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A dark grey duffle coat

January 25, 2010

When I was about 12, duffle coats were de rigeur, and so I wanted one, naturally. I wasn’t the most fashion conscious of youths, but was far from immune to peer pressure. As a widow’s only child, I was, even then, aware that I was somewhat spoiled. As a result, a campaign to get a duffle coat like my mates had  was always liable to be successful, especially when garnished with suggestions that it would keep me warm in the winter term and would be good for going to football as well as school.

Off we went to the department store, and out I came with a brand new duffle coat. It was a beautiful duffle coat – a maserati of a duffle coat, high quality and built to last. I was heart broken: it was charcoal grey and all my mates had black ones; it featured a tartan lining, their’s had none; it was an extremely posh article of clothing; they had bog standard duffle coats – and I wanted what they had.

It was an early lesson in the perils of acquisitiveness: my mother would always want the best for me, but that wasn’t always what I wanted. I ended up with two pairs of running shoes – one for training and one for races; our coach slagged me rotten about the waste of money. My mother unfailingly went for quality, often I suspect when she could ill afford it, and I have to be forever grateful for her efforts to make sure I had the best, but, often, all I wanted was parity.

There is a  complicated lesson here for teachers and parents alike: there are times when aiming high is indubitably in your child’s best interests, and there is a time when ‘permission to be like the others’ is a good thing. Of course, like so much else in education and parenting, the trick is to get it right.

Anyone who teaches will know of the crucial importance of high expectations – not just in examination results, but in behaviour, attitudes and self esteem. If I had one wish, it would be discover the ability to release young people from the shackles of peer pressure whilst at the same time finding a way to let them still enjoy the security of the group and the excitement of sharing.

Youngsters can encourage each other to great heights, but they can drag each other to unfortunate depths. We need to give them the strength of character to choose with confidence between the times when they go with the flow, and the moments when they need to take a stand and go their own way.

I wonder now if the subtle colour difference in the duffle coat was giving me a message. You can be like the others without having to be the same; you can go your own way sometimes without losing contact with the herd.

And it was a lovely coat.

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