While the other coats drooped, this one looked as if it were holding itself up. The thick, black wool of the double-breasted chesterfield was soft and unworn, as though it had been preserved in mothballs for years in dead old Uncle Henry's steamer trunk. The coat had a black velvet collar, beautiful tailoring, a Fifth Avenue label and an unbelievable price of $28. We looked at each other, saying nothing, but John's eyes gleamed. Dark, woolen topcoats were popular just then with teenage boys, but could cost several hundred dollars new. This coat was even better, bearing that touch of classic elegance from a bygone era.
John slid his arms down into the heavy satin lining of the sleeves and buttoned the coat. He turned from side to side, eyeing himself in the mirror with a serious, studied expression that soon changed into a smile. The fit was perfect.
John wore the coat to school the next day and came home wearing a big grin. "Ho. did the kids like your coat?" I asked. "They loved it," he said, carefully folding it over the back of a chair and smoothing it flat. I started calling him "Lord Chesterfield" and "The Great Gatsby."
Over the next few weeks, a change came over John. Agreement replaced contrariness, quiet, reasoned discussion replaced argument. He became more judicious, more mannerly, more thoughtful, eager to please. “Good dinner, Mom," he would say every evening.
He would generously loan his younger brother his tapes and lecture him on the niceties of behaviour; without a word of objection, he would carry in wood for the stove. One day when I suggested that he might start on homework before dinner, John -- a veteran procrastinator ? said, “You’re right. I guess I will.”
When I mentioned this incident to one of his teachers and remarked that I didn't know what caused the changes, she said laughing. "It must be his coat!" Another teacher told him she was giving him a good mark not only because he had earned it but because she liked his coat. At the library, we ran into a friend who had not seen our children in a long time, “Could this be John?" he asked, looking up to John's new height, assessing the cut of his coat and extending his hand, one gentleman to another.
John and I both know we should never mistake a person's clothes for the real person within them. But there is something to be said for wearing a standard of excellence for the world to see, for practising standards of excellence in though, speech, and behaviour, and for matching what is on the inside to what is on the outside.
Sometimes, watching John leave for school, I've remembered with a keen sting what it felt like to be in the eighth grade -- a time when it was as easy to try on different approaches to life as it was to try on a coat. The whole world, the whole future is stretched out ahead, a vast panorama where all the doors are open. And if I were there right now, I would picture myself walking through those doors wearing my wonderful, magical coat.
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