I have been a teacher for far too long, but that’s what happens when you find yourself doing a job you love. Most teachers will tell you that working with young people is a privilege and a joy, and I’d certainly agree with them on that. And what pleases me most about being a teacher who writes and a teacher who teaches writing is the passion and ability young people have to express themselves, especially when they don't know it.
I remember many years ago doing a workshop on personal writing with some Northern Irish children who were charming, witty and bright, but who lacked confidence in their own ability and were reticent to share. We did an exercise which involved writing a short poem with the title ‘My Father Always...’, and, as I do, I wrote with them so that they could see the struggles I had too, and could see the way I manipulated my ideas and my words to shape something that made some semblance of sense.
‘So tell me how you've done,’ I said, after they had shared ideas with their partners. Ciaran put up his hand: ‘Sir! Sir!’ he said, having forgotten that they could call me Raymond because I was just a writer, not a teacher, ‘Rosie’s is really good, Sir!’
But Rosie wasn’t to be convinced. Bashful, she hid her work underneath her desk and wouldn't be persuaded to share it. ‘It’s never as good as yours,’ she said. Of course, I left her to it, and other more forceful personalities had their say, and every one of them was fantastic.
She handed in her work, and it was, just as it stood, publishable in just about any poetry anthology I have ever bought, and far, far outshone my meagre attempt. She explored her family situation, her parents’ divorce, and how her father never stayed long enough whenever he visited, and how bereft she felt when he left after a 15 minute visit on her birthday. I wrote to her, told her how precious her poem was, and I was told that both she and both her parents glowed with pride when it won a local competition.
As a teacher, I love it when young people do better than me; that’s what we should strive for, to see our pupils outshine and outstrip our achievements. And as a writer, what is even more important is to see them work, manage, manipulate and control their lives through words, to forge some understanding out of their sometimes beautiful, chaotic, uplifting, troubling lives. For me – and I have personal experience of this – writing’s greatest gift is to give us power over forces which sometimes seem to swamp us; rather than be overwhelmed by emotion, good or bad, we instead mine it for precious raw resources, and use them to shape our existence into something crafted and meaningful and shining.
And that is, for me, what competitions like this are really about.
Read Jackie Kay, Scotland’s National Poet's poem written for the competition.
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