Feel the pulse of the inner city beat

January 26, 2007

John Hegley, with a little help from Steve, inspires streetwise students to put their thoughts into verse and to write about dogs and deckchairs

Today I am booked to visit Southwark College in London to do a drawing and writing workshop. My last such experience was with 20 willing and able students in a leafy environment in Crewe, where from the moment I arrived in the college foyer I sensed a joyous atmosphere in which ideas would surely flourish.

The fruit I am to harvest in Southwark is also indisputable, but less readily accessed - in the first instance literally, as entrance is by swipe card only. At the gate, I am late, as a student gripes that his swipes are ineffective. Beyond the barrier, my contact wipes the air in welcome. She takes me for a cuppa and tells me that the youngsters are sparky and challenging, assuring me that I will find them manageable, especially with my performing skills.

The group consists of 16 and 17-year-olds from graphic design and performing arts. On entering the classroom, I feel I should focus them quickly. I go straight in with the mandolin. "Hello, I'm John, I speak poems and sing them. Here's a song." The students warm to the music. "Now we're going to make a booklet by folding a sheet of A4." The process is on the slow side but eventually everyone is holding a book.

I pick up the mandolin - ah, that's what's been missing. I will not put it down again for the next hour. They want to know what the instrument is called. I tell them it is called Steve.

Early in the proceedings, I ask the students to write out some of their beliefs in their books. I also ask everyone to draw a dog and a deckchair and then list some of the differences between them. I worry that to these streetwise teenagers the exercise might be of questionable validity. But there are no such questions. Someone says they don't know what a deckchair looks like. He is told by a fellow student that it is "one of those seaside thingies". This does not help. It is agreed that he is to depict a rocking chair instead.

The group is largely co-operative, but there are brambles to be negotiated before you get to the fruit. With our last piece of writing, I say that I want them all to perform their words to my strumming. As I am doing so, two of the livelier students start performing an elaborate and comical hand jive. The energy ups. We go round the class and everyone chips in. As the last student contributes, another says to me: "Keep it going... now freestyle!" and so off we go. "I've been working with you today, now it's time for you to play - hooray..."

"Now me, now me," one of the hand jivers enthuses. "Hooray, hooray - no more today - it's time for us to go away", something of that ilk. There are smiles, there's a bit more singing and a final big strumming, bringing the session to a close.

One of the last lads out says to me: "I ain't ever had a lesson quite like that... I liked it."

The room empties, I speak with the teacher, who surprises me by saying he has learnt from my method - that it is very effective, get straight in, without any preamble. He acknowledges the challenge of the class. He tells me that if he wants to discuss an issue with a student, he does it outside the classroom. Nice advice. The key thing is just to give and give. And when they do good - make sure you're positive. Otherwise, you're floating in a sieve without a paddle, you silly div. You've got to remember they've got to look cool. It's only an act, when they're acting the fool.

I ask him if he likes the job. He likes the teaching enormously but is less enamoured with the paperwork/social-work side. I wonder to what extent the pupils are here voluntarily. Are there those who come here because there's nothing else to do, or because their mates come, or because their mums won't give them any money unless they attend?

The Southwark crew is very different from the Cheshire one, but the teacher is enthusiastic about how much the next two years will do for the youngsters. They will change, he tells me, eyes-a-play with elation. Well, here's to their education.

In the evening, I read through the workshop contributions. Every one of their little books has a little gem inside. Here are some of their beliefs:

I believe in God.

I believe in chips.

I believe that M. J. will make a big comeback.

I believe in cheese.

I believe in morals.

I believe in equal rights.

I believe that my dolls come alive at night.

I believe cats have nostrils.

I believe education is the way forward.

I believe in Steve and John.

John Hegley is a poet.

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