You will most likely know that, until I was diagnosed with throat cancer in March 2016, I used to visit a lot of schools to teach creative writing, and give talks about my work as an author.
Not only did these visits provide me with a large part of my income, they were also – generally – great fun to do. I got to meet some amazing young people, some truly dedicated teachers, and quite a few characters along the way.
Then, there were the ‘other’ schools.
The ones we authors talk about in private Facebook groups, and warn each other about visiting. And, I promise you I’m not making that up. If you work at a school and have ever been visited by an author or illustrator who you have then either recommended to another school or advised them to avoid, believe me…
Authors do the same about you.
We have a list.
A list of schools we’ll all be ‘too busy’ to visit, should we ever be invited.
And I thought this might be a good opportunity to tell you about a couple of mine…
I’ll start you off gently, with a selection of incidents and comments that have happened during otherwise enjoyable visits.
Such as the time I was signing books after a talk in a library in North Wales. I was sitting at a table while pupils from years 5 and 6 from a local school queued up with their Scream Street books to get them signed.
As each pupil stepped up to the table, I’d take the book, ask their name, and usually had a bit of a silly joke with the boy or girl in question. I might pretend not to hear their name correctly, or suggest they were giving me a fake identity, or demand to know what they wanted with me. That sort of thing.
Then, near the back of the queue, a small-ish boy from year 5 stepped up with his book, and the conversation went something like this.
BOY: (Handing over his book) Hello!
ME: What do you want?
ME: What do you want?!
BOY: (giggling) Can you sign my book, please?
ME: (exaggerated sigh) Go on, then… But just this once!
BOY: (more giggles)
ME: OK, what’s your name?
ME: (thinking, oh this is good – he’s joking back) Popcorn?!
ME: (laughing) Good one! Now, what’s your name?
BOY: (serious now) Popcorn.
ME: (looks over at teacher)
TEACHER: (sighs and nods)
ME: Your name is Popcorn?
ME: O…K… (signs book ‘To Popcorn’, and hands it back)
For those thinking of asking… Yes – that really happened. As did this…
I was visiting a secondary school where I worked with year 7 and 8 pupils, teaching them how to tell stories in comic strip format. We had three great sessions and then, following my author talk, I was – as usual – signing books.
Now, the thing about visiting secondary schools is that a lot of the pupils are taller than me! I don’t mind in the slightest; I’ve had years to get used to being this height. But, it does give me the the chance to have a bit of fun with the taller kids, which I was doing when a smaller, slightly scrawny boy stepped up with a Scream Street book. Finally, someone my height! I took his book, and was signing it when this happened…
ME: At last! Someone who doesn’t block out the light!
ME: What’s your name?
ME: OK (starts signing)
BOY BEHIND JACK: Ask him what his surname is!
ME: Er… OK. What’s your surname, Jack?
HIM: SIGH! Sparrow.
ME: You’re Jack Sparrow?!
HIM: Yeah… I was born a year before the film came out.
TEACHER: Jack’s the captain of the school basketball team.
ME: (looking short, scrawny Jack up and down) Really? Are you good at basketball?
ME: Oh. You must really like playing it, then.
HIM: No. I hate it.
ME: Then why did they make you the captain of the school basketball team?
TEACHER: So everyone could call him Captain Jack Sparrow!
If Jack ever reads this – sorry!
However – I’m NOT sorry for telling this story. The story of the worst school I ever visited. Now, don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a bad school. There was nothing wrong with the staff or pupils, or the building.
Nothing like that.
What made it my worst school visit was the way the event was arranged to start…
Before telling you more, I should explain that – when any author is booked to visit a school – it makes a HUGE difference if the pupils are told about the impending event. If they know an author is coming in they can read their books, prepare questions, look them up online, etc.
It really makes the most of the day.
Some schools don’t do that.
At some schools, the head, or LRC manager, or person in charge of literacy books you – and then doesn’t tell another living soul.
The result is the author turns up on the day and has to explain who he or she is to the school secretary, who possibly has no idea you’re expected.
And school secretaries aren’t the easiest people to deal with.
There’s a reason they’re kept behind glass.
Then, if you do manage to get inside, you’re often taken to a classroom or hall where an unsuspecting teacher is forced to abandon their lesson plan, and a group of pupils are sat down in front of you but have no idea at all who you are.
You have to start cold. And it’s not nice.
At one school in Preston, several years ago, this exact scenario happened and resulted in grumpy teachers, confused kids, and a head who came to see me at lunchtime seemingly surprised that some of the pupils had expressed a desire to read some of my books.
Of course, I instantly knew she hadn’t contacted a local bookseller to ask about getting books in to sell, or give away as prizes, or even to purchase for the school library.
Even though I explain exactly WHY and HOW they can do this in the information guide I send to EVERY school after they have booked me for a visit.
So, I mentioned this. “In my info pack, it tells you how you can get books in for your pupils to read.”
To which, her response was: “Oh, I just binned that without reading it.”
But, that’s NOT the worst school visit I’m referring to. That’s just an example to set the scene.
THIS is what happened at the worst school I ever visited and, no, I’m not going to name the school, or say which part of the country it was in. (Note: it’s not the secondary school where I was greeted with this awesome display in the LRC).
Here we go…
I arrived at around 8.20am, signed in, and was taken to the staff room where the teacher who had booked me said…
HER: We haven’t told any of the pupils that you’re coming in.
ME: (heart sinking) Oh, that’s a shame.
HER: But – what we HAVE been doing is waiting until all the kids have gone home every night this week, then sprayed the floor with fake werewolf footprints.
HER: The pupils have been coming in each morning, convinced there’s been a werewolf in the school at night!
ME: That’s fun!
HER: It is! In fact, last night just before they left, year 6 built a werewolf trap!
HER: And we want you to get in the trap.
HER: It’ll be great!
HER: The pupils will come in, think they’ve caught the werewolf but, when they open the trap, they’ll see it’s not a werewolf, but the author of a series of books about a boy who turns into a werewolf!
Then, the teacher nipped to her classroom and came back carrying the biggest, oldest, dirtiest potato sack you have ever seen. This thing was fraying, it had bits of soil inside, scraps of moldy potatoes, the lot.
HER: OK, get in the sack…
ME: Er… no.
HER: What? But, you have to get in the sack. We’ve planned this.
ME: You didn’t plan it with me.
HER: It’ll be a huge surprise! Get in the sack!
ME: I’m not getting in the sack.
HER: Why not?
ME: Well, for one thing, I’ve got asthma. If I get in that thing, I won’t be able to breathe properly.
HER: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. Hang on…
With that, she grabbed a pair of scissors from a drawer, and cut three small air holes in each side of the sack. then…
HER: OK, now get in the sack!
ME: I’m still not getting in the sack.
HER: But, we’ve been looking forward to this.
ME: I’m not!
HER: So, what are we going to do?
ME: I don’t know.
HER: You’ll be letting ALL the pupils down if you don’t get in the sack.
So, I got in the sack.
I know, I know…
The teacher helped me waddle to the year 6 classroom, which had all the tables pushed back against the walls. She lay me – in the sack – in the middle of the floor, then got a bit of rope and tied the top of the sack closed.
And, I lay there. In the middle of the classroom.
In the sack.
Then the bell went at 9am, and the classroom door slammed open.
32 year 6 kids ran in.
The entire class froze.
The entire class gasped.
The entire class shouted…
YEAR 6: We did it! We caught the werewolf!
HER: Well done!
YEAR 6: LET’S KICK IT TO DEATH!
Before she could stop them, 32 year 6 pupils pounced on top of me. They kicked me, punched me, clapped me, and scratched me.
Some of them grabbed pencils from their desks so they could stab me.
One boy shouted…
BOY: That’s what you get for breaking into our school!
A girl shouted…
GIRL: Let me at it, Miss! I’ll rip its heart out with my teeth!
Eventually, the teacher managed to get the pupils off me, and ordered them to stand around the edges of the room, which they did, panting and snarling like pit-bulls before a dogfight.
The teacher tried to get me out of the sack.
But she couldn’t undo the knot she’d tied in the rope.
It was my turn to shout…
ME: Get the scissors!
So, she did. She found a pair of scissors and cut the rope.
I fought my way out of the sack, gasping for air.
My shirt was ripped.
My glasses were bent.
My cheek was bleeding.
And 32 utterly confused year 6 pupils all stared at me, saying
YEAR 6: Who’s that bloke?
Yes, that was the worst school visit I ever did. And that happened at 9am. I still had the rest of the day to go.
Having written all that down, and got it off my chest, perhaps I don’t miss being able to visit schools quite as much as I thought…