Solitary voyagers in poetry of a classroom

31st March 2006 at 01:00
The other day, I watched a key stage 1 teacher at work with her class. I was supposed to be observing a particular piece of software, but in truth I was almost entirely engaged by the beautiful relationship she had with her class. Her face - her whole being - was alive with the pleasure of being where she was, doing what she was doing. Not surprisingly, her children instinctively knew how she felt, and returned the compliment with eagerness, bursting to please.

You can't measure that, can you? You can't even write about it easily in this age of targets and performance data. Perhaps it needs poetry, which really is beyond me. Others do it, though. My old - and late - friend and mentor Joe Newman wrote poetry about school. In one of his poems he observes children bent over their desks doing an exam.

They have such beauty as might start my tears.

They are alone; for all that I may love them I cannot aid their battle with my love.

God bless each solitary voyager . . .

I thought of Joe, and the oft-overlooked emotions that are part of working with children and being responsible for them, when I heard Elaine Randell on BBC Radio 4's Midweek recently.

Elaine is an experienced social worker in Kent, working mainly with children - she spends much time as a "guardian ad litem" (an independent person appointed by the court to look after the interests of a child caught up in a case). She's also a poet - at 16 she was running a successful poetry magazine from her bedroom.

"I was trying to find Jack Kerouac in Blackheath."

She became a social worker because, like most poets, she needed to find a job, and felt the need to get out into the world.

"And I enjoy making the lives of children better," she says. "In social work that's possible."

Always, though, there's been the feeling within her that there's so much about working with families and children that's beyond the prosaic. She did her college dissertation on "love in social work". It provoked some raised eyebrows, but, as she pointed out, it's not an unreasonable idea, given that so much of what happens in families is the result of love - successful, unsuccessful, warped, redeeming. . .

When I read her work, what particularly took my attention was a long poem called "Along the Landings".

I suppose cop shows have taught middle England what the landings are. The scene has become a cliche - detectives running along the walkways past the front doors of flats in a grim concrete Sixties development, skidding to a halt, banging on a shabby door. "Open up, we know you're in there!"

Eileen's familiarity with the landings is different, still shocking, but more intimate.

Along the landings

Welcome warmth

she tried to make a home

stair carpet with vomit where he staggered.

'When daddy shouts my ears want to run away'.

Then later in the poem:

School reception asked why he was late dentist she muttered

'Mum' he said she walked away.

Selected Poems 1970-2005 by Elaine Randell, Shearsman Books.

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