The box of delights
A sullen Monday, the first morning of the inspection and cruel weather - hard rain sweeping across the treeless playground. The opening assembly: the music dies, the inspector sits with a contrived smile, pencil poised over observation sheet, and the school holds itself in a kind of rapt resignation, as if convinced there are elements of malicious fate in waiting.
The deputy head begins nervously, saying that he is going to tell the children about a miracle; there is a collective wistful sigh from the staff. The children, as constrained as the teachers - and the inspector - dutifully have a shot at interpreting the nature of miracles. But they are kept waiting for the story while the teacher invites them to zig-zag with him across a large map of modern Europe until they stumble into Bosnia. Another collective effort from the children yields a surprising amount of information about events in that unhappy place, all recorded on the board by scribes.
Miracles are forgotten as the teacher produces a traction-driven toy lorry, which bustles busily backwards and forwards across a table. An enthusiasm on the part of some children to debate this phenomenon is deferred to another time and, finally, the story is told.
As the last excited ripples from the children die away, a hush enfolds the hall and the deputy head tells of the boy in distant Bosnia who yearned for just such a traction-driven marvel, and of a boy in an English northern town who, moved by the story (which he had seen on television), decided to pack up and send all he had to offer to the children in that unknown place - a shoebox of old toys. And thus it was that a traction-driven lorry found its way across Europe to someone who had only been able to dream of it.
That, said the teacher, was the miracle. Then he told of an even more remarkable one that followed; of people inspired to do the same - not with anything grand, for that was beyond them - but with collections of what was dear to them, packed into shoeboxes.
The deputy head wondered what might go into such a parcel. Suggestions poured down on him like the rain outside. Then the master stroke - the unhurried revelation of a shoebox wrapped in shiny paper, its varied contents about to start a long journey. It was a collection made by the teacher's own son: a faded Christmas table decoration from a grandparent long ago; a miniature Daffy Duck - greeted with spontaneous applause; an Aston Villa scarf; comics and cheap sweets; a jigsaw and toy binoculars. Many of the items were faintly dilapidated, but all had been chosen with loving care. In that hall they suddenly became invested with the glamour of those departing forever on a special mission from which they would never return.
The teacher briefly re-visited the notion of a miracle: children in another corner of the world finding happiness in shoeboxes packed by others in an unknown land. Yes, it would be possible for people in the school to join in. The practical side was easy. The pupils would learn miracles were harder to manage than they thought when they came to part with even the most neglected of their treasures to someone they would never know.
Then they all prayed quickly for those less fortunate than themselves (a few teachers gazing involuntarily upwards) and departed, not as they had come in, with the hush of inspection upon them, but in a buzz of speculation and planning.
The inspector was left with a profusion of points for the observation form: the scribes about their business, the children peppering them with suggestions, the journey across the map, the conjecture about the mystery of traction. But the record had lain, forgotten like the rain, as a teacher took us all beyond the realm of inspection to possible ventures that would endure longer in the imagination.
Bill Laar is a registered OFSTED inspector