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It's not what you write about...

To get into the building itself took about twenty minutes. The external door, through reception, signing in, materials scrutinised and checked off against a pre-approved list, clear bag provided to carry my items, no keys, no phone, no pens and pencils. Then accompanied through a maze of checkpoints and heavily fortified doors to the classrooms. Today I was modelling a lesson in one of the girls' classes.


I never knew much about the girls in there, suffice to say they were locked up for a reason. I could expect up to seven girls in the lesson, but often they'd have appointments or calls, sometimes revoked privileges, there were absences for any number of reasons. The girls could also choose not to come. So when six girls walked in that day, along with the ever-present guards, the two teachers and I silently acknowledge a positive start amongst ourselves. Pencils are counted out, and after much cajoling and encouraging from one side, and much swearing and wise-cracking from the other, we are ready to begin.


I look around the room. No eyes are looking back at me. Nobody acknowledges my presence, but I share the aim for the lesson and press forward. These girls are between twelve and seventeen years old, some doing a lot of time, some a little. Some could write well, or so I'd been told. Some had never put pencil to paper. Most of these girls don't value education and see absolutely no use for writing. They are using all their energy to survive. Every lesson we play a waiting game to see how things will unfold - will anyone pick up a pencil today? Will that run a risk of being mocked or shamed? Has the pecking order been challenged overnight? Has someone had a visitor who upset them (or expected a visitor who never came)? There is such an undercurrent of tension, just waiting for any opportunity to explode and derail the semblance of calm we have going. I carry on. "We're going to read this piece, then listen to a story. I want you to look for ways the writer describes the story-critical character, and collect evidence to support your thinking." After a couple of pencils are flicked across tables in semi-silent protest, and an outright expression of refusal alongside the usual cries that, "this is bull**it", I'm relieved and grateful when the queen bee agrees to read the piece aloud.We carry on...any pause carries such risk of total anarchy.


I manage to squeeze some input out of a few girls, and set a task for them to think of a person who is special to them. In that moment they are lost. Could be there is no such person in their lives, and I realise what I'm asking is too high risk for them. In an effort to get back on track, I encourage them to write about someone in the room - why not write about each other? Why not write about me? A couple of the girls blush as I describe their flowing hair, or bright, darting eyes. A few giggles are stifled as I describe the way my voice sounds like nails on a blackboard. I begin to breath a little easier as some writing starts happening. As usual, I move around the room. We carry on.


There's one girl in particular who has never looked at me, never interacted in any way. She sits like a statue, and if approached will call for a time-out and leave the room for five minutes. On this day, I notice she's writing. At the end of the lesson, I sidle over towards her, and she scrunches up the paper and drops it on the desk. "How'd you go?", I ask. No reply. No eye contact. "Can I read your writing?", I ask. Nothing. But she hasn't asked for a time-out, so I gingerly continue. "How about if I promise not to say anything about it. Can I read it then?" Here eyes flick to me, and after a tense pause and barely moving a muscle, she flicks the scrunched paper across the table towards me. I smooth out the paper as best I can and begin to read.


A tirade of profanity and mockery unflolds before me. All at my own expense. From the way I creepily hang around the room, to the way I walk, the way I talk, the waste of time and energy that is my mere presence. It is endless. But I read on, searching for the compliment, the positive note that has to be coming. It doesn't come, and I get to the end of the page and swallow hard. I've been massacred. I'm absolutely torn to shreds with no ounce of redemption offered. I take a second. I breathe in and out a couple of times. My eyes look up to meet hers, which are more attentive in this moment than I've ever seen them.


"I know I said I wouldn't say anything", I tell her, meeting her eyes and smoothing the paper on the table, "but I have to say that your sentences flow so beautifully. You are a talented writer."


With that, I flash her a warm and wide smile and walk away, claiming victory for us both. I'm thrilled she wrote an entire page. Happy to be sacrificed for that. After all, it's how we write that matters, not what we write about.


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