Memories are made of days like this

9th August 1996 at 01:00
Martin Coles' daughter's last hours at primary school are celebrated in appropriate style.

There is much I can remember about my primary school. The headteacher was the formidably large Mrs Johnson who only ever wore a tweed suit of the sort that would scratch a permanent scar on your face should you ever have been unfortunate enough to be so close as to brush up against it.

Mrs Johnson kept her pupils in a permanent state of quivering alertness. Mr Denis, my class teacher, obviously considered himself the Marco Pierre White of the teaching profession. On one occasion he trooped 30 small children on to a muddy playing field to make clay ovens in which to bake bread.

On another we took over the school kitchen to cook and attempt to eat what was at the time the most exotic dish imaginable, spaghetti bolognese. Miss Pride, whose speciality was mental arithmetic, spent a certain part of each day firing number bombs at us. I remember in particular Thomas Green sitting on my chest on the grass on school sports day to prevent me from getting to the start of the sack race in time.

I remember all this, but nothing of the most important event in my primary school life - the leaving of it. My last day in primary school, unlike my first day in secondary school, is a complete blank. I have nothing to mark my passage from childhood to pretend adulthood. Now though, I have seen my daughter Charlie finish her primary school career. For Charlie this rite of passage was a simple but profound ceremony, an unpretentious, memorable, warm school community event.

I sat with perhaps 40 or 50 other parents on benches around the sides of the school hall and watched the school's version of the Booker prize awarded to the best story tellers in each year group. Cups were handed out to the girls' football team which had won a competition. The choir sang and the recorder group played. So much was familiar, but then each teacher related a memory they had of Year 6.

Individual names were mentioned (apparently one girl had deliberately smeared a teacher's face with mud in the pitch black of a cave during a class outing) but there was no tone of exclusivity. In fact most teachers emphasised how well the pupils had got on with one another. Stories of unselfishness and collaboration were told without flourish or sentimentality. Then each child who was leaving was called to the front by name, presented with a sash which read "Class of '96", and their Record of Achievement folder, and then asked to move along the line to shake hands with each teacher. Cameras flashed and camcorders whirled. Some children smiled broadly, others were serious, some had tears in their eyes. One boy who, if physique alone were a sign, was bound for the England rugby team, sobbed openly. A few moments later I saw him sitting with a mate's arm around him laughing heartily at the photographs of himself in the folder. For some, shaking hands was too formal for this occasion and both boys and girls hugged male and female teachers quite unselfconsciously. I noticed that each teacher had a particular word or two for each child.

Later I looked at the Record of Achievement folder. It contained my daughter's choice of her best work from each year, a history of her time at the school in photographs (Charlie at "camp", Charlie as Bugsy Malone, Charlie in PE), and an individual handwritten farewell letter from the class teacher: "Charlie, What can I say? I sometimes wish I could bottle your enthusiasm and use it when mine runs out I" Perhaps the event might have spent some time on looking forward as well as looking back, but certainly, like almost everything else in primary schools, it seems the final leaving has improved dramatically since I was there. So thank you Mrs Daley, Mr Arnold and the rest. My daughter has a memorable occasion to remember, and I got my primary school leaving ceremony - 30 years late.

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