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The curious power of collections of buttons

There is something rather special about buttons. They have been around for thousands of years as a practical solution to keeping clothes in position. In more recent centuries buttons had become a fashion accessory in their own right. They have survived the onslaught of other fastenings like zips and Velcro! Perhaps a reason for their longevity is that alongside how purposeful they are they seem to be able to tell a story about the person wearing them. Even more curiously, when separated from clothes they take on a sense of mystery, becoming an empty vessel which people can fill up with their own stories.

They can evoke memories of times gone by and their look and feel, their sense of individuality, can be related to a particular person. Collections of buttons can represent diversity and provide a sense of scale. The capacity of buttons be representative, to support remembrance and to evoke a sense of scale are useful in my coaching work. They also have a role to play in remembering one of the darkest times in our modern history…..

When coaching a client who wants to think about their personal or professional relationships it is often helpful to use objects to ‘bring their chosen characters to life’ during the coaching conversation. With my client’s permission I will use whatever is available. Having been caught out on occasion in rooms with a lack of suitable objects I now carry a small jar of buttons with me! Buttons are curious in that people can invest them with a personality or a memory which has a depth and clarity that is not achievable through simply talking out loud about them.

The look and feel of each button a client selects links with the appearance, character and behaviour of the person they are thinking about. The positioning of different buttons on a table is a way of expressing relationship between the characters they represent. Then their movement is used to explore actual or perceived changes in relationships. A handful of buttons on a flat surface can truly help people represent and reflect on the huge complexities of their personal and professional relationships.

I don’t think I have ever worked with a client who has used more than 8 buttons. Even then the coaching sessions are exhausting for us both as the emotional complexity of the characters represented by the buttons comes to life, ebbing and flowing as my client reflects on how they might be more effective in making those relationships more purposeful.

If a handful of buttons and what they represent can be emotionally exhausting what then the impact of six million buttons? The answer to this question is soon to be provided through a wonderful project run by pupils and teachers at The Lakes School in Windemere. Their story was captured on BBC R4 in Sketches (aired 05/12/2020). It is a story of how one holocaust survivor inspired the school to do something very special to in remembrance of those who died in the World War 2 concentration camps.

The narrative starts with an interview of Arek Hersh, one of the holocaust survivors who was taken from the horrors of the concentration camps at the end of the war to the beauty and tranquillity of the Lake District. Arek was one of a group that became known as ‘The Windermere Children’. His positivity and generosity of spirit are extraordinary in the face of what he endured as a young boy. He clearly inspired the pupils of The Lakes School to want to do something significant to remember the six million people who did not survive the camps. Rather than doing something singular one particular pupil wanted to remember each and every one of the people who were killed. Her proposal was to collect buttons, one to represent each person who had died.

The positive ability of social media to create connection came into force in taking the request for buttons around the world. How the pupils and teachers had to scale their operation in the face of the response! There was a smile and a warmth running through the story of how they project managed the process. Alongside there were poignant stories of the history of the buttons, some coming from the relatives of holocaust victims, some simply with a story of a life well lived.

What really got my attention was the soundtrack of the pupils counting every single button, or the sound of those buttons clattering individually on the table, or the noise of bags of buttons being emptied en masse. The sense of individual identity with an unfathomable scale was arresting, even shocking. It stopped me in my tracks.

At the recent events in advance of World Holocaust Remembrance Day EU leaders noted that ‘as the numbers of survivors is dwindling, we will have to find new ways to remember, embracing the testimonies of the descendants of survivors’. What a fantastic job The Lakes School have done in having the courage to see this idea through.

I will continue to use my little jar of buttons to help people think and feel about their relationships. My own thinking about the process will be a little bit altered with the knowledge that nearby in the Lake District there is a collection of six million buttons each with their own looks and unique back history. That they each represent a person who was denied an opportunity to live their lives is a potent reminder that the same situation cannot be allowed to happen again.

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