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Thursday 7 August 2008

Chalk and Cheese

Found in the Attic

Sometime during my previous life, as part of an investigation into the relationship between the development of language and thought, itself part of my studies for a teaching diploma in special needs, I set up an experiment in an infant school in which a crystal ball on a perforated metal base was placed on the work surface of one of the classroom storage trolleys. The base of the crystal ball concealed a microphone and the line from the microphone was passed through a small hole in the centre of the worktop to a tape recorder in the lockable storage space below. Other items that I thought might catch a child's interest were placed around the globe and the whole was then covered with a large cloth.The tape recorder was set running and the cupboard locked just before the children, chosen for the experiment by the headteacher (I suspect primarily on the basis of dependable behaviour), were admitted. They, and I, sat round the trolley. I introduced myself and gave them an edited version of what we were going to do, before removing the cloth to a muted chorus of "oooh"s. At this point, and by prior arrangement, the school secretary entered the room and, as per our arrangement, pretended to whisper in my ear. I thanked her, she left the room. I apologised to the children and said I had to pop out for a minute. I told them they could talk amongst themselves, but they were not to touch anything on the trolley. I then left the room. Just recently I found the following transcript of what occurred when it became necessary to turn out the attic preparatory to the insulation being beefed-up.

June: Which way ee go?
Janet: 'Wards Mrs Smith's room.
June: Don't go the office that way!
Janet: I know... ssstaff room.
June: Phone's in office.
Michael: So?
June: When she comes in and whispers like she did, is always urgent, 'coss they's wanted on phone.
Michael: No, t'aint.
June: 'Tis
Michael: Aint.
June: Is
April: Anyone hear what she said.
Michael: Nope!
April: Sounded to me like "bananas, bananas, bananas..."
Angela: Would have been rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb.
April: I never heard you say you heard what she said.
Angela: Don't 'ave ter.
April Ow you know then, what she said, if you never heard?
Angela: Well, I do know, then, see! I know 'coz I know that's what they say,
April: Who say?
Angela: People who aren't saying things, but want you to think they are.
June: What are you on about? What people saying things?
Angela: No, people NOT saying things.
June: And how comes you happen to know so much?
Angela: My mum's in am dram.
April: Where's that?
Angela: It's not a place, silly, its acting. They dress up and go on stages and do stories and things. Then people pay to go and watch them, and sometimes they like pretend they're whispering to each other on the stages, but really and truly truly they got nothing to say to each other, so they just say "rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb".
Alfred: Incredible absurdity!
April: Could just as easy say bananas, bananas, bananas!
Angela: No they couldn't, then. That's quite wrong!
April: Oh? Is it then? Why?
Angela: Wouldn't sound right. When people whisper, words sound all smooth, like. Like rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb, but bananas, bananas, bananas sounds lumpy. Don't sound right.
James: Sounds like rubbish, rubbish, rubbish, if you ask me! What about... What's these things here we mustn't touch?
April: Get orf! Don't touch any of them - not 'till ee comes back
James: I aint!
April: You are - you nearly did!
Michael: It's a crystal ball ...
April: Tells you what's going to happen in your life.
Michael: I was just going to say that! My mum's had hers done.
June: 'Er what?
Michael: Her future. This woman told her all what's going to happen to her.
James: Crap!
Alfred: Incredible absurdity!
June: How?
Michael: She had one of them. We could now. You look into it and you can see the future.
June: All I can see is the windows upside down!
James: They aint upside down, just bent at the edges.
June: Round this side they's upside down!
Michael: You have to cup your hands, see, like this. It cuts out earth light so there's only light in the ball what's came from the future. See, like this... now I can see the future.
James: Crap!
Michael: Yes I can, I see a cloudy path...
Sally: Oh yes, so can I...
and you are walking along it my dear,
things will get difficult for you, I fear!
April: That rhymes, it's like a song.
Michael: That's how they speak, singy-songy - fortune tellers, that is.
June: Had one at the fete last year.
April: Sally's a poet!
Michael: Now it's getting misty!
James: Let's see.
Michael: Don't push!
April: Now see what you've done!
June: Oh! You've moved it! You've done it now. ee'l arf be cross with you now, we wasn't meant to touch it. We never touched it. You did!
Alfred: Incredible maladroitness!
Sally: 'Snot much. 'Ee won't notice that...
Michael: No? Well, I jolly think he will... Hey! Hold on a blinking half a mo'... What have we got here?
Sally: What?
Michael: Only a wire coming out the bottom of it, that's all, my men!
James: What sort of wire? Is it electric?
Sally: Electric! That's why he said not to touch it! We could all get eletrocooted! Shocks an' all - or something!
Michael: Don't think so, not from this, not the sort of shocks thatflings you across the room. It's a thin wire, not dangerous. I know! - Could be a bug, P'raps ee's bugged us!... It's going inter the cupboard... See?
(Long Pause)
Sally: Miss Piper (the head) wouldn't let 'im do that, would she?
Michael: Might.
Alfred: Incredible misdemeanour!
Angela?: ??????????????????? (indecipherable)
James: So lets open the door, see what's inside.
(Long Pause)
Jake: Trying to - it's locked. Dodgy, that. They never ever ever locks these cupboards.
Michael: Oh, well, that's it then, we's all shot. No good pretending we didn't do nothing - eez 'eard it all!
June: I didn't do nothing!
Sally: 'Nor me. Who saw me do what? (long pause) See!

At this point I decided to return - and they all with one accord began to chat about the other articles on the trolley.

The Man Born Blind

They built an eye for a man born blind,
they gave him underwear prickly with pins,
with tingles in low resolution, whims
of the software, rogue pixels were there,
dragged like fish from the deep,
mapped from the lens and laid into skin.

Imagine a door or a tree in braille,
the edge of a wall, the shape of your chair,
think of your partner's face in your chest,
and suppose for a moment you took it all in
and imagined the world was exactly like that...
You do that exactly. Every day.


Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Dave, I like this poem, really,even if I have a problem with the last line, I am not sure who is the "you" in it.
All the best, Davide

The Weaver of Grass said...

Fascinating talk amongst the children - love it! Like the poem too. I see you are interested in "special needs" children - I am a retired teacher of same - and how "special" they often are - sometimes having more insight and "nous" than we so-called "normal" people. Love your site - most interesting.

Lucy said...

That transcript is astonishing, if you'd made it up no one would believe it - I'm particularly struck by Alfred's interjections!

Things here just get better and better...

Ellumbra said...

I have a hunch - that Dave is trying out another little experiment on us, the readers that visit here.
Am I alone in feeling a connection between the transcript and the poem?
Is this about perception, sleight of hand - these comments attached to a thin wire - not the sort that gives you a shock . . .

Dave King said...

The "you" is the reader. Okay, it needs a bit more work - probably - but the point I was trying to make is that in all likelihood our perception of the world "out there" is not more "true" than his. If our eyes were sensitive just to a different band of wavelengths, we would "see" a very different world.

Dave King said...

The Weaver of Grass,
Hi, welcome and thanks for dropping by. Yes, I woud agree with your comments whole-heartedly.

Dave King said...

Alfred was the youngest of the group. They were all 7 or 8 years old. I have lost (and partly forgotten) the details of each, but I remember Alfred very clearly! He spoke like that most of the time, not saying much, just adding his "incredible" interjections from time to time.

Dave King said...

Too perceptive by half! But the experiment was in the Chalk and Cheese. Full marks, though.

Marion McCready said...

I really like the 'tree in braille'. Fascinating transcript!

Dave King said...

Many thanks for the comment. I was unsure of the poem, so any reassurance is doubly welcome!

Anonymous said...

Golly, if only I could write dialogue as good as that. (I try, I really do)

excellent stuff, glad you found it!

hope said...

Thanks for sharing...kids can really be funny and their reactions often unexpected. And yes, your poems always make me think...and often smile.

Last week in our Summer Program, two little girls, age 6 and 8 were playing. The youngest is very bossy but in their playing she was the "employee" in the make believe restaurant and the older child was "Boss". The youngest walked up to me and said, "May I take your order? Oh and just so you'll know, I decided to get aggressive. I've given my Boss 4 days off for vacation."

Hmmm, wonder if that works in "real life"? :)

Roxana said...

yes, I agree with ken, if one could read such dialogues in a book... amazing!
and I like the ending, that last line of your poem, so intense...

Dave King said...

A nostalgic moment, finding it. I just wish I could recall more about the children individually. They wer all bright - that's obvious, I think, but only Alfred sticks in the mind.

I'm sure they would think your dialogue as good as you think their's - as would all discriminating souls, I am sure.

Dave King said...

Wow, that was a very adult contributuion to the game! Something that came out of my study was an investigation to determine whether children might use language differently in an adult environment with no adults around - ie unlike their speech in street, playground, home or school. But that's another story. Thanks for that.

Dave King said...

Difficult to top children's contributions, I agree. Think of child art.
I am especially grateful to you for the comment on the poem. I had thought the last line was the problem line. Thanks for restoring my confidence!

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

That's an interesting story/transcript - I think we (and I know /I/) sometimes underestimate children's understanding and language skills, simply because we can't remember what we were like at the age.

I really like the poem, too. As always with yours, there are some really intriguing images. And I like the challenge and affirmation in the second stanza very much.

Jim Murdoch said...

The transcript was wonderful and I see I'm not the only one to feel the need to highlight Alfred. If I'd been in that class I would have been Alfred without a doubt.

The poem I've struggled with, hence the delay in replying. The opening line to each stanza is wonderful but the whole thing simply refuses to come together for me. I'd love to offer some sensible critique but I can't seem to get by the I-don't-get-it stage and so that's where I'll have to leave you. If I read it too many more times it'll start to annoy me.

Dave King said...

Yes, I think another reason for us underestimating them, liguistically at least, is the gulf between their understanding vocabulary and the one they regularly use. (Not just children of course, we are no different.) It's the usable one we are familiar with, and so it's that we judge them by, but every now and again ca certain set of circumstances will encourage them to drege those extra words up from the deep.

The remarks re the poem are very much appreciated.

Dave King said...

Alfred is everybody's favourite. If I'd been in the class with you we'd probably have fought for ther role - mind you, I would have won: the psychologists had him down as having a personality defect.

I knew there was a problem with the poem, which is one reason (not the only) why I put it in the post - to get some feedback. I do believe there is gold in them thar verses, but how to pan for it...

Roxana said...

why would you think that the last line was the problem? it is simple and sharp and full of strength. and also there is a break in the rythm between the poem and this line, which adds to the impact. it works for me!

Dave King said...


I don't disagree with any of that. I thought the problem might be concerned with meaning. Indeed, I have had a couple of emails to that effect. It was not something tht occurred to me until the emails and the comments came in.
Again, my thanks.

Conda Douglas said...


What I enjoyed best about the transcript is the reminder to me, who has no small children, how they are sooo human, right from the get go. Reminds me of a look I once got from my 3-month-old niece, an adult raised eyebrow. Yeah, I know, they're not supposed to be able to do that at 3 months, but there it is, and it was the perfect commentary on my actions.

Enjoyed the layered poem, especially the evocative line: "think of your partner's face in your chest".

Dave King said...

Thanks Conda,
Yes children never cease to surprise you, which is what makes them so difficult - impossible? - either to predict or impersonate. No one, not even a child, I guess, would have written that script that way.

Crafty Green Poet said...

what a fascinating transcript, i was really gripped. I like the poem too, one to read over and over, to think about...

Dave King said...

Crafty Green Poet

Thanks for that - especially the comment on the poem. All feedback gratefully received.

Alex Moore said...

enjoyed the poem, Dave. i like the reference to us the audience at the end, that little poke intended to wake us up from what we initially think is a vicarious journey.