I quickly realised content was more important than, the length of the words for instance. Like, if you, if you hit on something that the, the kids saw as being about them, that they could identify with, they would tackle something theoretically way beyond their means, way beyond their ability. Whereas if you, if you churn something out, like, ‘the cat sat on the mat’, then, they may be able to tackle it slightly better but, it wouldn’t turn them on. So then I remember, I can remember vividly the- I came, I came across this poem called To the Black Mother in a book from New Beacon Books, and it was, that was written out in a sort of, a dialect. So during lunchtime, I had the classroom to myself and I wrote it up on the blackboard. And then as the, as my first class came in, they started to find their desks and one of the girls stopped and looked, and started to read. And, it was like an electric shock had gone through her, and, I think her friends must have immediately wondered what was going on, and she was sort of, half saying it aloud. So then she went back to the beginning and started- you know, they all started to read it. So by, you know, after about three minutes, most of the class were sitting down really reading the poem that was on the blackboard. And by coincidence, a deputy head teacher came in to the classroom, and, he must have wondered what was going on, because, like, everybody was just looking at the, at the blackboard. So, eventually, when he realised that they liked this poem, he asked this girl called Hyacinth to, to read it out, and she read it, she read it aloud, really proudly. She realised it was sort of, for her, you know, both as a girl and as, as a, as a black young woman. So she read it out, and, everybody looked at the head, the deputy head teacher then, and he said, ‘Oh that’s very nice. What does it mean in English?’ [laughter] There was a mass, mass sucking of teeth, you know.
Oliver Flavin grew up in Skerries in County Dublin. He became a teacher at the age of 19, moved to Hackney and taught English at Edith Cavell school, a Hackney comprehensive. He sought to introduce black writing into the classroom, scouring black bookshops and even attempting to write his own poetry in Caribbean dialect, wanting to show his students that literature could be directly relevant to them.
He joined Centerprise as a youth worker in 1975, and he considers his work there as a continuation of what he did as a teacher. He organized activities for young people: table tennis, trips out and a writers group which published a collection of verse called Talking Blues. He also worked in the bookshop, taking particular interest in developing its range of black writing. He used to question in his role in doing this work and says ‘sometimes I felt like I was having to do things because I was the only person around who could do it, and that if there was a black person around who would take over from me, then fine.’
Increasingly he saw himself as a ‘Centerprise worker’ rather than solely a youth worker. He worked at Centerprise for three years, afterwards going on to work with young people who had been excluded from school in Hackney.
Interviewed by Sean Mullervy.