A Writers Other Jobs story by Geoff Orton
I knew when the 10 year old kid had a bread knife to his throat that I was in the wrong place. I’d been called at 9am (quite late in my line of work) to a primary school in Stepney Green. In England, this last-minute, crowd-control type of work is called supply teaching. But I’ve always preferred the Australian moniker of casual teaching, it always seemed more descriptive.
The experiences I had as a teacher on-call in East London weren’t always this severe but it was the first time I’d been face to face with potential violence. What made it all the more jarring was that I didn’t know this child and I’d been on campus exactly 10 seconds before a barrage of swear words and threats were hurled at me.
Thinking back on it, this and many other schools I supplied, were locked from the inside and the kid just wanted to go home. Children couldn’t escape if they tried. It was then I knew my teaching career had taken a wrong turn somewhere along the line.
I’d always thought I’d be a writer. I remember very early in my life, bargaining with my parents to stay up that little bit longer after whatever hour of after-dinner TV we were allowed to watch. My mother, rather cunningly, would say “Of course you can, but you need to be in your room with a book”. One of my fondest memories of this time was of my father telling me a fantastical story of dragons in the Christmas tree farm over the back fence. It was years later that I realised he had made it up, because we’d already read the books we had so many times.
As I got older I thought I’d created the greatest up-late scam ever. My pleas for extension of lights-on privileges at tuck-in time were often placated. Even after this, I have memories of hiding a torch in my bedroom just so I could keep on with the story despite my mothers final word. It was perhaps the tamest of rebellions.
However, in primary school, I was the last to get my pen license. To anyone that’s seen my handwriting, this will be of no surprise. But as a seven year old who was good at maths, I remember feeling isolated and confused when I was sent for testing because I couldn’t write a full sentence. One remedial lesson with a learning support teacher highlighted I had a misunderstood how to hold a pen properly rather than having a development disorder. From that day I had a shaky trust in teachers.
Parent/Teacher nights and report cards throughout my high school career rarely diverged from the same formula. Usually they were variations on words like ‘noisy’, ‘opinionated’ and ‘disengaged’. The closing remark of the report compliment sandwich was almost always something along the lines of ‘is capable of more’. Thinking back now as a creator of these comments, it’s jarring how much style guides have sucked the personality from reports now.
But something happened in Year 11. Off the back of a few essays and speech about equal rights for gay couples, I ended up in Ms Taft’s Related English class. Having someone not only ask me what I thought of a text but expecting me to have a considered opinion on it, was so exciting. English became a subject that indulged my tendency to be contrary.
Ms Taft opened my eyes with stories of poetry readings held in cramped, inner west pubs. She would make frequent, smoked filled journeys off campus in her beaten-up VW and she had an ambiguous sexuality that baffled me. But it was the first time I saw one of my teachers as a person. Conversely, it was the first time I felt responsible for my learning, for my life.
Her respect and encouragement to continue writing may have given me an inflated understanding of my abilities. You can never tell if the encouragement you get in school is real world. One thing I do know is, eventually, through my English teacher I found an engagement in education that had been missing for me. The idea that I could be that person for someone else is probably the reason I ticked the box of a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Teaching degree in my careers advisors office over ten years ago.
The funny thing is that once I started teaching, I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Transient for the first six years of my career I never made the decision to stay put. Not until I landed in my current job. A job that challenges me, engages me and is never, ever the same.
Despite this, I recently resigned from a position in middle management. I knew I wanted to focus on writing this year but ultimately I made the decision because the increased paperwork took me away from what makes teaching great. I’ve heard lots of different theories regarding intelligence, application and achievement but one of the most important and perhaps hardest things to teach is rapport. Teaching, despite all the technological advances, still revolves around the relationship between student and teacher. I felt like I had moved away from what attracted me to the job in the first place.
The thought of leaving a job I really enjoy for an uncertain writing career isn’t enough of a sure thing. Swapping the relative financial security I have as a teacher for a potential financial cliff is frightening. Perhaps Writers Bloc is a buffer I’ve created so I don’t have to take that leap yet but it’s no less time-consuming. Or risky.
Five years ago, I found myself in London with no money, a broken relationship and in a career I detested (recruitment). Somewhere along the way, I’d lost who I was and what I wanted. I’d always wanted to be a writer but at 27, I still wasn’t one.
So, I disappeared to a small, industrial town in southern France to chain-smoke and drink wine. While binging on TED videos and the final season of Lost, I came up with an idea. A mongrel of all the information I ingested, my idea related to writing and how solitary the pursuit often feels. I felt that in my years since high school, I’d not found a place to write, a group of people to share it with and had no idea on what steps to take with a finished piece of work. Being an internet idealist, I figured a website that drew on an engaged community with a unique feedback system would be the answer to my isolation.
While, Writers Bloc is a little different to that original idea, at it’s core, it’s the same. Writers still need community and publishing doesn’t need gatekeepers. The decision of who and what gets published can be made by the people that will read it.
Writers Bloc is now providing a place for people to develop their writing, read fantastic stories for free and create collectives with other emerging writers. The website* we are developing will reward engaged feedback and elevate great prose. Already, I’m proud that critique and Write Here groups in towns across Australia and New Zealand have sprung up because of what we do.
Writers Other Jobs is a series that investigates the troubling relationship between writing and money. While not every writer can make a living from what they do, there are so many of us that push on anyway. I thought there was a lot to mine from these experiences, funny or tragic, educational or bizarre.
Some things haven’t changed though. I’m still a precocious student who asks lots of questions and I’m slowly building up a few stories I’m proud to say I’ve written.
Geoff Orton is a teacher and founder of Writers Bloc. He writes short stories, poetry and the occasional recipe for his friends.
* A beta version of Writers Bloc will be testing in late 2013.