Once, when I was 4, I lingered after class, and watched two mates throwing stones into the hedge of a house opposite the school gate.
They were small stones, and not much damage was done, but we were unaware that the headteacher was watching from his office. Out he came, and took the three of us back through the empty, echoing school, and gave us each two of the belt. Even at that age I was aware of a vague sense of injustice. He was a friend of my dad’s, and, by the time I got home, the message had already been phoned: “He wasn’t throwing any stones, but it’s a good lesson about the company he keeps.”
At this distance, the belt at that age seems excessively cruel, but I never thought I was particularly traumatised by the experience. Then, around thirty years later, I returned to that same school, as a guidance teacher, to discuss primary/secondary transition plans with the current Head.
My ‘formative’ experience returned to me as I sat waiting in his office, but it was only as I left the building, pupils all in class, through those same corridors with the familiar smell of disinfectant and the echo of memories, that the moment really came back to me. Strangely, it was the cloakroom that did it. Being the summer term, the wire cages and double hooks were empty – except for one coat. And, I remembered: there had been one coat left behind as we were marched through that long corridor all that time before.
Looking down the years, it occurred to me, that, in school cloakrooms round the country, in evenings, weekends and holidays, there is nearly always one coat left hanging alone, one pupil who has managed to go home coatless.
I was reminded of this moment by Frank Cottrell Boyce’s amazing story: “The Unforgotten Coat”. He tells the fictionalized tale of two Mongolian refugees who attended his primary school in the Bootle area of Liverpool. They represent an existence well outside the experience of their classmates, but are eventually integrated. One of them wears a big shaggy ‘Mongolian’ coat.
When the two incomers disappear from the school suddenly, all that is left of them is that coat, hanging, solitary, in the cloakroom.
A decade later, when the school is about to be demolished, the author returns for a last look round, and, remarkably, there in the lost property, still, is the coat.
What he finds in the coat pockets gives him a whole new perspective on his former refugee classmates, and the place he calls home.
The tale was written, partly, to reinforce the importance of reading and sharing stories. However, it is a powerful illustration of how, often, it takes a new pair of eyes for us to recognide what we have in our midst; how stepping back to reflect can be crucial in finding the way forward, or gaining from the lessons of the past.
Boyce’s story is written for young people, and will surely strike a chord with them, but, like all the best inspirational writing, it holds a message for adults as well.