Once upon a time there was a monster in school...Storyteller James Campbell has a tale with a moral for teachers
My home is beside Loch Ness in a village called Dores. This can be confusing when folk ask where I live and they think I reply: "I stay indoors." One of my friends, Steve, is a monster hunter who abandoned fitting burglar alarms to live in a van on Dores beach. Steve finances his existence by selling models of Nessie to tourists and spends hours talking to those who stop to ponder the mysteries of the loch. They are usually the same questions: Have you seen it yet? How long have you been here? Do you go out with sonar? But the most interesting question is "What does it look like?" There have been many sightings - serpent, giant fish, crocodile, pleisiosaurus. My theory, that it's a giant, aquatic badger, hasn't been taken seriously for some reason. But what fascinates me is that there are millions of people who each have a different version. Most of their ideas have been shaped by the photographs - fake and otherwise - and the toys in tourist shops, but they're all different.
One of my stories concerns a monster called the Wimpety Wam. He is described only by a poem which tells that he has two sets of wings, chases doggies and steals burgers and pillows. It says he has nine heads, a body like a snail and other things, but isn't too specific. If I were to show 200 children a picture of the Wimpety Wam, there would be only one monster in that school. But because I give the children enough information to fire their imaginations, though not enough to be prescriptive, there are 200 different monsters, one in the head of each child who is listening.
Storytelling makes children use their minds. It is an active listening experience which engages the creativity rather than a passive medium for entertainment. I regularly receive thank you letters and when I have told the Wimpety Wam story there will always be pictures of him, all different. This diversity of imagination is what is important about storytelling as an art form and an educational tool.
The beauty of storytelling is that it needs no academic ability to benefit from it. My most rewarding experiences have been in special schools when the accessibility of storytelling has cut through the disabilities and I've felt that I have touched their minds with something special.
I particularly enjoy working in schools in deprived areas. It's easy for people's imaginations to be a reflection of their environments. I passionately believe it should be the other way around. With the power of a fertile mind you can change your own world and transcend the schemes, computer-orientated lives and acres of concrete.
I grew up in the cultureless void of a London overspill council estate, but my writing and imagination helped me escape through the passport of my head. In my world, the bridge was a home for trolls, the drains were gateways to another world, the flats were space stations where aliens plotted galactic domination.
If I cook you a lovely meal, you'll enjoy it. Feed the same meal to a starving man and he'll wolf it down. Storytelling is similar. I'm very well received in predominantly middle-class theatre, but when I stand in the scheme-locked schools of the cities, it is as though the stories are being gobbled up, the words barely chewed, making the impact immediate.
I was in a school in the rough end of a Scottish city this term. The first session contained about eight classes. I watched the teachers march in their charges, sit them down, tell them they must behave, then leave for the staffroom and some extra non-contact time. I was left with one teacher for insurance purposes and more than 200 restless children. I am able to control that number, but this babysitting attitude to my storytelling is one of my pet hates for three reasons.
Firstly, if there are any discipline problems, they need their own teacher to shush them, not one who doesn't know their names. Secondly, I'm told my stories are fantastic for follow-up work. How can a class teacher make the best benefit of a visiting arts practitioner if he or she hasn't bothered to spend 45 minutes seeing them at work? Thirdly, children are sensitive, detecting things sub-consciously and taking their cue from their teacher. If he or she isn't present, this signals to the children that what they are being expected to listen to isn't very important. This makes it more likely that I'll have problems with those children who have under-developed listening skills and have to try twice as hard to get the same rewards, which won't be capitalised upon anyway because there won't be any follow-up work.
I never complain when this happens, as it only does so in about one in 30 schools. I haven't found a way to complain without the risk of never being booked again. It is the children I'm there for, not the teachers.
But on this occasion, I implied my disappointment by telling the kids to tell their teachers about the stories, as they obviously had more important things to be doing. Maybe this was picked up on by the one teacher present, because the second session came with a full complement of staff. However, one of them fulfilled my other pet hate: marking books instead of listening. Worse than being absent is sitting in view of the children and showing them that marking is more important than storytelling.
My problem is I'm unable to say anything. To ask a teacher to stop marking her class's maths books during the storytelling would undermine her authority and be just as unprofessional. Normally I ignore it. But this time I had an idea. I claimed that the story needed two piles of books to represent buildings. I politely asked the offending teacher if I could borrow her marking, placed them on the floor and then ignored them. I think I made my point. The staff were aware of my grievance, but the children were none the wiser and didn't lose any respect for their teacher.
The day finished with further despair. I had to find the headteacher to get my fee. She was in a scabby classroom with six scabbier looking children idly holding pens without having much idea what they were. She had to go and find her cheque book, and while she was gone, one of the children asked me what the stories had been about. They were the same age as the children I had just been performing to. These six had been excluded. I asked them why. "We weren't allowed, because we are bad." Not "We have been bad" or "We were bad" but "We are bad"!
I cannot believe that a child can be innately bad. I certainly don't think they should be made to feel they are. I don't know what these children had done to deserve the punishment of being kept out, but the irony is that their penalty had excluded them from something which could have cut through their disaffection, lack of concentration skills, behavioural difficulties and whatever else badness entails. They could have been inspired to find that literature isn't boring and maybe even have learnt something.
There was only one thing to do. I bundled the six children into my car, drove them 200 miles into the Highlands, telling them as many stories as I could on the way and then released them into the wild. They're probably cold and hungry now, but I reckon out there they stand a better chance of getting a decent education.