I recently spent a lively afternoon at my granddaughter's middle school as a human resource. Year 6 were doing a project on the 1930s and 1940s and several of us had been invited in to be interviewed about our own school days 50 and 60 years ago. I met three small groups of children to trawl details from my memory at their behest.
"What were your favourite sweets?" "Were schools very strict?" "Did you go to the cinema?" "What was travelling like?" "Did you hear any bombs?" Their questions, prepared beforehand, reflected both their ability and their interests. One group of bright girls was armed with an impressive range of queries and, moreover, had made sure that none of them was capable of a simple "yes" or "no" answer.
A middle-ability group was falling over each other to talk, but not always to the point. "Did you have any pets? We've got a cat. Actually we've got six, 'cos it's just had kittens." Children's enthusiasm is always a plus and needs to be channelled, rather than curbed.
A less able group seemed easily content with two or three handwritten questions that they deciphered with difficulty. Their note-taking was slow and laborious, tending to make the interview a chore. A tape-recorder might have helped them and given them more confidence.
As for particular interests, all the girls wanted to know about the clothes we wore, although it was "fashion" that they actually asked about. The boys were, without exception, into football, asking which team I had supported as a boy. When I mentioned that my father's cousin had played for Aston Villa and then Brentford, they were goggle-eyed. I wish I had had a picture of my cousin Leslie in his baggy shorts.
The whole project had clearly been well-prepared and most of the children were bubbly and enthusiastic. They had done some work on the war, always a fascinating topic, and already knew something about the blackout, evacuees, ration-books (even for sweets) and air-raid shelters. My attempt to describe a gas mask was met with, "Yeah, we've got one of those in our classroom". For the children to meet someone for whom these memories were real and not merely second-hand was the icing on the cake of the work already done - oral history in the making.
The pupils found it hard to conceive of a world with no television, no supermarkets, very little plastic, short trousers, gym-slips, ink wells and all the desks facing the front. The exercise enabled them to accept change as continuous, to see that history is about the everyday and perhaps even to make their own judgments: were things better or worse?
The occasion also provided practice in etiquette. A girls' group insisted that I have a second cup of tea from the long-suffering classroom assistant. As they thanked me at the end of their interview, each thrust her hand out at me to be shaken.
As we left at the end of the afternoon, a fellow senior citizen happened to be talking to me. "I spent 40 years teaching kids like this," he said. And then, lowering his voice to a confidential whisper, "To be back this afternoon - bloody marvellous."
* Michael J Smith is a retired teacherliving in Norfolk