A few years ago I chanced upon a TV documentary about Limpsfield Grange School ( a unique residential secondary school for 11-16 year old girls with autism). I was very taken by the work done there, and the cohort of refreshingly individual pupils who attended. And, although I’m an experienced special needs teacher (and the parent of a son on the autism spectrum), it was the first time I’d heard proper discussion on the specific and differing impact autism has on the able, female population.
Something inside me finally clicked. To cut a long story short, I returned to the school a year later (with my own official but raw diagnosis of autism) for a one-off gratis visit in my capacity as a children’s poet. The poetry sessions went well and being encouraged, I successfully applied for Arts Council funding for a poetry project to work with pupils at the school, involving 16 visits over 4 terms, to develop their poetry skills and to work towards a poetry anthology. Alongside this, I’ve been allocated writing time to explore, through poetry, my own response to autism and related issues of female identity.
So far, I’m one full term into the project. Having first worked with every class across the school, I am now focusing on 4 classes who show a particular interest or aptitude with words. These poetry sessions are a far cry from, and a refreshing counterfoil to the fanfare and performance that accompanies my one-off mainstream school visits. It’s a much slower and subtler affair. Three sessions in, and I’m just beginning to feel a measure of mutual trust being built between us. Many of the pupils struggle with extreme levels of anxiety and battle societal-acquired low self-esteem, which may manifest itself in a refusal to engage or a frozen inability to put their words down on paper.
Being no stranger to anxiety, I understand and relate to these experiences. The first poetry course I ever attended, at the late age of 40, terrified me. I spent the first ten minutes of the introductory session hugging my tightly – drawn knees up to my chest. I must have given a very strange first impression. But I was keen to improve my writing and so I continued to attend. Soon enough, I had to take my turn in reading my poems to the group. My words would be blurted out, breathless and inaudible; I wanted my work to be heard yet I found the process an excruciating one. The more personal my poem was, the more difficulty I had in expressing it. Sometimes, my patient tutor, the poet & novelist Ros Barber, would take my poems from me and read them out herself in order to do the words justice.
Over the last fifteen years, I’ve gradually become much more confident – both in my writing ability and my delivery of it. Having gained a level of success I’ve found myself being asked to perform at festivals and in theatres to large audiences. It’s not been an easy process and has involved many sleepless nights and a certain level of bravery. I still get very on-edge before an event, and totally exhausted afterwards, though I’ve learned to manage myself better around the day.
But poetry has given me much more than the ability to brave audiences, win prizes or publish books. The reading and writing of it has helped me navigate some of the most challenging years of my life. And it has given me a tool to express myself in a way I haven’t seemed to manage otherwise. Poetry has kept me (mostly) sane and has been an outlet for my intense and often obsessional thinking. It has been both life saving and life changing for me.
I’m not anticipating such a momentous impact on the pupils I’m working with ( though that would be lovely) but I’m already noting some positive developments within the groups. Initial silences are slowly being replaced with thoughtful and articulate verbal contributions and blank pages are now filling with personal and competent poems. And there are small individual successes. The pupil who becomes overwhelmed and leaves the classroom, only to compose herself and return to write a poem. The spontaneous applause from the group in response to an impressive piece of writing by a classmate. The shy girl who musters the nerve to recite her poem to the rest of the class. For me, these acts define the essence of poetry. And, alongside the great poems I’m sure they’ll produce, I’m looking forward to many more poetic and defining moments.
All this talk brings to mind a poem I’ve recently written. It is soon to be published in Poetry for a Change (Pub. Otter – Barry Books) to coincide with National Poetry Day’s 2018 theme of Change.
Advice From A Caterpillar
When I was egg, I too, clung onto leaf
in shaded safety – hidden underside.
And fastened by a pinprick of belief
I dared to dream I was a butterfly.
A hunger hatched. I ate the home I knew
then inched along the disappearing green.
In shedding every skin that I outgrew,
became a hundred times the size I’d been.
And now I’m spinning silk to fix my spot.
Outside remains. Inside I’m changing things.
This caterpillar’s planning on the lot;
proboscis and antennae, four bright wings.
So keep on clinging on, my ovoid one.
For who you are has only just begun.
– Rachel Rooney