Teenagers, friendship and a week at Lumb Bank

Last week, I spent five days at the beautiful Arvon Lumb Bank site and it was (unusually) basked in sunshine for my entire stay.  I was there to tutor seventeen students from a West Yorkshire grammar school, aged between eleven and fifteen years old. My co-tutor Anthony McGowan and I were the first to arrive.  We were given tea, cake and a guided tour. I soaked it all up – the house, the landscape, the air, the stillness.

Then it was time to meet our young writers.  Anthony and I walked to the main house, he opened the front door and that was when I heard it – the noise of seventeen young people, all talking excitedly at once.  It was quite a rush, to be greeted by their boom of chatter as we slowly appeared from behind the door to say hello.  There’s something very special about the Lumb Bank house.  You feel instantly at ease inside it.  The sitting room became a convivial hub, a place I would find the young writers after lunch, curled up on a sofa, not with phones in their hands, but notebooks.

I was soon struck by how gracious and generous these young people were.  They listened attentively to me during workshops, to Anthony, to their teachers and each other.  They supported each other’s ideas and didn’t split into factions, despite spanning several year groups. They talked, played and worked happily together.

There was something too, about watching teenage girls and how they behave. No Mean Girls here.  I’m trying to think of the right word: reassuring, pleasing, or maybe just nice, to see these girls curled up in ‘onsies’, plaiting each other’s hair.  Their ceaseless buzz of talking – so urgent and vibrant.  I have raised my two-step children from primary school through to adulthood, but the latter years of my life have seen me stuck in a baby loop. Spending time with a bunch of teenage girls became an affirming experience. I was reminded how tactile my step-daughter was with her two best friends growing up: the linking of arms, the holding of hands. I did it too, at that age, but that behaviour can get lost in adulthood. For the first time ever, I felt a slight grief for my teenage years.

Three days in to the course, I read them Julia Copus’ poemAn Easy PassageI heard Julia read in Liverpool and spoke to her about the poem afterwards, as I am particularly fond of it. The poem describes two teenage girls, trying to get back in to the house they have locked themselves out of.  One is standing on the ‘blond gravel’, the other is climbing through an open upstairs window, thinking she must not be nervous, but ‘keep her mind/on the friend with whom she is half in love’.  I waited in the book-signing queue to talk to Julia about that line. I am convinced, that for girls, their first intense female friendship, is as big as their first love. I hadn’t read a poem that so perfectly described this before.

The poet Amy Key is currently editing an anthology of poems titled Best Friends Forever, forthcoming with The Emma Press this November.  The anthology ‘aims to reflect the scale of intensity within female friendships’ and I think there is a very valid place for it.  In an interview with The Poetry School about why she wanted to collate such poems, Key explains ‘I want to do this because I’ve fallen cock-a-hoop for friends and I’ve fallen out of love with friends. I’ve been dumped and I’ve rediscovered friendships when they seemed lost to me. At times it’s felt I’ve been able to live because of the friendships I have. I find it exciting that there will be new friendships to come that won’t spell the end of my existing ones. My ambition for this book is that it will be something someone can use to help them tell their friend they love them.’

On the final day of the course at Lumb Bank, I sat in the ‘barn’ beside fellow tutor Anthony, reading through the sixty-five page anthology the students had put together – a compilation of the work they had written that week.  The sole boy on the trip, Martin (not remotely fazed at being so outnumbered) was doing a fine job as editor, administering final touches to the anthology.  A couple of girls were practicing ballet steps, laughing, pretending they didn’t actually enjoy a small audience. Some were singing to each other. Then, a girl called Cailtin sat at the piano and started to play, quite beautifully.

I looked at the girls around me and thought about my three year old daughter at home. I realised how selfishly I’ve been thinking about her forthcoming teenage years.  I’ve only really been considering how they will affect me – her hormones, her emotions – at a time when I’ll be in my fifties.  When Caitlin finished playing the piano in the barn, I asked her to scribble down the title of the piece, as it will always remind me of that week.  She wrote I Giorni by Ludvico Einaudi.  Coming home I’ve discovered the title of the piece translates as The Days.  Post-Lumb Bank, I’m beginning to see my daughter’s teenage future very differently.  She will discover friendship. Now I think, lucky her, what days indeed, she has to come.

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