“Dear Mr Norman, Thank you for coming to visit our school. I know you told us you don’t make much money from each book sale, but let me tell you, be rest assured, you are bringing great joy to millions and millions of children around the world.” 🙂
School visits really are the second best part of my job. The best is actually me sitting in a darkened room with my imaginary characters while they push me around and force me to arrange more and more unlikely and hair-raising adventures for them to narrowly survive. But that way leads to madness and self loathing and probably coffee addiction.
I have done a load of talks to school kids in recent years in places ranging from the wealthiest private schools with million dollar views over the Swan River to one school where the school teaches Equestrian Studies and has a class set of horses and stables. In contrast, a week later, I was cramped in the front seat of a small Cessna flying across an endless outback desert to reach an Aboriginal school with a dozen kids.
Flying in small Cessnas is not part of the school visit scene I particular enjoy. Once, when crossing Shark Bay to visit the school at Useless Loop (an unfortunate name for a good school), the plane engine started coughing, which immediately concentrated the mind, I can tell you, and tightened every muscle, as Shark Bay was named that by explorer and pirate, William Dampier, for a very good reason. You can see the big scary creatures swimming below you. Obviously, I survived and went on to spent several enjoyable hours with the kids there.
Another memorable visit was to Geraldton where James Foley and I were to talk to kids in Geraldton and Mullawa schools as well as at the Big Sky Writers’ Festival. Before the festival opened, the authors, including Juliet Marillier, James and I, were flown out to spend the night at the Abrolhos Islands, the bleak and haunted location of the infamous Batavia shipwreck and subsequent slaughter of many of the crew and passengers. The island where we stayed is said to be haunted by the spirits of long-dead shipwrecked Dutch sailors, and not just Johnny Walker spirits. What a memorable experience, and, I must confess, we did experience a spirit or two.
Another visit, and one of my favourites, was to Cocos Island School right out in the Indian Ocean, south of Indonesia. The place is everything you could imagine a tropical island should look like, with balmy breezes and crystal clear warm water, and the kids, many from Cocos-Malay families who live on Home Island without cars and the mess of the modern world, are warm, friendly and gentle. They made Jan and me so welcome that we never wanted to leave .
A lovely school visit that sticks in my mind was to Poynter Primary School in Duncraig where every year the Grade 6 students, without any help from their teachers, organise a dawn Anzac Service followed by Gunfire Breakfast and Gallipoli Games on the oval, recreating the sports the diggers played on the beaches back in 1915. They also invite old diggers and serving military members, as well as me, probably because I wrote In Flanders Fields, which is about WWI, and they have studied it.
One added bonus of interacting with students like this is that I get to try out new and unpublished stories on my usually eager audiences. I quickly get a feel for scenes and passages that are flagging or not working at all. I know I’ve got it right, though, when all noise stops, and the kids stop breathing because they are listening so hard.
But most of all, I love their enthusiasm. It is so infectious. They flock to me after sessions wanting to share their stories and s discuss their favourite books with me, and often to get my signature on their workbooks or hats or arms.
When older people tell me that the kids of today are… whatever – lazy, sullen, disrespectful, something bad – I just laugh, knowing first hand that the Australia of tomorrow is in safe hands.