Last week, I wrote and published a blog post detailing some of the experiences I have both enjoyed and endured while visiting schools to teach creative writing, and talk about my work as an author.
That post proved to be very popular, and quite a few people have contacted me to ask if there are any other school events where unusual or entertaining moments happened (there are!), and if I would share those as well (I will).
So, hang on to your pencil cases for a second clutch of Tommy’s School Visit Tales…
We’ll begin with an event at a library somewhere in deepest, darkest Lancashire (I won’t say where, in case someone from the school concerned somehow recognises themselves!)
The event itself went well and, afterwards, there was a long queue of pupils eager to get their books signed. As I mentioned previously, I try to have a little fun with each of these readers as they step up to the table.
About halfway down the line was a young girl of around 8 or 9 years old. As usual, I did something silly when she tried to hand over her book. In this case, I briefly pretended to have no idea why she was giving me the book, and repeatedly insisted she explain the process of the book signing to me.
She giggled, as she did this. Then, when I gave in and finally ‘understood’ the situation, I accepted the book and the conversation went something like this…
ME: OK, what’s your name?
HER: (I can’t remember, so we’ll say something like…) Rachel.
ME: (Writing a comment before signing) To… Rachel…
HER: I’m very good.
ME: Are you?
HER: Yes! I’m very well behaved.
ME: That’s great!
HER: I’m no trouble at all.
ME: I’m delighted to hear it.
HER: And, my mum’s really pretty.
ME: (Cautiously) Is she?
HER: Yes. She has a lot of boyfriends.
ME: (Even more cautiously) Er… that’s good.
HER: But, not at the moment.
ME: That’s a shame.
HER: So, she’s single right now…
HER: And I’m really well behaved.
HER: She’d love to get married…
HER: I could be a bridesmaid!
On the subject of grown-up women, I got into a lot of trouble – TWICE – thanks to a silly trick I used to do during my school events.
I would profess to be able to do magic, and request the assistance of a female teacher from the audience (although I never put it like that, I’d choose a victim, er… assistant beforehand and point to her saying, “Miss, could you come up and help me with this, please?”)
Once the teacher was standing at the front of the hall with me, I would produce two handkerchiefs and tie their ends together, explaining that I could magically get these to safely pass through skin and bone.
Once I had tied them together, I would tuck the knot into the front of the teacher’s top, then stand behind her and take hold of the two loose ends. Now I’d proclaim I could pull the two handkerchiefs through the teacher’s neck and out the other side, without harming her at all.
By this time, some of the pupils – and possibly even the volunteer teacher – would begin to get a little nervous.
All the better for what was to follow…
I’d build up the trick, then get the kids to shout a magic spell (usually ABRACADABRA), at which I would pretend to pull the ends of the handkerchiefs back through the teacher’s neck.
Instead, I would simply pull the two ends apart over the teacher’s shoulders, causing them to pull out of the front of her top – to reveal a bra hanging between the two colourful cloths.
Obviously – the bra was hidden inside one of the handkerchiefs, which was actually two identical pieces of material sewn together to provide a secret space inside.
It always brought the house down – especially when I began to panic and apologise to the teacher as she made her way back to her seat, usually laughing as much as the pupils and other members of staff.
The first time this trick got me into trouble was at a secondary school in Nottingham.
The show was going well, and then I chose my victim (I usually did this as they came in and sat down at the start of the session; I tried to pick someone with a high crew neck top as tucking a pair of knotted handkerchiefs into a deep cut v-neck could look pretty dodgy).
On this particular day, I wondered briefly why virtually all the other staff members took a sharp intake of breath when I chose my victim from the audience, and it really should have warned me that I’d not chosen wisely. But, in the excitement of the moment, I ignored it.
I did the trick, and the kids loved it. They really laughed.
Some of the braver staff members laughed, as well.
Most of them didn’t.
Someone who didn’t laugh – at all – was my assistant.
Nor did I after the event, where three separate teachers took me aside to warn me that I’d ‘picked the wrong person for my bra trick’, that she ‘wouldn’t be happy’, and that she ‘had no sense of humour whatsoever’.
Sure enough, she complained.
But, not to me, or the person who had booked me for the event.
No, she wrote to the managing director of my publishers.
Thankfully, they’d seen me execute the trick on many occasions, and they loved it. But, they had to respond, and told me so.
I had to write a letter to the teacher concerned, apologising for my actions and the negative effect I’d had on her day, week, and possibly entire career.
But, I got over it, and continued to include the trick in my show. Although, my publisher did suggest I temper the trick by choosing a male teacher from that point onwards.
‘Cos yeah, revealing that a male teacher wears women’s underwear beneath his clothing in school is a much better idea.
But, then came Scotland…
In March 2010, I was thrilled to run an entire week of events around the greater Glasgow area with the wonderful people at the Scottish Book Trust. We visited two schools per day, Monday to Friday – one morning, one afternoon. And we were a huge hit everywhere we went.
Well, almost everywhere.
On the Thursday morning, the bra trick backfired again. Although I didn’t know it, and neither did my two colleagues from the Scottish Book Trust, until later that day.
On Thursday afternoon, we pulled into the car park of our next scheduled school, and were busy unloading the car, when the headteacher marched over to us and insisted that we pack up and leave.
We weren’t being allowed to perform for her pupils.
Because the head of the school we’d been at in the morning had telephoned her over lunchtime to claim my show contained vulgar material that was inappropriate for audiences of children.
I was utterly gobsmacked, as were my two minders.
Especially as the head didn’t specify which part of the show was inappropriate. Because she didn’t know.
The other head hadn’t told her about the trick.
Because she hadn’t seen it herself.
What had happened was this…
The teacher I’d played the trick on found it funny. But one of the OTHER teachers didn’t. So SHE went to the head to complain. The head accepted the unhappy teacher’s comments without question, and decided to ensure no other impressionable young darlings would be subjected to my hour of pure filth and, having a copy of our schedule, had taken it upon herself to phone ahead to warn the next school.
Thankfully, once I had explained the situation and promised not to include the trick in this show, they allowed us to go ahead with our performance and, once again, it was a huge success.
But, that was the day I finally decided the trick was more trouble than it was worth, and I dropped it permanently from the show.
I haven’t performed it in the eight years since.
If you want to see the trick in action, you can see it in this video footage I took of the Scottish Book Trust tour. It will pop up again and again throughout. However, I won’t tell you which of the schools included decided to demonize me.
Oh, I’ve just remembered a fun little side story – again set in Scotland, but before I abandoned the trick…
I was north of the border visiting schools for a few days, all arranged by a wonderful bookshop I’d been working with on and off for a few years. At each school, I did the bra trick, and it went well.
On our final evening, I was invited out to dinner with the bookshop’s owners and their staff, to celebrate a successful few days. During the dinner, one of the shop staff handed me a present. I opened it, and discovered it was a bra.
A rather large, bright red, frilly, underwired bra.
Of course, it was a joke gift. The staff member claimed the bra I was using in the trick had far too small a cup size, and that I needed to replace it with this bigger, sexier bra for comic effect.
We all had a good laugh!
There’s actually a reason why the trick uses a small-cupped bra; it has to hide within the folds of the secretly adapted handkerchief and not show itself by adding any bulk.
But, I didn’t want to spoil the fun, and I accepted the present in the spirit with which it was given.
Then, after the meal, I went back to my hotel room to pack my case for an early train the next morning.
I completely forgot about the bra until, back at home, Kirsty was unpacking my case for me – and found it.
I’m sure you can imagine the resulting conversation.
Thankfully, she saw the funny side.