After almost six months of discovery, proposals, meetings and learning, I’ve done it. I’ve managed to start a creative writing program for refugee and migrant students at Milpera State School in Brisbane.
The thing is, I’d forgotten what the first day of high school was like. Even though this is a friendly school with a difference, and I’m certainly older if not wiser, I’m still nervous.
The bell rings, I’m sitting in the library at my appointed desk. My coordinator has sent out notices and reminded the teachers to tell their students about Poet’s Corner with Miss Kiki. Another librarian has made posters and taped them up all over the school. I’m honoured and even more nervous. What if I don’t live up to their expectations?
A young boy comes tearing down the hall outside the library, swings open the door and stands politely in front of the librarian at the desk.
”Miss?” he says.
The children call the female teachers ”Miss” followed by their first name. I’ve decided to use my French nickname Kiki. It’s a name I haven’t used since I left Paris in the mid-1990s but it’s who I was for six years.
The boy walks away holding what looks to be the school’s only X-Box. A minute later several boys pour into the library and stand at the librarian’s desk. They head over to the X-Box corner, dismay slumped across their young shoulders.
Then there are girls in bright traditional dress who pick up cards for the computers. The library starts to fill with kids and laughter and languages. A boisterous group plop themselves on the benches at the large cubicle next to me.
It seems the kids all have their usual places and regular habits at lunch time. They take no notice of me. I’m starting to think this is going to be a big disaster. Why did I think kids would want to spend their only free time at school writing with me? What made me think that just because I wanted to set up a modified writing program for the children here, that they would actually want to do it?
My coordinator walks around the library nudging the kids, telling them Miss Kiki is here if you’d like to do some writing or poetry. I think she’s feeling sorry for me. I think too, that she would know what it feels like to be an outsider: she has lived in foreign countries.
I re-organize the things in my little basket that sit under my sign. Poet’s Corner. I am a closet poet at best but we had hoped that by starting with poetry we would entice some of the kids whose cultures are steeped in poetry. I’ve brought along snakes and jellie babies and dinosaurs, hoping to lure the kids to the written word with — yes shamefully — sugar. I’ve also brought along some herbs to use a prompts for our writing.
All the computers are now taken up, all the free spaces are filled, and the boys are sharing the X-Box in a corner that I can see by looking through the portable stacks library books. Maybe I need to find some way to be more engaging? More exciting? How can a 40-something woman compete with X-Box?
So I start checking emails. Then I put away my phone. That’s no way to encourage the children.
My coordinator brings two young boys to my writing table. We exchange names and I ask them about their names. I pull out some kaffir lime leaves from my basket and I give them to the boys to smell. I ask them if they’d like some candies. No. They don’t like lollies.
But one boy at least is interested in the smell of the kaffir lime leaf. We rip our leaves and smell them together thinking of words. The other boy excuses himself politely and runs off to be with his friends.
Then there was one.
The boy and I look at each other. I wonder if he wants to be off with his friends but if he does, he’s too polite to say so.
Three girls come bouncing into the library and head straight for my table. They’re smiling and laughing: ”our teacher told us to come see you.”
We introduce ourselves and we write our names on a big piece of paper. I work on pronunciation. I’m not used to names from different parts of Africa but I’ll learn. I pass out more kaffir lime leaves and we tear them and smell.
I prompt my small but ebullient group with questions. After all, I want to help them develop their English skills so they have a voice in this country. As Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, says ”The written word is the most democratic form of self-empowerment that we have.”
And I want to make this fun too.
Is this a big smell or a little one? Is it a happy smell? Is it a quiet smell or a loud smell? Is it a morning smell or a night-time smell?
I hand out springs of mint and we do more word association games with the smells. The girls prefer the mint but the boy likes the kaffir lime. They remind him of the lemons his mother fetches from the market. My mother does this to mint, says one of the girls making a grinding action with her fist in her hand, to make healing lotions. Like a balm I say. I write their words down.
They teach me a Swahili phrase natakaneenee which means what do you want?. I write it phonetically because no one knows how to spell it. I share my limited Swahili from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro: poli poli, what else but slowly slowly. They laugh with me. They teach me how to say maharahta or what do you want in Somali. I practise my pronunciation. I’m glad I speak French because I can form the ‘r’.
There is so much laughter I forget the time. I forget where I am. I just am. Hanging out with kids, thinking of words, guiding them to find new words. I fill the page.
The bell rings.
The girls take my pens and write my name on the paper. Kiki. They draw hearts around Kiki.
”Miss, we have to go now.”
”Come back next Monday and I’ll write a poem with your special words. It will be your poem,” I tell them. They beam at me. I ask them if they want to take some mint and lime leaves home to show their family. They say yes and thank me before they run off to class.
The library has cleared out as quickly as it filled up. The space is empty and quiet and I am filled with an unknown joy.
Four tall teenage boys come up to my little table and stand over me: ”Miss, I want to write better. You can help me?” one asks.
”Of course,” I say and I tell them what we were doing. I hand them some of the leaves.
They take them, turn them over in their hands, hold them to their noses and nod.
”Come next Monday at lunchtime and I’ll be here. We’ll work on your writing.”
Thank you to all the leaders at Milpera State School and the teachers and staff for your support, for being willing to try something different and for believing in the power of words.
For more about the amazing Milpera read here.