I'm sweating under the critical inspection of a gang of young writers. Even babies chewing rusks are eye-balling me. Perfume and aftershave vie with baby powder. The dress code varies from school uniforms, through op-shop-special to Goth and punk.
'Hi, I'm Kate. I'm filling in. Marie's mother is sick,' I explain. 'Please introduce yourselves and tell me what you write.'
One of the teenage mums writes poetry, the other fantasy. The Goths are into dragons and wizards. A girl in a wheelchair says, 'Melanie. A novel.' Next a song-writer. A tattooed youth drawls, 'Sean. Dirty realism.' Two science-fiction writers.
A shy girl mumbles, 'Fiona. Poetry and short stories.' She reminds me of someone. Ah, yes — I too was a gawky teenage poet with no audience.
I point to the quote from 'The Prisoner' by Erica Jong on the white board:
The cage of myself clamps shut
My words turn the lock.
'Please respond to this in whichever style you prefer. Write from the heart, no editing. Ten minutes.'
Heads bend, pens scrawl. After trying to fix names and interests in my head, I write too, to keep my twitchy hands busy. There are groans when I signal time's up.
Reading work aloud is voluntary but most are keen. They watch my reactions closely. Many relate the poet's words to their own lives, others to parents and teachers they consider emotionally shackled. I'm impressed, and I tell them so. The shy girl remains silent but soaks up every word.
'Please revise this during the week and bring it back.' Fiona's hands disappear onto her lap. Hell, I don't want to scare her off on my first day. 'Remember, reading aloud is optional.'
After a break, fruit-cup cordial juxtaposed with smelly nappies, we play a 'character' game. Sean volunteers first. The others pepper him with questions about the drug-dealer in his story.
As we quiz the creators of a sorceress, spaceship pilot and detective, they scribble notes about creating characters. My shoulders slump in relief. It's working out.
I'm less nervous the following week. Fiona arrives early, clutching some paper. 'Um, could you read this?'
Only birds hear me cry, and they scatter, leaves before a gale,
they're not caged and their brief lives are led by simple instinct.
I read on in respectful silence. Her voice trembles. 'It's pathetic, yeah?'
'No. It's good.' I grab a form from my folder. 'There's a competition. It would be great if you entered.'
A tentative smile appears.The next lesson, on creating atmosphere and locations, generates invigorating discussion. With encouragement, Fiona ventures the odd question, while the rest jostle to have their say.
By mid-term, Fiona reads an occasional contribution. I savour the word-pictures in poems she shows me privately.
One day she bounds in, glowing. 'The competition! I got third prize!'
I hug her, exhilarated. 'When's the award ceremony?'
She tells me. 'Can you come?'
'Try to stop me!'
In the front row, we listen intently, stunned by Fiona's strong finish:
I wish I could be free, free from bonds of love and need and expectation
I act loving, obedient, reliable, on demand, but I long to be me, myself, just me.
The students stomp, whistle and cheer. My voice is louder than theirs. As Fiona steps down from the stage, her comrades swirl around her, hugging and kissing the blushing author, begging her autograph in the competition's anthology.
I can't say yes fast enough when Marie asks if I'll continue with the classes.
Gabrielle Bridges is a Geelong based writer. She has had some success in small state and interstate competitions and her work has been published in Pendulum and the 2008 Black Dog Institute's anthology. She is currently working on a novel.
Flickr image by thorinside