‘I Have a Dream….’

What do these words mean to you? 

The phrase was the focus for a secondary school event I attended at the University of Huddersfield last week.  The students, all participants in the First Story project across Yorkshire and Lancashire, had gathered for an afternoon of creativity, and a chance to look around a University – something which many of them hadn’t considered might be an option for the future.  ‘University isn’t just for posh people’ said Michael Stewart (Programme Leader for Creative Writing) in his introduction, citing his own working class background.  A walk round the campus and a chance to talk to the undergraduate student guides made the possibility that bit more real for some of them.

In the workshop I led we spoke of what ‘I Have a Dream’ mean to us.  Some students talked about achieving aspirations, of where they are now and where they want to be in the future; one of the teachers said that it conjures up lost opportunities.  We talked of Martin Luther King and his speech about equality.  And then we listened to a cheesy Abba song.

Using the ‘angels’ as a metaphor for dreams and ‘streams’ as a symbol for what prevents us achieving them, we wrote stories and poems that spoke of aspiration and the things in life we’re passionate about.   The ‘streams’ made for depressing listening: fears about money and the economic climate, about high unemployment rates and global warming.  Some of the obstacles were more personal: ‘I’m too lazy, I need to change that’ or ‘my own lack of confidence stops me achieving what I can.’

But the way the students wrote about their dreams sparkled on the page.  They produced authentic, thought-through prose and poetry, which made use of symbolism (Pegasus, the winged horse; a favourite cushion, a comforter and best friend) and, above all, articulated hope.  There was a knock-out piece by a young writer who wrote of the tattoos on the skin of his protagonist’s angel, a whole narrative, transferring to him as he crossed the water.  ‘It is my story now’, he said.

Another student, who had been terrified to read out but volunteered anyway, read her piece to a lecture theatre of nearly a hundred, including special literary guests like top YA author Melvin Burgess and poets Ian McMillan and Lemn Sissay.  I could practically hear her own heart hammering, as read about a heart hammering with fear as she crossed a stream to achieve her goal.  For that student, a dream was fulfilled that day.  She’d never thought she’d ever read aloud, she said, but something had made her want to do it that afternoon.  She didn’t name it, but I think I know what she meant.  It was something mysteriously alchemical about being allowed to name the dream and speak the fear; about being shown a new, accessible doorway into the future; about being told that words were everything and count for a great deal.   This is the amazing work that First Story does with students in schools, week in, week out.  It’s unquestionably the most rewarding teaching I’ve done.

The final word goes to performance poet, Lemn Sissay, the guest of honour with his bright green trainers and his spectacular verbal delivery.  Lemn inspired the students by speaking of the origins of his own writing journey growing up in care.  Having achieved an honorary doctorate and the MBE, he’s a brilliant example of staying true to your passion, to your dream.  Writers are as important as scientists, he said.  Everything we experience has first been imagined.  You can imagine things, and that gives you immense power.  His words rang true for the adults in the room as much as the young people.  He reminded us that dreams begin in the here and now, not in the future: ‘bags of love to you.  I look forward to you becoming the person you already are.’

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