Fox prints

By Vita Forest

Have you read Margaret Wild’s Fox?  It is a searing tale of friendship, jealousy, temptation, grief and loss.  Did I mention it’s a children’s picture book?

My class has been examining it closely.  Noticing the similes, the use of present tense, the metaphors, the personification, the colours used by the illustrator Ron Brooks, the layout of the pages and the unusual scratchy lettering.

This week,  after a boring old handwriting lesson (“check your pencil grip, stay on the lines, sit up straight, trace slowly and carefully, form your letters in just the right way”) we changed gear to explore how Ron Brooks’ lettering contributed to the story.

He experimented and took some time to get it just right.  Brooks ended up writing the text by hand and using his left hand (he is right handed), hacking out the words, tracing some of the letters over and over, writing them down and then up the sides of pages, on diagonals, in capitals (screaming).  In short, breaking all the handwriting rules.

We looked at the book again and focused on the writing, looking not at what it said but how it said it.  The kids had a play on little whiteboards, swapping their usual writing hands, using capitals where they should have used lowercase, reversing their letters, looking away when they wrote, turning their boards upside down, writing over and over in the same space.  Then they chose a piece of coloured paper, a handful of oil pastels and went away to make their marks as one of the three characters – half-blind, trusting Dog, griefing, wary Magpie or sly, jealous, lonely Fox.  The stipulation – they could only write the name of their character, nothing more, nothing less.

Miss Sadie, rather cheeky and daring, stared me in the face and screwed up her paper into a ball.  I stared back at her and said, “Yes!  If you are Fox, that might be just what you would do.”  (They have witnessed one of their classmates do this same action on a rather regular basis when he is distressed and in the midst of a meltdown).  Suddenly, there was scrunching, there was ripping, there was smudging, there was scraping.  Some of them wrote their character’s name just once, others repeated the lines over and over and over again.

Another happy accident occurred when I handed out some black mounting paper that I had cut in half to what I thought was a good size to frame their work.  It turned out it was too small.  “Stick it on an angle,” I advised.  And the artworks looked better than they would have with a neat black border.

The next day, we sat in a circle and held up the artworks for others to see.  The students went around the circle and explained what they did, how they did it and why.  Amongst the “I did it coz that’s what I felt like” there were some gems.  Kelly left space around Magpie’s name because she was left all alone.   Sharni wrote Dog’s name without looking at the paper because Dog was blind and Lana ripped away a piece of Fox’s signature because his heart was broken in two.

Don’t tell me kids can’t understand difficult stories…

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Things you can and can’t do

By Vita Forest

You can’t buy happiness

Says his t-shirt

But he’s trying… shopping bags cutting into the palms of his hands as he walks.

Can’t resist

A  bargain.

 

You can train a spider

Says my friend

If you break its web often enough, it learns to move on to another locale.

It learns to

Weave Elsewhere.

Fire stick

By Vita Forest

We had met at the cafe near the station and looked at sketches  from previous occasions – Neil’s idyllic rainforest scene, drawn and coloured on an iPad, Tomas’ panorama of Cockatoo Island in scratchy blank ink  and Fiorella’s book of treasures – page after page of details  – a chair, a gnarled stump, a delicate tree fern.

We had drunk our coffees and teas and set off to find our own sweet subjects – what would catch our eyes today?  I love meeting up again in a few hours time and seeing howal though we all start at the same spot, our eyes take us in all sorts of different directions.

I started with a tree, an old twisted dead thing whose bark twisted over the trunk.  Whose trunk was scarred with the stumpy remains of branches from long ago and pocked and grooved with deep fissures.  I like a tree with character.  I also  liked that I could fit the whole tree on my page, composition being something I’m trying to improve on.  So I got out my trusty graphite lead and shaved it to a point with my knife and sat cross-legged on the grass and drew that tree in the shade of another tree, a living tree whose leaves shaded me from the hot sun.  Ants crawled along my knee and a breeze swept through carrying with it the smell of smoke.

Sydney is burning.  Parts of it.  The autumn so far has been summer hot and the bush fire season has extended.  We have hardly had any rain and there’s lots of dry branches and leaves turning into brittle fuel on the ground.

When I finished my drawing of the tree, I walked further into the park and along a path that edged a gully.  Down one side of the gully they had done some back-burning.  Possibly yesterday.  The smell of smoke hung in the air and here and there little scribbles of grey smoke rose from still smouldering coals.  The other side of the gully was still a lush green but this side looked scorched and barren.

I put my bag down on the path (away from the blackened leaves beside it) and began to draw this surreal scene.  There would not be too many opportunities to draw the effects of fire.

I hope.

I noticed that the fire must have scorched over the earth and then been extinguished almost immediately.  There were trees with one side of their trunks burned, the other side spared.  There were piles of charcoaled grass but here and there a stem of fern still stood (though it was blacked and shriveled as if drawn in ink).  I stood and drew the stand of rocks beneath the trees, the charred remains of strappy grass and the flaky ash that had crumbled over the soil.  Pedestrians marched past, some turning to look down the slope, a few stopping to snap a couple of photos.

I stood on the side of the path and remembered my dreams of fires and my concern one time that saw me taking my keys and walking outside at midnight – just to make sure I couldn’t really smell the building burning.  And later I sat on a seat with Fiorella, swapping stories and showing each other the contents of our pencil cases and talking about the plants that need fire to germinate.

And I remembered peering down that charred slope and seeing a kookaburra dive into the ashy dirt and snatch up a lizard as a cloud of smoke slowly rose around it.

There is life there yet.

Homework sentences

By Vita Forest

Actually not by Vita Forest – these are a selection of homework sentences from my class this week…  (the main focus were words that change their form completely when a plural is made).

Men are different to women because they get head lice more often and have bigger feet.”

“Twins are very similar to each other.”

“One man wearing a bright orange shirt stood out in a group of men wearing black uniforms.”

“A teaspoon and a tablespoon have a similar shape.”

“The climate in Sydney is really hot and there is a bit of lighting (sic).”

“I watched some similar YouTube clips they were all about this dude that jumped off London Bridge.”

“Most people in my class don’t have lice.”

Thank goodness for that…

Everyday more geckos

By Vita Forest

For the last two weeks

A strange phenomena

A gang of geckos in my classroom.

They march up the walls

Keeping watch over the rubbish bin.

They peer at the whiteboard

Their sticky toes hugging the frame.

Some particularly curious ones watch me work at my computer

They must tell their friends –

Everyday more geckos.

And on the back wall by a Boy table and under the Indigenous language map

An army has appeared

Everyday more geckos

One clings to the clock and listens to its tock

They crawl up the windows

Every size, every colour, every pattern

When will it end?

Everyday more geckos.

Mobile Tales 8: in which Christabel becomes aware of an unusual weather system

By Vita Forest

One fine, balmy morning (was there really any other kind?) Christabel La Mouse peered out from The Good Ship Possession, through the far distant headlands of The Doorway and into The Kitchen.  There was strange metallic box therein to which she was often alerted by the rumbling and humming it made.  She believed it was called The Refrigerator.

The Refrigerator was a cheerful thing that kept up a steady stream of conversation.  Unfortunately, the language was quite unknown to Christabel, so she had to make do with sending a cheery wave its way and the occasional call of “Yoo Hoo!”  It was unclear whether The Refrigerator was aware of such communications, but it seemed happy enough as it gurgled and hummed and droned and whirred.

And happy it should be, for it seemed to be the home of much of the food in The Kitchen, and in particular, The Cheese.  Many was the time that Christabel would be distracted from her lookout post by the flash of light that signalled the opening of The Refrigerator and the accompanying waft of cheddar or parmesan.

But on this particular fine and balmy morning, Christabel was aware of a cloud of white that was buzzing over the pewter grey surface of The Refrigerator.  It shimmered as if alive.  Whatever could it be?


Her curiosity was piqued, necessitating this myopic mouse to withdraw her spyglass from its case and place it up to her right eye.  She twisted its segmented body this way and that, until the shimmering cloud sharpened into focus and to her astonishment turned into a cloud of words!  A cloud of words!  Whoever had heard of such a thing!  (It was true that her own vessel was formed from the pages of a novel but a cloud of words?  Was there really weather systems created by language?  Storms of similes?  Gentle patterings of adjectives?  A sudden flash of metaphor??)

As she watched, one of The Humans stood in front of The Refrigerator and peeled small rectangles from inside the cloud and arranged them in lines floating above it.

Was it a message?  She waited patiently until a number of words were thus arranged (and also for the large head to move out of the way so she could see).

What did it say?  Christabel swung the spyglass from right to left and read:

shadow ship soar over a smooth lazy lake

How lovely!  Then

watch above though

stop the spray heave & rip & blow

Wise advice indeed.  Then

live sweet summer honey music

It only needed an exclamation mark…

And there it ended.


Christabel felt like clapping, The Refrigerator gurgled and from the depths of The Kitchen, the kettle boiled.

How wonderful it was to discover new delights to monitor from her ship on the ceiling!   The world was certainly full of wonder.

School days

By Vita Forest

 

I hear a child say he wished to die.  Saw no point in it and he was tired, tired, tired.  I know, said the woman with the water rubbing his hand, I know.

Another said she likes to hang out here, in my room, their room, our room, more real and familiar than that house they had just moved to.  They swing open the door with confidence, as if they own it, which they do, and march in to look at the schedule, to get their hat, to get their book, to have a chat.

I stand in the playground with the sun at my back and wave at my grinning girls as they skip through hoops and miss completely the boy brandishing his fist at another.  The victim tells his tale as the other stalks away.  The parties are gathered and talk tearfully in turn,

He said….  

He did….

I only wanted to…

I was just trying to… 

It wasn’t my fault.

Another day I do not miss the boy, morning meds forgotten, baring his teeth at his friends, lashing at the air, at a tree, at the curious Kindergarten boys who venture too close before I turn them away.  We watch and let him roam and calm and he creeps back again, more in this world than out.  Yes, his mother is told, the drugs do seem to make a difference.

After a final Peer Support meeting, the whole school frolics outside, playing Tip, playing Grandmother’s Footsteps, playing on the soggy muddy grass, shrieking in the cold wind.  One boy, one of my dancers, asks if I will hold the final treat, the bag of lollies for him – he needs both hands.  Only if you give us one later, shoots back another nearby teacher.  He grins and runs off and we compare notes on the ups and downs of children as we watch them play.  Later that week I will draw thick black smudges over the boy’s eyes and silver lightning bolts on his cheeks and spiralling scrolls on his chin.  It’s the first time I’ve worn makeup he tells me, looking at the eyeliner pencil in wonder.

In Assembly the boys point to their knees and I give the filthy, muddy, knobbly things the thumbs up.  It brings me joy to see such evidence of unabashed play.  And later that week, those boys who stand atop those strong, wiry legs collect ribbons for long jump, for high jump for hundred metre races.  See what playing in the dirt will do?

That day we go to the oval and the clouds hang low, but we make a start and how they run and jump and throw!  The parents provide free cups of hot drink for adults and on a break I clutch a tea in my cold hands and huddle into my parka.  I collect the lengths of long jumps on my clipboard, measured and sung out by high school boys, the same age as my faraway son.  In any gaps in the proceedings, they tear down the path themselves and hurl themselves into the sandpit.  Foul!  the other cries, but hardly ever mean it.  At the other end of the pit, the children who did not like to run pat sand into castles and fashion hills with their bare hands.  At lunch, the clouds come down and we find shelter where we can, but still the children run and still the children jump.  I go back to school early, standing swaying on a crowded bus with the children who have finished, who have lost interest, who are cold! whose breath turns the windows of the bus to fog.

In the crowded classroom, we turn on the heat and a movie, while the boys make a meticulous list of who would go on the computers, and in what order.  Enraged he had to wait, one boy from another class kicks his shoes in the air, slams the door, screams.  The others stare momentarily, used to his behaviour, then go back to their lunch.  I know him too, he hasn’t changed.  I ring the office, I let children go to the toilet, I accept drawings done on scrap paper, I time the time they have on the computer, I text my friend late back after their bus gets stuck on a tiny street, she has to stand in the rain and help direct it past an illegally parked car.

And the next day we show the school the dress rehearsal with costume, hair and makeup.  Eyes boring out from black scribbles smudged with finger tips, others peering out from itchy wigs in psychedelic colour.  An audience – it brings both excitement and intimidation as their classmates see them, watch them, judge them.  How much harder to stare into familiar eyes than into blank, unappraising space.

I walk back and forth through the week, carrying armfuls of paper, photos, reports in yellow envelopes, skipping ropes, jackets with silver collars and stage makeup.  Carrying list of things to do, people to talk to, staples, velcroze, stiff black cardboard, plans for the holidays and for next term.

We hold a party for the whole Year on the last afternoon to farewell my student, going overseas for years, to celebrate the end of term for all.  They bring out bags of food and one boy tells me he has never eaten such things before, his mother makes everything and will not buy this food wrapped in plastic.  He concedes her homemade cakes tastes better.  Another boy eats fruit, he is going away tomorrow, he explains, and doesn’t want to get sick in the car.  My girls present a card to their friend, make a speech, send her off.  The card-maker tells me she got all the girls to sign it but had to write some of the boys names herself because they would not cooperate, not be appropriate, not behave, she says severely.  (The boys are outraged at this assessment).  They all kick balls, throw balls, lounge around the picnic tables and shovel food into the mouths.  The ground is muddy still despite the sun and I am offered up more muddy knees for inspection.  The bell rings and my departing student hangs behind with her friends, not wanting to leave, looking around the classroom one last time.  She gets a marker and writes her class, her old class, a message for next term:

I will miss you – yes even the boys… it says.