Friday, 16 August 2013

In which I am self-indulgently reminiscent. Again.

It's A-level results week.  I still find it hard to think back to the day I got my A-level results (first attempt) with anything other than a chilly twinge of embarrassment.

I also find it hard to come to terms with the fact that I took my A-levels almost 30 years ago.  Lord above, how did I get to be this old, eh?  In my head I'm still a sprightly youngster, not a grouchy middle-aged woman with a knackered back and bifocals.

But results.

Back when I was a youngster, you had to go into the school to collect them.  The headmistress sat in her office, and handed them to you to read whilst she sat and watched your reaction.  She, of course, had already seen them.

I imagine it was a satisfying and cheering job for her, at least when she was dealing with the girlie swots who had got their predicted brilliant results and thus secured a place at the top University of their choice.

My school was not one of the ones which regularly sent girls to Oxbridge, but they did have a small group who were expected to get places at Exeter and Durham and Cardiff and other such second tier universities. They were the girls who took Latin and Italian as additional subjects while the rest of us were sent to the art class to learn to weave terrible pictures out of bits of string and nails hammered into fibreboard.

I remember that coterie of girls as being very short (but to be fair, most of the other girls at school seemed very short, as I was - and still am - significantly taller than the average female) with pale, earnest faces, neatly-pressed school uniforms, glasses and overly expensive shoes. One of them wore a pair of boots which, it was whispered in class, her mother had paid £150 for.  Bear in mind this was back in 1983, and the majority of her peers were wearing Clarks desert boots or sandals to school.

Also, they all used to sit at the front in class.  Every lesson.  Every classroom.  We kept the same configuration of who sat where almost without modification for the entire 7 years I was at that school.  Multiple changes of classroom, teacher, classmates, subject, and we still all retained the same positions relative to one another.

There were several girls in my class - for all those years - that I don't think I ever spoke to.  I didn't sit near them in lessons, we didn't spend time together at lunch or break-time, and as I was appalling at all manner of sports and games I was hardly ever on a sports team with them.  I can't imagine that now.  Spending so many hours a day with the same group of people in a small room, yet failing to interact with an entire chunk of the group.

Were all schools like that?

Looking back now, if I had spent more time sitting at the front in class, paying attention, and less time sitting at the left hand side at the back, idly staring out of the window, I might have passed more exams.

Some classes were allowed to put posters on the walls.  I used to hate sitting in certain lessons with dozens of tatty pictures of The Police and Adam and the Ants, torn from Smash Hits and Jackie magazine, plastered all over the walls around the blackboard.

I know it's probably wrong of me to try and shift some of the blame for my own idleness, but I also feel that if some of the teachers had been less keen on fostering up the nascent talent of the "good" girls at the front, the rest of us might have done a bit better.

Maths, for example.  I can't remember how many times my maths teacher shook her head sadly at me, saying "But you're top of the class in English.  Why are you doing so badly in MY class?"  When I shrugged in embarrassment and annoyance, she'd hand back my maths book, covered in reproachful comments in red pen, and return to the front of the class to continue encouraging her little gaggle of star pupils, leaving  the rest of us to carry on staring out of the windows, drawing pictures on our rough books and exchanging hilarious notes with one another.

God, we must have been tiresome.

Anyhoo.  Getting back to the results.  I can still remember the exasperated tone with which the headmistress said "No-one else in the ENTIRE SCHOOL has had results like you, Lucy."  She did not mean it as a compliment.

Turns out you can't just walk into an exam room, pick a selection of questions more or less at random, write for three hours about whatever occurs to you based on a few key words, and get a decent grade.  Who knew?

I passed two exams with flying colours, well, with A grades - we didn't have the fancy A* thing they have nowadays, pah, kids, they don't know they're born etc etc etc - and failed the other two horribly.  I mean really horribly.  One grade up from the "didn't bother to turn up to sit the exam" horribly.

It was a bit of a shock.  I had genuinely imagined that it would all be alright in the end, and that my native wit, charm, delightful smile and good teeth would ensure I passed with the grades I needed to get a place at any University I fancied, and that a few short weeks after being given my exam results (and possibly some sort of medal) I'd be on my way to a new life as a Student.

Finding out that not only was I NOT going to University like all my friends, but that I was also going to have to go and resit those two subjects after an extra year at the local technology college was like the proverbial cold shower.

Not that it taught me much except that getting a nasty shock is, well, nasty.

So, a year or so of attending the local college, along with working at a local tea shop as a waitress, as I wasn't doing enough hours at college to be eligible for any kind of Government benefits, and THEN I got good enough results to get a place in tertiary education.

Mind you, having taken two attempts to pass my A levels meant that once again I received a slew of rejection letters from all the Universities I had applied to, and was left to the future horrors of Clearing. Lord, that was stressful enough the first time round.  I think the only offer I got was from the University of Ulster, to study politics.  I declined, having already enrolled to resit the A levels.

This time, however, I decided to take matters into my own hands, and went to talk to the Citizens Advice Bureau.  The young lady in there was attentive and kind, and when I had finished my (probably) rambling and anxious explanation - I was too lazy and careless to pass my exams first time round! I've passed them now, but I'm no longer a good bet for a University!  What do I do? - she said:

"Ok.  Well, I went to King Alfred's College in Winchester.  They were great, I'll give them a ring and see if they have any places left."

And she did.

And they did.

And two days later, a kind mate took me to Winchester on the back of his motorbike for my interview, where I was offered a place on one of their non-teacher training degree courses.  And three days after that I left home to go to college.

Talk about cutting it fine.

I'd like to say the whole experience made me a better person, but I don't think it did. It did make me take deadlines rather more seriously though, and I never assumed I'd automatically pass anything, or qualify for anything, or be selected for anything again.

Is there a moral to the story?  No.  But I am comforted by the thought that there is always something else that can be done; there is no need to consider one set of dodgy exam results as the End of Everything.  I mean, just look at me.

Actually, maybe best not.