The Things That Matter: Writing Memoir
A few Saturdays ago, we were lucky enough to attend the Oxford Writing Spree, a day conference organised by teacher Ed Finch (@MrEFinch) in his own primary school, Larkrise, on the outskirts of the town. We were in the company of some excellent speakers and a large group of teachers, all interested in thinking and talking about children writing at home and in school.
We were there to run a workshop in which we would ask teachers to write a short memoir of an experience from their own lives. We had found in our Year 5 class that personal memoir was a much enjoyed and successful writing project, and we had decided to give participants the same kind of teaching and resources we had used with our pupils. We described techniques for the generation of an idea and how to find the ‘pebble moment’ (the one metaphorical pebble on the whole beach which would be the specific intense focus for the piece), talked about planning and drafting, and offered support in the form of conferencing as the teachers wrote. At the outset we expressed the hope that everyone would gain a little, both personally and professionally, from the writing experience. It has to be said that there was a little noticeable consternation at the prospect of putting something on the blank page, but most of the writers were happy to work in pairs talking over possible ideas and obviously gained confidence this way. During conferencing, one pair said rather plaintively that they both led very boring lives and so could think of no subject for writing. A little later, however, one of them had settled on a memory which she described as ‘banal’ – but had realised, as she said, that ‘banal is fine!’ In fact, her memoir of a first sleepover at a friend’s was one that reflected on the feelings of a child encountering for the first time an unfamiliar domestic routine, and learning that people do things differently – an important life-lesson.
One teacher, Gemma (@MissBPrimary), wrote alone and intently for thirty minutes. She was persuaded at the end of the session to share her writing, and with her permission we include her piece here:
Who knew that four words could prompt an existential crisis in a 7-year old? Who knew that a 7-year old could even have an existential crisis?
“You’re a gypsy Gemma”
Reflecting now, it is almost impossible not to draw parallels with a similar set of 4 words which have changed the lives and journeys of countless children around the world.
“You’re a wizard Harry.”
Just as those words prompted a journey into the magical unknown for Harry himself, and for the endless army of children whose lives have been transformed by the words of J.K.Rowling; mine was transformed, reshaped and turned upside down by those very similar set of words, spoken by my dad.
If he had been able to read, one could be forgiven for believing that he had been inspired by Rowling’s words too, but in this instance, it appears only to be a happy accident.
From the moment I walked into a classroom for the first time, I knew that things in my life were about to change. Brought up outside with no walls to confine me, this room, full of garlands and banners and words and numbers and people and furniture was far from what I was used to and the apple tree painted clumsily on the wall looked very different from the ones in the orchard where I had spent my summer. Those trees had been covered in hundreds of leaves, each one a slightly different shade of green and all of them hiding what seemed like hundreds of apples that would thud down onto the rooves of the caravans below if only you shook the branches hard enough. This tree was too straight, the apples too round and the leaves one big cloud-like mass of a single tone of green. But that is not to say that I did not like that classroom. I did.
In fact, I loved it: the things to discover, the stories to hear and the children to play with, children who spoke a language which sounded strange to me – somehow familiar yet somehow so different to the words I heard at home. I could not wait to enter that room each morning and keep on discovering this strange, new world of walls and windows and words and colours.
Friends. I had friends. Friends from outside of the orchard walls and from beyond the country lane on which we were staying. As time wore on, their cadence felt less strange and their language less foreign. I began to share their ideas, understand their questions and use their words.
“Rain” was my favourite word. I would mumble it under my breath over and over again as I watched water droplets race down the caravan windows. I loved the way it sounded in my mouth, its shortness and the way it ended with an ‘n’ sound, not an ‘ee’ sound like the word I had always used to describe the water which fell from the sky – ‘parni.’
“Ark at that parni, God’s a drumming,” my grandmother would remark as she stoked the fire, whilst in my head, I was repeating the new ditty I had learnt at school. ‘Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…’ silent to the world outside and almost feeling mischievous for using a word that was not our own. But ‘rain’ sounded more definite, more final, like the water itself as it dropped from the bottom of the window and was swallowed by the earth below.
I loved their words; strange and dissonant sounding and much less lilting than the cadence I was used to.
It wasn’t long before I learnt another one.
I didn’t quite know what it meant but it knew it was a bad thing to be. If someone took your crayon you called them a gypsy. If they pushed in front in the line. If they were mean or if you really wanted them to know you did not like them, then this was the word to use. I certainly did not want to be one. It meant you were horrible, dirty and mean; someone to keep away from. I never really had any enemies in class but I stored up the word in my arsenal just in case I ever did.
“Defend yourself if you need t’,” my Dad had always said, “don’t let no one mess ya round.”
So, when my older brother, only a few weeks later, gave me much more than a light nudge that ended with me face down in the mud, my dungarees torn and my knee cut open by a stone, I had the perfect insult up my, now ringing wet, sleeve.
“You stupid gypsy,” I sneered, “what’cha do that for?”
At that very second, my dad, who had been bent over the open bonnet of his latest project, stood up straight and looked me straight in the eye, with a strange look I had never seen from him before; somewhere between shock, confusion and disgust. It was during the following conversation, with him lent on the bonnet of the car and me sat on the steps to our caravan, in which he uttered those four words which would change my life and make me question everything. Maybe I was not like the other children in my class after all. Maybe I would never be like them. I was the thing they were so afraid of, so hateful towards, so cruel about and I never even knew. Did they know? What if they found out?
I was a gypsy.
But I still had no clue what that really meant.
It does seems important to note here, that whilst working that out would completely change my life and the way I view the world, it never did lead me to Hogwarts…
This memoir hardly needs any comment. It speaks for itself as a very accomplished piece of writing in which the feelings still seem raw. The audience was silent after the reading, then there was spontaneous applause. Gemma said she didn’t write regularly, but that she would like to and probably would from now on. She wrote to us a few weeks later to say that she had posted her piece on Twitter and had a great response. She also mentioned that her class had started to write memoir and told us about one boy in particular:
‘He came to me at the start of last academic year (start of Y3) as aY1 emerging reader and working towards Early Learning goals in writing. Now he is a fluent reader and writer, secure Y4. He just flew – not even sure what made the change so dramatic. He chose to write about the time he felt the happiest, which was when he stood in front of the class last Nov.and read ‘In Flanders Fields’ perfectly. None of his friends knew he could now read as we had been working together before school every day and he was too nervous to read aloud. It was the most amazing piece of writing! One of the others has written about a particularly great meal at Wetherspoons, which I also love! The things that matter!’
And that’s the point. It’s the things that matter, whatever they may be, that fuel the writing and not just for memoir either but for all kinds of texts…
**By Phil Ferguson**