I'm now into the third instalment of what is turning out to be quite a cathartic look at my past in the context of "I didn't do it the way you 'should'" or "the way you think you 'should'", that should be. Last week I talked about getting in to the private sixth form and the decision that I was going to take A Levels in the three sciences, like a good little purist and how I decided I had to go to the private sixth form no matter what because, like being a good little purist, I felt it was what everyone else wanted me to do - it had gone from being an achievement and a really nice thing to becoming something I had no real say in because suddenly everyone else was more excited about it than me. I wouldn't dream of doing something now because those around me want me to when I didn't - I'm a million times more headstrong than I was 20 years ago - but back then, I didn't really know how to say no in this way. It was a fantastic opportunity and probably one of the biggest in my whole life even now but back then, life hadn't given me many opportunities - unless you count when I won a "guess how many Cadbury's Mini Eggs are in this jar" competition when I was 6...and my parents (in an example of classic working-class-etiquette and post-WW2 sensibilities kicking in) gave half of them away to the other kids on our road - part of the whole "oh we don't need these because our son has all the sweets he'll ever need (I really didn't!) so have some of them" mentality which stems from the aspiration to be what I call "Working Class Posh" (WCP). WCP people had ornaments to show they can afford functionless fol-de-rol and thus have excess income. WCP people boasted at bus-stops about their husband being "on good money" and how they themselves "only work[ed] for a bit of pin money and to get me out of the house". WCP people had scalloped net curtains and believed that people without net curtains are "sluts" (I still adhere to this mantra). WCP people had plastic coloured washing pegs and a rotary clothes line. WCP people aspired to tile-on-a-roll in their back kitchen and crazy paving in their garden. WCP people were what my parents had aspired to for almost 50 years by this point and I guess there was an element of my going to this private sixth form that they saw as a step up from the council estate and I guess it was as much a means of escape for them as it was for me. Part of our mutual but unspoken plans to get as far away from that place as possible - plans in serious danger of living only in our heads, of course.
And so, I consented. I went. I was going to write an awful lot about my experiences there but in order to do that, I'd have to say things that relate to people who are either not alive to defend themselves for their actions or that could be read as my attempting to settle scores which I have no intention or inclination of doing. There are many great lessons you learn in life and I guess I would call the top few of mine thus far (we never stop learning and I'm hopefully only halfway through!) as follows - I've used the words of others as they've put it better than I ever could!
- "Live your own life, for you will die your own death" - Latin Proverb. Speaks for itself.
- "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return" - lyric from "Nature Boy" (1947) by eden ahbez. Probably obvious to many but some of us don't trust others that easily.
- "Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner" Laozi. Again, took me a long time to manage this!
- "How can you lose what you never owned?" lyric from "Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries" (1931) by Ray Henderson, Buddy G. Dasylva and Lew Brown. An important thing for most of us but in science it's particularly important - why get angry or upset when a paper gets rejected or a you don't get a grant you applied for? You never had it to start with, so you lost nothing, move on.
- "One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and be understood." Seneca the Younger. Another one that took me years. True friendship is much like true love - you might think you've felt it but when you really do, you know instantly, and you never forget what it feels like. I'm blessed by the friends I have. I'm a very lucky person to have them in my life.
So...where was I? I started finally at this new school. New world order for me. I'd never had to wear a school uniform before or tie a tie or get the schoolbus or sing hymns or have proper school dinners with pink custard (we had turkey twizzlers and blue pop at my secondary school!). So in those respects, it really was just like Enid Blyton, only perhaps a little less twee - I didn't hear anything about Caruthers Minor being taken to the San' with a frightful case of the croaks, unfortunately - I felt a bit short changed. It was a very pretty place though I was at an age in which you don't care about herbaceous borders and beautiful architecture - you care about two things - sex and rebelling against The System. I think I'd naively assumed that with it being 6th form, people might be openly gay as I'd read about these things called LGBT societies and they were found in universities and colleges...but I had not bargained for this being a private 6th form and thus at that time, completely backward. In that respect it was more lonely and isolating than I'd ever known my life to be. In fact, it was in every respect. I'd gone from being one of the highest-achieving pupils in quite a big school where you're easily lost in a crowd and half the teachers didn't know your name to being somewhere where my academic level at the time was considered fair to middling at best. The leap from GCSE to A Level was big - I enjoyed the challenge in most subjects but I was struggling and, as always, I didn't want to let anyone down by saying so, and I certainly didn't want to admit defeat by telling those who were looking down on me that I was struggling. I was being looked down on a lot - I didn't fit in though I tried and tried. I wasn't good at sport - I could barely run let alone catch a ball (not, it turns out, owing to "the gay gene" but to my underlying disability which was just starting to surface, though my whole life until >30 I thought people had to give up when running not owing to exhaustion but owing to hip pain as that's what made me have to keep stopping) and it was compulsory that one did some kind of sport. I ended up doing fencing - which somehow they all considered "posh" and effete. I loved it though - balletic yet lethal, graceful yet violent - it suited me perfectly...and besides, fencing britches made me look hot! I don't feel particularly attractive but back then I was just starting to emerge from the teenage ugly years we all go through and starting to find myself and work out who I was, naff though that sounds. I didn't follow the mainstream CofE beliefs that were pretty much compulsory. I would not bow my head in chapel to pray (and got told off for not praying, though as an agnostic, I found that very offensive). My beliefs were (and still are) a blend of humanism, Unitarianism and aspects of Buddhism - nothing religious, definitely Atheist but certainly spiritual...none of which was allowed. You had to be CofE and that was that. Even the pupils agreed. Everyone was straight (on the surface at least) and pretty homophobic - not in a Neonazi kind of way but in the pervasive homophobia that was just everywhere in the mid-1990s. I felt more and more ostracised and more and more backed into a corner. And I was bullied.
Physically bullied. My things thrown out of 2nd floor windows. Pushed down steps. This was all part of a warped "initiation" - destroying your property - for the kids there, destroying a few books was no big deal - your parents would buy you more, but when you don't have a lot, you fight for what you have and it upset me - a lot. I withdrew more and more "into myself" and by about the November, I wanted out. Not seeing my home in daylight didn't help (leaving the house at 0730h and getting home at 2000h Mon-Fri and at 1300h on Saturdays - yes, school on Saturdays) was taking a toll on me and my parents - they had to eat later to suit my schedule and that didn't suit my Father wanting to go to the pub after dinner or who would walk the dog and so on. All of our lives changed to suit me and to enable me to go there. The big deal was now having to tell my parents I wanted out. I spent weeks trying to pluck up the courage and almost go there when they had the most almighty blazing row. One of the worst I can remember. As my Mother sat afterwards in tears telling me how money being tight and so on was causing problems, I realised I could not quit now - they'd sacrificed a lot to let me go there so the least I could do was stick it out, right? It was, after all, only 2 years, right? A few years later, when my Mother died, I discovered she had borrowed thousands of pounds to be able to afford to keep me in the school but had not told myself or my Father. Even though all the fees were paid, little extras like stationary costs (no, you could not go to Partners or John Menzies, you had to use what they sold, at their prices) and books and trips and the cost of staying overnight when you were required to all added up - we were having to pay about £1,000 a year, which was 10% of our household annual income. Life wasn't easy for any of us.
And so, I stuck it out, hating every day. Dreading waking up as I'd have to put myself through another day of it. I didn't fit in. I was not as mature physically or emotionally as my peers, I see that now, and so I stuck out in many ways. Several of them (those I was close to grade-wise) were clearly wary of me and saw this council estate scum as a threat. I have to say in their defence, by the end of it all, they were on quite good terms with me and I guess part of it was their close-knit group had known each other years and new people were just not that welcome.
I struggled academically with something I still struggle with. If I don't enjoy something,I physically can't do it. I just block up and my mind won't work unless it's on something else and then I become the best procrastinator ever. This happened with A-level Mathematics. Yes, a fourth A-level. How? Well. Well, you see - use "purists" were told we "should" do it to help with Physics (it was no help at all!) and again, I did as I was told. By the end of the Lower 6th, I got politely told I could not do it any more as I was not doing any work - result! 8 more free periods a week! No big loss but the Mechanics aspects were quite good fun and I still know how to work out the mass of a particle on a light inextensible string leaning on a lamela of negligible friction - the answer (like all answers in Mechanics) is 2π/sin θ. I've no idea why but I always used to put that when I didn't know the answer and it was often right.
To cut a long story short, Medical School didn't happen. I applied and failed. No big surprise but my parents went mad - the idea of my reading Medicine was out of this world to them and my failing to get it must've been my fault for "not working hard enough". Truth was, no amount of hard work could get me the AAA(A) and years of work-experience and Gold DofE that Medical Schools all wanted back then. I did manage to save up my factory wages (folding newspapers for £1.80 an hour) to go on one of those weekend courses for people wanting to get into Medicine - kind of like a two day experience of what reading medicine might be like - lectures, "on call", practicals, patient interviews...and a lot of tequila and a drunken fumble in a Hall of Residence in Sheffield that resulted in my leaving my virtues in South Yorkshire...the course was fun but again, I didn't fit in. In hindsight, I was going through the motions - "what does someone on one of these courses wear?", "what should someone doing this read on the train?" - I didn't belong and I was trying to desperately keep up and do the course. I got back for the Upper VI and again, I didn't fit in. The loss of my virtues soon got around and no, not the usual teenage boy reaction of "wayhay, well played" (NB: it was with a woman - the bloke happened much later!), I got "Oh my god how uncouth and how...strange...". Seemed no matter what I did, it wasn't what people there wanted me to do or be.
I gave up caring what they thought and suddenly life got easier. I found friends in another year group who I got on with and learnt to ignore the gossip, questioning and dirty looks. I gradually learnt to apply this to my whole life over the years and life got easier...but back then, it was still hard work.
I eventually left with 3 A-levels - Chemistry (A), Biology (B) and Physics (C - just - was almost a D) and a complete sense of disillusionment. I didn't want to go to uni any more as it would be full of people like this place was full of - narrow-minded, mean and standoffish. I didn't know what I wanted to do - I applied to medical school again and again failed. I first took a job in a factory folding newspapers which ground me down and I wanted to use my mind a bit more and eventually tried my mind and hand at lots of jobs - eventually a lab technician and then a training job as a Medical Laboratory Assistant with day-release to do a BTEC ND...and then I hit a wall after not very long. Without a degree, I was stuck as an MLA. If I had a degree, I could not just have a job but have a career. I had to go to uni. Turned out I could do any science degree then an M.Sc to specialise so I thought "What was I good at at A-level? Chemistry". And so the decision was made to study something I wanted to study and I applied for uni again - Chemistry this time.
Turned out to be a smart move!
(to be continued...)