Poems from a Quaker heartland

Sue Holden tells the story of how one Meeting is reaching out to local primary school pupils

Swaledale | Photo: Gruban/flickr CC:SA

It is 6 January, the worst weather conditions of the treacherous weeks since Christmas – I slip and slide along the hundred yards between my house and the main road, unsure whether the school I am to visit will be open or not.

With thirty seconds to spare, I approach the school building, greeted by eager faces looking through the door. The children are lined up, waiting to enter the school hall.

Closing the door quietly behind me, I hear Sarah’s authoritative, yet kindly reassuring voice: ‘Now children, as you go into the hall, just remember that the atmosphere you find in the hall will be what you bring in there yourself. So you might like to think for a moment what you would like that to be.’ I immediately feel at home.

The occasion is the first outreach visit to one of the five schools invited to take part in Wensleydale and Swaledale Area Meeting’s second schools poetry competition. Sarah is this school’s head teacher and a fellow attender at our Meeting.

Together we have built upon last year’s innovative initiative, in which children from two schools, after an introduction by Quaker visitors, were invited to write poems on the subject of ‘Peace’. This year Quaker visitors went into five primary schools with the subject of ‘Silence’. Joining the children in assembly or other worship-sharing experiences, we embarked upon an exchange of ideas on the subject. I don’t think we had previously considered the challenge we were giving the children in asking them to put words to ‘Silence’! However, they ably demonstrated a vast range of sights, sounds, tastes, feelings, sensations and indeed noises that they associated with the word.

Our judge Annie, a schools advisor, with a special interest in both English and Quakerism, chose two winning poems from each school.

On my second visit to Sarah’s school a double rainbow marks my arrival. I know deep inside myself that a moving experience awaits me. Again we sit quietly in our worship-sharing circle and silently listen together to Alison Krauss’s rendering of Down in the River to Pray, before Sarah asks the children if there is anything they would like to say, ask, or share of their experiences.

I am sitting three away from eight-year-old, drawn, pale faced, blond-haired Jonnie. I am mesmerised by his beautiful, long eyelashes. Annie did not know that Jonnie is the youngest child and only boy from a family of five children who had never won anything in his life before when she chose him as the winner. His shock and bewildered delight on hearing his name announced as winner touched my heart.

Silence is a sweet
and gentle smell
tasty like chocolate
melting in your mouth.

Each school was free to choose how to spend their Quaker gift of £50 and each chose a different combination of recipients: the winners; the school, school council, or winners to decide how the money should be spent. Sarah’s children chose for all the money to go to Haiti.

We have made a booklet for local Friends of all the poems and will be offering a display of the Poetry Competition to libraries and other public venues, bearing in mind that we will not be allowed to identify the Quaker nature of the competition in the libraries.

The mutual benefit of this competition went far beyond our initial expectations of Quaker outreach into schools. We are thrilled to realise that it also happily meets Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills – the non-ministerial government department of the chief inspector of schools in England) requirements for evidence of community cohesion, including an introduction to different faiths. Through Annie, as a schools advisor, the competition is now to be publicised more widely within the county and web links made between the participating schools, so that the poems can be further shared. Ideas for next year already include a wider variety of artistic possibilities in order to facilitate a more comprehensive display afterwards.

After she read this poem by Sacha from Gunnerside, a close runner up, Annie was left in stitches. She told us she would never again be able to enter a Quaker Meeting for Worship without thinking of us all this way:

Silence is when the spitting fire is burning
Silence is when the big door slams
Silence is when the snow flutters from the sky
Noises is when a glass smashes and crashes to the ground
Silence is when I cuddle my teddy
Noise is when I splash around in the swimming pool
Silence is when the Quackers are silent for an hour to think. Sh! Ssh!

Sue is a member of Wensleydale and Swaledale Area Meeting. If you’re interested in learning more about the project, email Sue on sue.tettix@daelnet.co.uk.

Have you or your Meeting got a story to tell? Then get in touch with the Friend.

Silence is quiet to me
Silence is hush and quiet to me and my Grandad
Silence is calm when I am doing bird watching
Silence is a special moment when Grandad is with me
Silence is my Grandad.

Mathew from Arkengarthdale

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