The phantom cloakroom

When I was considering whether to include my own childhood school as one of a series of research visits to primary schools, I wondered how that might affect the research.  It wasn’t until after I’d made the visit that I remembered Katie Jones & Jon Anderson’s excellent (2009) paper about the methodologies of different research spaces in schools and the fact that Jones was visiting her own (secondary) school for her research project.  However, unlike Jones, a young researcher, not so many years out of school herself, I hadn’t been a primary school pupil since the 1970s.

There seemed to be very few changes to the exterior of the school, built in 1887, but I was much more interested in the interior and how the spaces were being used. Entering my Year 3 classroom, I was immediately struck by how generously proportioned it was; so much bigger than I’d remembered.  Aren’t childhood places supposed look as though they’ve shrunk when revisited in later life?  I put the apparent expansion of the classroom down to my years a teacher, working in far more cramped classrooms and judging it from that perspective.

The rows of desks from my time were gone, of course, although who knows when they may return again.  But despite its luxurious proportions, the classroom seemed so full – not just with whiteboards and clumps of small tables and chairs, but a beautiful book corner, decorated like an arctic cave and a role-play area in the form of a park-keeper’s hut, complete with a desk and two tiny chairs. My memories of the room were so much starker: a nature table and little else aside from the functional furniture.

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My explorations outside the classroom took me up to the second storey of the school and half way up the staircase I was assailed by a powerful, pristine memory.  A locked blue wooden door prompted remembrances of a windowless cubby, where painting monitors were allowed the treat of washing up the brushes and pallets. We plunged paintbrushes into deep sinks and congratulated ourselves on escaping from yet another instalment in the year-long reading aloud of The Lord of the Rings that our Year 5 teacher was indulging in every single afternoon.  In our own hobbit burrow, as we washed the brushes and splashed each other, we told tales of ghosts in the turrets of the school and ran up and down stairs laughing – I don’t ever remember anyone ever being around to tell us off.

Bright, sunny rooms are often associated with good memories of school (Interview with Fiona Maine) and windowless ‘dungeons’ with bad ones (Interview with Dr Catherine Burke) but sometimes these are subverted by a dark place that has the status of privilege – Katie Jones’ store cupboard* (2009); Fiona Maine’s stationery cupboard memory of eating boiled sweets and this strange little room, a place of fun and laughter in the darkness.

My other revelation (possibly indicating something rather obvious that I’d not picked up on before) was the appearance of phantom cloakrooms.  As I took photographs of another interior space in the school, now used to store guided reading books, I suddenly remembered that this had once been the Year 6 cloakroom.  That led to the realisation that so many of the reading resource rooms that I’d seen in other schools of a similar age must also have once been cloakrooms.  But it wasn’t until I’d superimposed my own memory of the cloakroom onto what had become a book storage area that this thought occurred to me and led me to fill in gaps in my knowledge about similar spaces in other schools.

A phantom cloakroom: now guided reading book storage area with desk
A phantom cloakroom: now guided reading book storage area with desk

It’s been a couple of months since my visit to my old primary school.  So far, the memories of the school I knew as a child and the ones that I gathered more recently haven’t merged, as I imagined might happen, but exist cleanly and clearly side by side.  Did it make a difference to my research visiting my primary? Yes, it made me think about what rooms had once been, not just what they had become.

The difference that place makes to methodology: uncovering the ‘lived space’ of young people’s spatial practices

  1. Jon Anderson , Katie Jones
    Children’s Geographies
    Vol. 7, Iss. 3, 2009
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