We started the session by looking at today’s news stories and how we could develop them into programme ideas, and had already got stuck on Angela Merkel’s speech on multi-cultural Germany. The majority of students, 18-25, mostly white, mostly born and bred British, just couldn’t see how it could be relevant to them or what themes we could pull out from it.
So I tried the exercise. The students lined up and dutifully organised themselves, first by height, and all without question. Silently, the dominant ones rose to the challenge while the natural followers did what they were told, before presenting their new student body for my assessment. They seemed pleased with themselves and happy to do whatever I suggested.
I moved on. This time, they would organise themselves by eye colour. Even before they looked into the first person’s eye, they were squirming. This was about how they told stories about themselves and their peers, I reminded them, asking them to notice what judgements they were making, to observe any feeling they might have about the process until they were done. With a sigh of relief, they turned to me for approval. Instead, I pushed them further, asking them to organise themselves this last time by the warmth of their hands. TOUCH each other??? Tentative fingers reached out to touch tips, the occasional bloke shaking another’s hand firmly, girls quickly taking the lead. Finally they were ready, a little sheepish this time, and presented their line to me. I sent them to their desks and asked them to write for five minutes without taking their pen off their paper.
Afterwards I asked if anyone would like to share what they had written. Silence. Eventually one of the more confident blokes offered; ‘It felt a bit awkward’. Another joined him ‘It was a bit too intimate for me’. I asked if anyone else had written the same kind of thing, and a few nodded. I asked if anyone had not written about feeling awkward in their journals. No-one. The smile spread around the room as they realised that they had all shared in the same experience.
We had our story. From reflections on British reserve to musings on age and confidence, we began to build an idea of who we are as a nation. In 20 minutes, we had moved from blank faces to heated discussion about mono-culturalism v multi-culturalism, the difference between Notherners and Southerners, we had phone-ins on confidence and documentaries on the impact of different cultures. From nothing, we had created our riches for the day.