Hands up in the air
Maureen the principal ushers twenty kids and myself into a classroom just off the library. They obediently troop in and sit down cross-legged on the stripey mat in front of a whiteboard covered in thumbnail-hammered-in posters. If youthful expectation and utter trust has a smell, it's a combination of hot socks, old banana and vinyl pencil case.
My swift 360-glance around the room reveals that the data projector and screen I requested - and assured would be provided - don't exist. Damn. There goes my presentation, lesson plan and warm up exercises reliant on visual cues, funny phrases and word fly-ins. Poo.
Pressing her pearl necklace to her chest as she begins to address the excited kids in front of us, Maureen says, "Good afternoon everyone. You children should consider yourselves very, very lucky. You have specially selected by your class teachers because you are the VERY BEST writers we have in this school. Kath Lockett is here to help you each write an ENTIRE NOVEL in the next six weeks......
---- what the? I thought I was giving them some pointers on how to write a story in their notebooks ---
"...... and will be meeting you here every Thursday for an hour after lunch."
I smile uncertainly, hoping that my blush remains at neck level and below.
"She's written several novels......
----er hang on, no I haven't ---
".... is an extremely successful......
----shit, no I'm not ---
---- Phark NOOOOOOO no no no no no no no ---
".... and when she's finished with you, you'll each have a professionally written and published novel that will be available for borrowing in the library."
---- WILL they?
The kids look around at each other, whispering 'Wow' and 'Cool' and 'Awesome' and before I start feeling relieved that the same words for 'goody goody gumdrops' are still being used by kids born thirty years later than me I then realise that they're reacting to what Maureen has just told them. Being taught by an expert and making a real book. Oh crap.
Maureen's talking now about how they'll need to listen and behave because it's an honour to be here, or something like that, and I'm still smiling inanely like a blank-brained idiot whilst inside I'm trying to figure out if she innocently misheard my weak "Okay, I'll run a little workshop on writing a story if you agree to let me interview you for a My Career article" agreement or deliberately escalated my skills and experiences in order to rev up the kiddlywinks.
Either way, my heart starts pounding erratically in my throat and my sweaty, pulsating palms and I hope I don't have to bend over too suddenly because there's a sudden build up of nervous bloat that I'm vaguely realising is my body's natural defence mechanism........ Maureen concludes with a "So, it's over to you, Kath" and saunters out of the room; her job done.
Blink blink. Wriggle wriggle. Twenty pairs of eyes staring straight at me. The data stick in my hand is useless. I'm going to have to talk to the little buggers direct.
"Hi everyone my name is Kath and---"
Seven hands are already up in the air. What kind of queries do a bunch of ten year olds have when I haven't even finished my first sentence?
"No worries kids, I see your arms up there; but just let me finish telling that today we're going to be---"
Another four hands shoot up, with one kid literally bouncing up and down from his kneeled heels saying 'Ooh oooh oooh!' in his eagerness to be picked.
I give up and point, because the only kid whose name I can remember is Sapphire's and she's sitting at the back, very small and very quiet. "You? Girl with the Royal Gala apple sticker on her forehead?"
"Are our books going to look like real books? Like a Harry Potter or Andy Griffiths?"
"Yeah, how are they going to look? Like the poetry one my sister was in two years ago?"
"Do we get our own copy to take home?"
"Are we going to design our own cover and back blurb?"
"Does it have to have illustrations because I suck at drawing."
"Can we sell them?"
"I've already got a great idea for a story!"
Hands outstretched, all I can do is say, "OK, okay okay. I'm not sure of the technical details yet kids, because I'm here to help you write the story - sorry novel."
A skinny little boy with a head shaped like a light bulb slowly sink from his half-running-to-the-desk position back towards the mat. The deflation is almost tangible.
"First, I've got to get you know you all. I've got to find out (my throat is killing me and why is it so damn hot) what kind of talent (might as well start buttering them up) I'm dealing with here. Now I did have a totally fabulous presentation for you, but I'm just going to have to talk to you instead, hehe."
Total silence. They're waiting for me to continue. To waste their time, hose down their hopes, sap their enthusiasm, to bumble along.
And I do. Bumble along, I mean. I end up telling them about my chocolate job/addiction, love of dogs, hatred of litterers, the need to run and why keeping a notebook and camera in my handbag is more important than lip gloss or chewing gum. That sitting on a tram, or at the bus stop or hanging around with your Mum when she's dragging you around the supermarket can be a fascinating opportunity to see 'real' people in all their shapes, sizes and plumages.
They're told that writers like to say that they want to help and nurture people, but really we're a solitary lot who hate sharing any good ideas or pointers.
"So you guys are lucky," I conclude. I feel like I've wet my own pants, but it's just nervous, full-on failure flop sweat that has completed its long, inevitable run down my spine; kind of like the success of this venture, really.
I reach into my handbag to find a battered old water bottle and take a sip, reminding myself that not every second needs to be filled with my voice.
Hands are still up, their owners silent and patient as I witter on. "So, I'll just take this poster off the white board - yes, you - what's your name? Rohan, is it? Okay Rohan put your hand down for a minute; you look strong, want to give me a hand getting the pins out? Jeepers it feels like someone was determined to keep these times tables charts here permanently - and I'm going to write you all a starting sentence."
I turn back towards the group and another fresh forest of upraised hands. "Geez you kids are all about the hands, aren't you?" They start giggling and lower them, seemingly interested in my ill-prepared patter. "Here's how it's going to work. When I say GO, you'll have five minutes to write a paragraph that starts with......."
--- I hope my hands weren't trembling as I faced the whiteboard with a fat green marker
Ouch! That hurt! Why did you do that?
Blonde, curly, straight, brown, bobbed and black heads were focused over their workbooks, all scribbling away frantically. No sideways glances, giggles or pauses.
Two minutes in, I'd had enough time to control my heart rate, have another drink of water and then ask a question I never thought I'd need to ask this particular bunch of beings.
"So, you're halfway into it. Do any of you have any questions?"
No-one raised their hand.
I was starting to enjoy this.