. Teachers could visit schools and pass themselves off as successes in the worlds of finance, showbiz, the arts, whatever. We write the first page of a novel or claim we're a captain of industry. We explain how we made our first million. Those who like old cars and don't mind children clambering all over them could drive round to schools and tell stories.

I'll come round in a Panama with a silver-capped walking stick and a trademark cravat. I'll be the new George MacBeth and I'll bring back the fashion for his wonderful style of poetry that could coexist happily alongside the new generation of dubbers, rappers and the complex mix of cultures and music that makes poetry today so good to listen to. I'll be the man inspired by his teacher reading Masefield, a voice that still reverberates in the sound of his own vowel-rich poems. Time was when every schoolchild knew MacBeth's poem "Owl", when every woodland and every classroom was alive with that hooting of vowels. That was poetry, baby. "Am an owl, am an owl."

I won't mention Cadbury. Or swear.

Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham college,Surrey. E-mail:

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