Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Letters of Destiny

Actually, most of you A-level students don't get letters, do you? You go into school on the offchance there's a Mail or Telegraph photographer hunting for pretty blondes to photograph. They give you young people a day's grace before the columnists put the boot in by declaring that exams are 'dumbed down'. It seems rather unfair, but that's the media - it both has cake and gorges on it.

All very different to my A-level results day. Having spent the final years of my schooling at an unpleasant and academically awful monastery boarding school, and been pretty lazy, I didn't greet the morn with any enthusiasm at all. I phoned up for the results and got the headmaster, a vicious bully whose subsequent death is the only one I've ever actually celebrated. As expected, a good result in English, an OK one in French (would have been better if I'd managed to pay attention to the exam requirements and answered questions in each section) and a poor one in Latin. I'd never wanted to take it, but I was the last person in the school and moral pressure was put on me. Between hating the subject and a nice but useless teacher, even being the only person in the class didn't help.

Not a problem though - I had an escape route planned: I'd passed a competitive audition (despite a forcible haircut while being held down by prefects the day before) to get on to Trinity College Dublin's prestigious Drama and Theatre Course. 400 applicants, 8 places. God alone knows why I - or they - thought I was competent or cut out for a career on stage, but there we are. Sadly, not to be: when the parents caught wind of the lack of 'serious' study on the course (i.e. nothing they could willingly acknowledge in polite company), that was the end of it - and funding for an Irish course would have entirely dependent on their generosity (not a notable feature of family life thus far).

So off I went to Clearing. I spoke to a very kindly Scots gent at Bangor University who didn't seem to care two hoots that I couldn't string a sentence together in Latin, and the offer was made. I'd never heard of Bangor before and - this being Pre-Internet - had no resources with which to familiarise myself. All I knew was that it was far enough away from home and school to be ideal. So I turned up in late September to find myself in a veritable Paradise: sea, mountains, an instant community (of other Clearing flotsam) many of whom are still very close friends, a wonderful course, exposure to a new language, a student newspaper to write for, demonstrations to attend, as many books as I could stuff through my eyes, the world's greatest record shop (Cob, sadly recently closed due to my departure) and above all, not a single person I'd ever met before. I was free. Free to reinvent myself: new clothes, new hair, new tastes, new friends, new attitudes, new politics (well, more applied versions of the public-school Marxism I'd acquired), new foods, new ideas. I joined multiple clubs and societies and wildly plumped for courses I'd never suspected existed - particularly Philosophy, which changed my life.

Kids: it was wonderful. It never felt like I ever did any work, because it was all such fun. Away from the predictions and low expectations of family and school, I was liberated, and I blossomed in a quiet, shy kind of way. Prizes, first-class degree (actually, I expected a 2.2 and dreaded a 3rd) and postgraduate study.

Things have changed since 1993. New students are burdened with massive debts, and often can't afford to leave home for university. HE has become a tool for career development, which is sad in many ways: I didn't give a moment's thought to the future until I graduated, and benefitted from such carelessness, because I could follow my heart to some extent. It's changed in other ways too: my students have to work much harder than I ever had to. All I had to do was inhale some books and pass exams at the end of the year. Only the 3rd year exams counted other than one at the end of 2nd year. No dissertations, no modules, no credits building up. So in many ways, if you come to The Hegemon and suffer my teaching, you're way ahead of me: you'll be forced to pay attention right from the start, to take everything seriously. In other ways, you'll lose out: it's harder to take risks when your degree and your future depends on every single grade. But don't let that stop you: my colleagues are all great and you can get round me easily enough.

Without Clearing, I'd never have arrived here in the Dark Place, working at the Hegemon. What greater reward could there possibly be?