My Weapon and my Friend: Bringing Words to Life. Inaugural English Poetry Competition, Thailand 2014.

It’s 1983. In a school playground in East London a teacher gives a crying boy two tools to change his life forever. First, a pen: “This is your weapon”. Next, a blank notebook: “This is your new best friend”. Though young Charlie had been expecting something quite different, he noted his teacher’s advice, “Write down how you feel about school”. The white pages gradually filled with vengeance, in what he called ‘The Book of Torture’, plans for what he would do to any bully who touched him again. So, when someone grabbed him in the playground and pulled his school tie around his neck tighter and tighter, he knew he needed to do something, to say something. “If you ever touch me again I’m going to crush you like giants crush mountains”. The bully was so surprised that he left Charlie alone, and that is when he realised if he kept writing and reflecting no one would bother him again. He has written a poem every day since this day, so over 11,000 in total, and the notebooks in their thousands, fill his childhood home.

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Poetry can give children confidence, a voice, and power. The microphone can let them say things they’re too afraid to whisper. UK Performance Poet, Charlie Dark, sees poetry as a useful form of self-expression, like “a silent movie on a snow white paper screen”. He advocates empowering young people with language and ultimately bringing words to life, which is exactly what the 20 finalists of the Inaugural English Poetry Competition did. Charlie and the finalists first met during a workshop. With only one day before the final, the students were given the theme for their poems: themselves. The short time period between being given the theme, and the actual final encouraged the young people to think on their feet and the result was a mixture of nerves, inspiration and raw emotion. The confidence, pride, positivity of the students and their belief in the possibility for change and improvement struck a chord with the adults in the audience. The cheeky smiles and enthusiasm proved to be infectious, and the Director of English, Brian Stott, was even caught on camera pretending to be a DJ.

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The levels of English were impressive and one of the students, Gun, introduced her poem as follows: “It is written in the snow with the footprint of a sparrow, listen to it before it melts.” Transience is beauty, and though this afternoon will soon be a thing of the past it has made its mark on a number of exceptional young people, and members of the audience. Especially the winners, the top prize being a UK Study visit for one week, along with a set of books and vouchers.Through a dramatic reading of one of his poems Charlie Dark engaged and enlivened the audience, and succeeded in drawing a crowd from passers-by. Taking it line by line; animatedly acting out each part, the audience copied him bit by bit. It was a rare occasion when the crowd was as energetic as the performer: the positive energy was obvious. It must have been quite a sight from stage for him seeing the 20 finalists, special guests, visitors and friends pretending to be DJs, holding their pens (weapons) up to the sky, break-dancing and mock aggressively crossing their arms. It brought poetry to life.

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The students’ individuality became clear when they walked up onto the stage in turn to perform their poems about themselves. Some strode confidently, others paced timidly, many forgetting their lines mid-way through, but recovering, taking a deep breath, a nervous giggle, and re-gaining confidence. One boy did a little dance and rubbed his head as if he was massaging his brain so it would work again, another dug out scraps of ripped paper from her pockets and incorporated it into her performance so well that she was awarded the prize for ‘The Best Improvement’. After each performance Charlie provided feedback and the pride in the young people’s faces was overwhelming. He inspired them, but this inspiration was not limited to the young performers. Charlie’s performance and their words combined to produce an atmosphere of hope.

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“I just want to be seen like a book on a broken shelf.”

“I sometimes fall down, but I never give up like the flow of streams… I believe in myself.”

“I dream I can swim across the Pacific Ocean in 1 minute… I dream I can be everything I want to be.”

“I am like a grain of sand in the sea, so little, but strong if you bring it together into a bigger stone. From a grain of sand to something better…like a butterfly I will fly.”

“I am a big shark that can swim in a dangerous and beautiful sea… I can swoop up into the sky and grab my dreams.”

All I need now is my weapon and my friend…and perhaps you do too…

Thai Language Day

The gang.

The gang.

A timetable does not mean that people will come at the time they are scheduled to. Since arriving at the school there have been lots of last minute and unexpected changes to mine. That is why I wasn’t surprised to find out that 3 of 4 of my classes today were cancelled because of activities in the name of Thai language day. They involved the whole school gathering together under one roof to recite poetry, sing traditional thai songs, perform entertaining dramas in Thai language and of course… to put the foreign teachers on the spot.

The poetry was interesting to listen to as it was so tonal. There were about 15 pairs or threes who got up and performed for everybody, but I got the impression that after the first few most of the students (and the teachers) didn’t pay too much attention. The voting system to decide the winners consisted of a few handfuls of students who were given a little stick with a star on the end, which they had to pass onto one of the competitors. The team who was given the most stars was the winner.

What followed was quite surprising. An awards ceremony led by one of the teachers broke all of my misconceptions about Thai schools. The teacher encouraged the students to shout out, to joke, to make wild guesses, to dance even, to laugh amongst themselves. This teacher was like a minor celebrity and the room was raucous but in a very positive way as it just meant that the children were able to express themselves in a way that sometimes they can’t because of the rigidity of their lessons and their relationships with their teachers within the classroom.

One is warned when one goes to work overseas to be prepared to embarrass oneself. There is a reason for this. People tend to put the farang in a position that they don’t put most locals in. For example, during the ceremony earlier (of which I could understand only the odd word) I heard my Thai name. Then I looked up. I was sitting at the back of the hall and virtually all of the heads in the room had turned to look at me, smiling quizzically as if to say will she do it, but what? I was beckoned up to the front and commanded, somewhat kindly, to do a speech in English to the whole school. Only a few sentences, but broken down very simply and slowly with translation going on between each phrase. Clearly this was not particularly fascinating so I decided to make a (little bit of a) stir and introduced the national dance of Scotland, at least one of them and started leaping side to side with my arms raised above me. This snippet of the Highland fling seemed to go down really well. It was quite an amazing and novel feeling having so many dark eyes from the whole hall looking at me, smiling, doing thumbs up and laughing. The teachers all clapped and then wanted Frenelly, the Philipino girl to come up and do her national dance. This did not happen and I cannot blame her.

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Thai lady boys are world-renowned. Teenage boys dressed in drag with fake breasts made out of water balloons are not. This does not mean that they weren’t entertaining; they were hilarious. A gaggle of girls sitting near me didn’t stop shrieking from the start to the finish of this performance by the seniors. The boys looked quite striking with their high cheekbones, wigs and heavy make up. A highlight was when one of them, the tallest in the group who was clad in an orange dress, broke into a Beyoncé style booty shake, and he wasn’t bad. There was also a mock Muay Thai fight. One of the fighters was dressed in a bit of blue material tied into something that resembled shorts. He powerfully thrusted at the air in front of his opponent knocking him to the ground (excuse me if I haven’t described this properly.)

After life the excitement and activities continued. I was informed that Karaoke was taking place, but was somewhat disappointed to discover that the only two people who were allowed to sing were very talented, taking away from the humour of the occasion. Very suddenly it was over and I went straight to the classroom to teach my first lesson of the day (it started at 2.30pm). Only 8 of my students turned up, leaving big black marks on the register. Many of the students seemed tired from the heat and the jollity of the day. This resulted them in being quite studious and weary looking- their faces serious and downward. When I tried to lead a game I was met with looks that suggested they were thinking ‘we are too old for that’. They were a bit confused and merged sentences so they didn’t make sense. For example, instead of writing ‘she read a comic book or she drank some juice’ a lot of them simply wrote ‘she read comic drank.’ I will need to try and combat this in the future, but I do think it is important that the students can make mistakes and learn from them rather than just being spoon-fed everything so their jotters look neat.

Reading a novel, incredibly, took up my whole afternoon. What a luxury to sit on the field in front of the school, in goals actually, with my bike at the side as the sky changed from day to night and I retired home past sleepy dogs and frogs on the path.