Secret hoarders

28th August 2015 at 01:00

Rummaging in my parents' attic the other week, I came across a yellowed cardboard box in which my Mum has kept bundles of my old exercise books. It's curious to travel back in time and place and identity all at once. Few things are better milestones of your change and growth (you hope) than work done in your own smaller hand from decades yonder.

Some tiny reptilian part of your memory trembles like the string operating a geriatric toy's voice box in an attempt to recall doing that work, however faintly. In a "My stories" book from Year 2, there's a near daily account of my life, accompanied by crayon drawings (I'm particularly proud of the rendition of my Dad sending a quid off with a letter addressed to "The Hulk, Hollywood" asking for an autograph).

Few of my maths books have survived, although I can't really blame my Mum - they lack a certain nostalgic rush for all but the most mathematically fervid of parents. But "Bible stories" remain by the stack, as common as shards of Roman pottery or mammoth tusks in the North Sea (I'm not kidding about the latter - google it).

Inside each withered booklet, you can find extraordinary portraits of Lazarus (who unbeknownst to the Gospel authors dressed like the title character in The Mummy), the feeding of the 5,000 (with much reference to fish and chips) and Adam and Eve (attended by, it would seem, the Six Million Dollar Man).

Fast-forward 10 years and it's English books, creative writing, stock answers to stock questions about An Inspector Calls and history books full of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Rob Roy and, obviously, Wham!. Medieval scribes would nod in approval if they saw my marginalia, teeming with superheroes and song lyrics, desperation and aimless ambition.

These things are sentimental artefacts, loved only barely by me but kept for a lifetime by my parents. They were mere curiosities until I became a teacher. Now they're a telescope to see how things were done on the distant planet of my past. For example, report cards written in a calligrapher's hand: brief as footnotes but blunt as doormen. In those days, teachers called a spade a lazy spade. Mindset theory was still waiting to be discovered.

Since I became a father two years ago, I've started to understand the impulse to hoard and preserve. My daughter has grown from the world's loveliest and most demanding bag of sugar to sofa mountaineer. Millions of moments have streamed past us, diaphanous and intangible. I've started to feel a yearning to say, "OK, Time, this marching on business is great, but let's pause for a moment."

There's a reason why parents' fridges heave with terrible paintings. We ache with pride, not because the pictures are better than anyone else's but because they are unique to our children and therefore to us. We value them because they come from someone we love irresistibly.

I have my own box, all ready.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government's new school behaviour expert. His feature on Army education is on page 22

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