A life-changing school visit

Taking the road less travelled ...

Yesterday, I did a school visit. I’ve done a few of these now. It doesn’t mean I don’t get absolutely crazy silly scared before each one. I write because I’m not all that good at talking. But to get my work out there I have to talk about it. And it’s not like school visits are horrible experiences. In fact, usually, I walk away from them feeling completely inspired, invigorated and with a renewed sense of wonder at just how totally awesome young people are and how grateful I am that they let me into their worlds. So why do I get scared then, if every school visit experience is wonderful?

I don’t know. Blame low self-esteem, a lack of self-belief, or the utter terror that THIS group of kids is going to be the one that thinks I’m a boring old fart who bored them stupid for an hour and a half.

Yesterday wasn’t like that. Thankfully. In fact, yesterday was without a doubt the most rewarding and eye-opening school visit I’ve done so far. So I guess it makes a weird kind of sense that it was the visit I was most anxious about before I went.

See, my talk yesterday was to a group of kids at an Exclusive Brethren school. I didn’t know much about the Brethren before I was asked to do the talk, beyond the fact that the girls wore long skirts and had long hair and there was some controversy about their involvement in politics, particularly in Tasmania. I’d also read Grace, by Morris Gleitzman, which is apparently based in part on the practises of the movement.

I didn’t grow up in an organised religion and religion has never been a big part of my life. I guess I’m what you would call (and I do know this term sounds a bit hippy trippy but I can’t think of a better one) “spiritual”. I believe in a “something”. I just haven’t worked out what that “something” is yet and whether religion will help me find it out. I have friends who are Christians and I respect their faith. Equally, I spent some time as a teenager living in Indonesia and was exposed to the myriad of religious customs that are in existence there, in particular Islam as we lived with a Muslim family in Sumatra. I find religious customs fascinating.

Therefore I have to admit that, when I was asked to talk to the Exclusive Brethren kids, I was as curious as I was anxious. I bombarded the (inspiring) teacher who organised the talk with questions, ranging from “Are the kids allowed to read about magic?” (no) to “Should I wear a long skirt?” (yes – cue a rare clothes-shopping trip, me being a staunch jeans and sneakers kinda lass). I spent hours on the internet researching the movement. I got completely confused by conflicting stories and messages.

Finally, I gave up and decided there was really no point doing all this research. It was just stressing me out more. I decided I should just go there with an open mind, treat the talk as if it were a talk at a public high school. After all, of the list of things the organising teacher gave me when I asked what I shouldn’t talk about, the only topics I probably would have talked about if the kids weren’t Exclusive Brethren were the supernatural aspect of my books, and my love of paranormal literature. Aside from that, well, I’d hardly go in to a public high school and launch into a blasphemous, profane, pornographic tirade, would I?

I don’t really know how I expected the kids in the classroom to look. I obviously expected long hair and long skirts – and both were in evidence – but I don’t think I actually expected the students to look like normal kids. I thought they’d somehow look different, as if their religion would somehow give them a strange sort of aura.

They looked like normal kids.

And they behaved like normal kids, too. The girls were, perhaps, a bit more softly spoken than other teenage girls I’ve met, but that was really the only difference. When I arrived, all the girls were sitting in the classroom waiting. The boys had yet to arrive. Before the boys arrived, the girls were quietly, studiously, discussing a homework project. As soon as the boys barrelled in – with just as much loping, gung-ho bravado as you’d expect a gang of seventeen year olds to display – the girls turned immediately into giggly, scatterbrains, complete with batting eyelashes and tossing hair.

It was beautiful to watch. It was like anthropology, observing the flirting rituals of teenage kids. And it was exactly the sort of behaviour you’d see in any high school, anywhere in the world.

I was, immediately, completely at ease with these kids.

And, as I began talking, and they began asking brilliant, intelligent, thought-provoking questions of me, I was struck by the vivacity, the cleverness, the quirkiness and the awesomeness of this fantastic group of young people. The two hours flew by and, when the time was up, I can honestly say I didn’t want to leave. It was the best school visit I’d done. Those kids opened my eyes and my mind, renewed my love of writing and my love of life.

I had a cup of tea in the staffroom with the teachers afterwards and chatted about how the talk had gone and about the kids I’d talked to. The teacher who organised the event was so lovely, saying she was sure I’d inspired the kids, and how important it was for them to meet people who had gone through very different life experiences from the ones they were destined for. I’d told the kids a bit about my life – how I’d have many careers and failed dismally at all of them before finally finding my passion in writing.I told them about how I’d taken the road less travelled; about how I’d embraced a life of uncertainty and chaos.

The kids I spoke to won’t have lives like that. The boys will go into family businesses. The girls will get married and have children. That’s just the way it works in their culture.

I asked the teacher whether any of the kids in that class would end up continuing with their writing after they finished school. She said “probably not”. That made me a bit sad, but it also made me even more glad that I’d gone to the school and met them all. It made me admire this teacher, who taught these students skills they would most likely never use again after school, and who fought so hard for me to come and meet them; who fought so hard for the student to be allowed to read contemporary literature; who brazenly displayed Tibetan prayer flags in her classroom along with pictures of footballers; who was deeply committed to opening the eyes and enriching the lives of these kids, even if it was only for a couple of years, before they moved on into a life that was determined for them before they were even born.

As I left, I wanted to give her a hug and tell her she was one of the most incredible people I’d ever met. I hope she reads this and knows how I felt. As I left the school and said goodbye to some of the kids who’d been at my talk, I wanted to hug them too and tell them they were brilliant and unique and special. I can only hope that their time in the classroom of that incredible teacher equips them with this knowledge, and the knowledge that art is important; that passions are important. I hope the few years they spend at school equip them with enough joy and self-belief to carry them through life.

But then, that’s the same thing you hope for every young person, isn’t it? That they know they’re special and miraculous?

Yesterday, I did a school visit I will remember and treasure always. I’m glad I didn’t succumb to my fears. I know now that my small bravery in doing these things that terrify me is nothing compared with what the bravery shown by those kids. They’ll stay in my heart forever.

8 thoughts on “A life-changing school visit

  1. Kate, I loved your post about the recent school visit! Sometimes, those schools we can visit, who give you a list of things you would NEVER do, are just daunting. You shriek and fear and feel doom before entering….and you know, every time this has happened to me, they end up being some of the most incredible schools I have ever visited. Also, don’t think that your visit hasn’t had an impact. No matter what parents may carve out for their children, they may seek out their own path too! Well done.

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  2. Kate, you gained so much from your experience, but I hope you realize YOU gave them an opportunity to see that “people ‘out there’ ” are “just people, too.” An important realization for them, whether they stay within their culture, or choose to leave it behind in the future. Knowing and sharing in person with someone from another culture helps tear down the walls of suspicion and xenophobia.

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  3. We can but hope that their teacher and the people she organises to visit do give them hope and inspiration to either get through life in a very restrictive religion or form part of the armoury they will need should they ever make the choice to leave.

    I left my religion about 5 years ago, I have and continue to criticise it for its abuses, but I can still talk to my friends and family, these kids won’t have that option. They are hobbled, unprepared for the wider world and the religion ensures that if you leave, those safety nets the rest of us have to fall back on friends, family associates are taken away.

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  4. This made me cry. I know this is why you write and why you write for teenagers. This makes me think of the first time I read Catcher in the Rye and I thought it had been written just for me.

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