Father's day

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Michael Cook shares another first as pupils become immersed in rhyme and reason

There are key moments in any child's life at which a parent wants to be present. The most obvious is birth itself. No longer an excuse to pace corridors and smoke cigars, most parents today want to be there in person.

Particularly the mothers. This is all perfectly natural. Children grow up so quickly, we want to see the points where change occurs. First words, steps, taking the stabilisers off the bike. It is only when you insist on joining them for the duration of their first cigarette that you know you're taking parent duties too far.

As a parent-helper, I am in a privileged position. When school plays such an important role in their lives, it is inevitable that some of my children's life-changing moments will occur here. Today, in Class 9, I am witness to one of the pivotal incidents in the education not only of my first-born son, but a whole group of Year 3s. They are working on poems.

They have been reading a number of different writers' poetic interpretations of the Jack and the Beanstalk story. They have to pick one of these, and write a new verse for the poem with the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the original.

I hover around to help. There are lots of interesting ideas and conversations. The children think of sights and sounds and textures that might be used to describe a giant. One pair have written that the giant's breath stinks of onion, and are searching for a word to end the next line.

I suggest that they work through the alphabet, trying each new letter to start a different rhyming word. We come up with "bunion" and, once I've explained exactly what a bunion is (well, not exactly what a bunion is. I don't think I know exactly what a bunion is. Bone? Gristle? Liquid-centred like a chocolate liqueur?), we decide that a smelly, nasty giant might well eat them. And, most importantly, bunion rhymes perfectly.

But then, matter-of-factly, Mrs Todd blows their minds. She says, in passing. "You know, a poem doesn't always have to rhyme."

Doesn't have to rhyme!? You should see the faces. The children stare in disbelief as if she had just observed Father Christmas didn't exist.

Because if you are eight years old, the only thing that distinguishes poetry from prose is the rhyme. Yes, a poem might use arbitrary and idiosyncratic punctuation, but so does every other piece of writing they've done. Yes, a poem might use vivid, immediate language, but these children rarely skirt around the subject when they are trying to put their point across.

It all makes me feel old and jaded. I'm not sure I'll ever be quite as surprised again as they are now. Especially not by poetry. Not even if I found out that all of Shakespeare's sonnets were originally written as notes to the milkman. Or that Pam Ayres really talks like Fiona Bruce.

Michael Cook is a freelance writer and parent-helper at Jesse Gray primary school, West Bridgford, Nottingham, which his children Alfie and Poppy attend

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