This week, Master Johnny received his GCSE exam results, something that we all had been waiting for with a certain amount of trepidation, since he required certain grades to gain entry into his school sixth form.
There was a lot of worrying, emotion, restlessness and undue stress involved as the day approached, but mainly from Lady Barton St Mary, to be fair. Master Johnny’s school is academically demanding, so the stakes were high.
We needn’t have worried. Master Johnny breezed in with several A* and A grades. Well done, Master Johnny.
Which started me thinking about my own academic journey through life. I can still remember collecting my ‘O’ level results, the thrill of discovering I’d passed them all, including a grade C in maths ( ‘you never deserved that,’ said my teacher, encouragingly).Unlike Master Johnny and his mother, I worked like a dog to do fairly well at my exams. They seemed to be able to gain good grades with a modicum of effort.But that’s the problem with my academic career. I’m not that academic, for one thing. For another, I studied all the subjects that were wrong for me.
Let me explain.
After revealing my ‘O’ level results to my proud parents, I started to make plans for sixth form.
“I’d like to take English, history and economics!” I stated excitedly.
There was a deathly silence.
“How are you ever going to get a job with those exams?” my dad enquired.
“Well, I would like to be a journalist or maybe a teacher,” I explained.
“No, no, no, no,” my dad said, shaking his head, “you need to do sciences. Sciences will get you a good job and a place at university.”
I looked pleadingly at my mum.
“To be honest, English is for girls,” she shrugged.
I gulped back the panic. This wasn’t going well. My brother-in-law, a trained engineer and employee at Ford Motor Company, had extolled the virtues of ‘the sciences’ to my parents, who believed every word he said. (He has been my ex-brother-in-law for over twenty years now, thankfully).
It was OK. I had A grades in English language and Literature, a B in history. My science subjects? biology –B, chemistry- C, physics- C. My choice was self-explanatory, my school teachers would support my decision at my sixth form interview, where they organised your A level options.
“I would like to study English, history and economics, please,” I told the panel of three school staff.
There was a deathly silence.
“No, no, no, no,” said my headteacher, “you should study the sciences!”
“It’s where all the jobs are,” chipped in ‘Gus’ Williams, the sixth form head.
I felt like I was falling down a deep hole with no escape. Faced with the prospect of having to study biology, chemistry and physics, I made one final, desperate plea. For a second, they softened.
“Tell you what,” said Dr Wagner, softly, “why don’t you take English A level as a bit of a sideline?”
So, there it was. In a time when pupils rarely took 4 A levels, I embarked on a sixth form career with biology, chemistry, physics and English. Great.
Of course, I bumbled through with maximum effort and minimum achievement, somehow managing to get a place at university through clearing. I’d applied to study biochemistry, but upon receiving my results, The University of Sussex Biochemistry Faculty managed to stem their laughter for long enough to offer me a place, reading Environmental Science, the course all failed biochemists ended up on.
Not long after being accepted, I was sent a maths assessment paper. It was only marginally less challenging than trying to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics.
I started my course. I didn’t understand much of what was going on, but definitely embraced the student social life and all it entailed.Four weeks into my degree, I found a letter waiting for me in my pigeon hole, informing me that I’d been placed on the Dean’s list and would I please arrange a meeting with the principal at my earliest convenience? I was amazed. I’d been working really hard, copying notes and repeating them in assessments verbatim. I didn’t know what they meant. To be recognised in this way made me feel I was getting somewhere. I even phoned my mum to tell her the good news. She was thrilled.However, within two seconds of seeing the principal I realised that the Dean’s list was for those students who were underperforming. He looked at the sheets of paper sitting in front of him and shook his head.
“I’m afraid that we need to see an improvement in your performance. We’ll review your results after a month to see how you’re doing.”
I stayed on the Dean’s list for the rest of my university career.
Have you ever had one of those dreams where you’re back at school/college and you have to take exams that you know nothing about? Well, that was reality for me. I had no interest in my subject, but realised that being murdered by my dad for dropping out was a scarier option.
That didn’t stop me forgetting my early final exams. They took place in December, in the middle of the student Christmas celebrations, which, admittedly, I’d started in mid- November. I was great friends with a young lady who lived in Lancaster House, who was cooking Christmas dinner for a large crowd of students. I spent a pleasant couple of hours flirting with her and consuming several bottles of pilsner lager; I felt wonderfully relaxed as I drank more, which made me believe that the attractive girl with beautiful blue eyes and long, dark hair I stood next to in the kitchen seemed to find me equally attractive.
The spell was broken by a couple of students passing the door. One mentioned early finals. All the hairs on my body stood on end. I glanced at the clock. It was 1.45pm.
My early final exam was due to start at 2pm on the other side of campus.
I made it, but only just. I tripped over the bag of one student and fell flat on my face as I entered the room, but I was there.Can you imagine taking an early finals exam at degree level, half pissed on pilsner lager? I don’t have to. Let’s just say if there was a top to the Dean’s list that day, I’d have been it.
I always like to look on the bright side. At least that dark haired attractive girl, warm and fuzzy from the alcohol, sat on my lap and wrapped her arms around me earlier in the day.
Miraculously, I managed to obtain a degree. Mum and dad were happy, I had a degree, and they knew nothing about degree grades, thank goodness. My personal tutor wept tears of joy and relief; in fact, he may have been a little hysterical, poor man.
I did return to Sussex University a few months after graduating to ask my principal for a reference. By this time, he had a funky piece of equipment known as a ‘desktop computer’. He stared at the green screen, his eyes widening. He turned his attention back to me.
“You don’t want an academic reference, do you?” he asked worriedly.
Despite all the difficulties I faced, my diligence paid off and I gained the best thing ever from my university career. No, it wasn’t the degree, as useful as it’s been. It was the raven haired beauty who sat on my lap and who married me three years later.