Memory, Childhood and School

One of the highlights of my childhood was the period of time I spent as Doncaster’s Under 9s Badminton Champion. It was a difficult tournament that I had to win to get the title; though I had a bit of luck on my side, in the end, talent shone through. Friends would ask me to play and I would feel the need to warn them of my preternatural talent before we got out our racquets and withdrew the shuttlecocks.

The most remarkable thing about my time as Doncaster’s Under 9 Badminton Champion, though, is that it didn’t exist. Never had I ever played badminton and, in fact, I was unusually dispossessed of hand-eye coordination. I was particularly unsuitable for the title.

Being the Doncaster Under 9s Badminton Champion was a peculiar lie that I invented one day, and one that I repeated so often that I started to forget that it was not true. I almost put it on my LinkedIn last week.

Memory is profoundly interesting for all of its inconsistencies. We remember things that we have no need to hold on to, and can struggle to retain those things we want to hold tightly. Déjà vu can blindside us when something very real occurs that reminds us of something that might have been real, might have been something we watched, something we heard about, dreamt or imagined.

Memory is also the mediator between our experiences and our recollection of them. It is less a translator and less an archivist, less a historian and less a diarist than it is a playful spirit, springing Puck-like through our life’s happenings. It can shift things around, replace true with false, false with true, fantasy with reality, and vice versa.

Whilst children can use their imaginations, their most potent source of inspiration remains their lived experience. Fascinating work undertaken by Susan Engel and her students at Williams College has unpicked the narrative development and autobiographical memory that is inherent in young children’s writing, and the peculiar ways in which their stories drift quite seamlessly from factual reportage to recalled stories of others, to stories they have read, to fables and to pure invention.

Whilst I am not suggesting this is the way we ought to plan out the educational experience of pupils, it is nonetheless very interesting to consider the memories we are fermenting for our pupils. Will their memories of Year 6 be of time spent lost in books, time training hard for sports day, time watching us smile or frown, or time being hot-housed for examinations that in just a few short months will be made out to be utterly irrelevant? Will they remember the whole experience of their year with you, or will certain experiences, certain events and moments jump out?

Of course, we cannot control for what pupils do and do not remember about their learning. This is both annoying (as in when we want them to understand and remember things we are trying to teach them) but also fascinating (as in the bizarre recognition that literally any phrase we choose to utter at any time could be the thing that a particular pupil remembers for the rest of their life).

I end with an anecdote.

A friend and I were talking about our experiences in school. Chronology was nowhere to be seen, as our conversation fluttered between sixth form, nursery, the move to Year 7, a weird thing that happened in Year 4, and so on.

I spoke about how I used to get so nervous about school trips that I once spat all over myself to make it look like I’d been sick; on one occasion, I had been ill in the morning and was sitting having lunch with other kids and one of the older teachers. I felt like he knew my illness was ‘fake’, in that it was a product of my fretting rather than any profound malady, and he winked at me very knowingly when I was eating. That sounds weirder than it was, but it was – to me at least – an acknowledgment of my state of mind. I winked back. He winked back. We just continued whilst I ate an industrial portion of pie. I remember I had a playing card of Sally Gunnell in my pocket at the time.

My friend reciprocated with a powerful story about how one sentence that a teacher shared has stuck with her ever since. Her whole class had been directed to produce a piece of creative writing, and she – being of a humorous and subversive persuasion – had simply gone off, taken no further direction, and produced a really esoteric, interesting and well-structured story. Rather than commenting on the piece in terms of its structure, or its plot, or its characters, after the teacher had read her story, he turned to her and simply said,
“I look forward to seeing your name in print one day.”

She remembers the words so powerfully as a sign of his faith in her, his understanding of her as a person, and his confidence in her ability to achieve amazing things through writing.

Now, our conversation about those school memories has given a second lease of life to that teacher’s peculiarly brilliant response back in 1999, and when I am working with children and they are producing something creative, I am keen to always remember the impact that his phrase had on my friend. Whilst I might point out an over-used word, or a metaphor gone awry, or some awkwardly misplaced punctuation marks, I always remember to keep that hope alive.

One of my Year 6s leaves his work in progress story on my desk in instalments, and I simply enjoy reading them and telling him how much I enjoy reading them. Another pupil, who has now moved away but with whom I am still in touch through her parents, writes with a verve and tenacity that makes me envious, and her free-flowing ideas beg for a different kind of feedback; she knows it is good, and she wants specific feedback, as well to hear what I thought of it.

Memories, and the shared retelling of memories, are powerful, and can guide us. This is true for us as adults, but is also true for children, whose arsenals of anecdotes are jam-packed with events, memories, fears, hopes, imaginings, nightmares, fantasies and retold tales.

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