Education through adversity

A different sort of pandemic blog post, and a rather personal one.

There are problems reopening schools, universities are going virtual and post-graduates are struggling to complete. Education is having a hard time, and many students are rightly concerned about the impact this will have on their careers. If I was in this situation, I’d be worried as well – but I want to tell my personal story because it might offer a glimmer of encouragement, at least I sincerely hope so.

I come from a very working class background. Although not so uncommon for the time, I was raised in a house without a bathroom and with an outside toilet. The bath, as it was, was in the kitchen and filled from the sole hot water tap in the house only on a Sunday night. This might sound like the start of a “Four Yorkshireman Sketch” but I tell you this because it wasn’t just the material things of life that were in short supply but an attitude to life more generally. Seen as something for other people, education was “not for the likes of us” and the only book in my home was a Bible. I failed my eleven-plus and went to a terrible secondary modern school in South East London where the highlight of the curriculum was football. My family made me leave school at sixteen with a few CSEs,* whereupon I became an apprentice plumber at the now long-gone gasworks on the Old Kent Road. It was on the number-53 bus journey to and from work, where I read my first book, the Kraken Wakes, by John Wyndham. Something inside me made me curious and, determined to get an education, I took every opportunity I could. Oddly, my lucky break was being made redundant and I ended up getting a job at the gas-appliance testing laboratory, also on the Old Kent Road. Scientist there were all too happy to show me how to calculate the efficiency of gas-appliances, which I could soon do for myself, giving me a step up in the world. One of my unofficial teachers wore leg braces because of childhood polio. That puts the times into perspective.

I went to night school to get qualifications for University but it’s a tough route and since that time I have nothing but admiration for those who choose a part-time education. I was doing well until one Saturday morning the motorbike I was riding collided with a delivery van. Smashed up very badly, I was lucky to survive. In and out of hospital for nearly three-years, somehow I kept the education going and eventually found myself an undergraduate at the ripe old age of twenty six. When I graduated, then married with one child, I managed to ignore my mother who constantly berating me to “get a proper job”, and I embarked on a PhD. This opened doors completely invisible to me in those early days. The journey took me to three adjunct professorships, some amazing experiences and, sadly, osteoarthritis from the motorcycle accident. Even so, my journey hasn’t ended and I’m still learning new things. Having been bitten by the bug of curiosity, I can never be cured of an insatiable desire for knowledge. It will stay with me until I am no more.

I’m recounting this mini-autobiography because although I’m sure there will be many students despairing for their future, if you are determined, if you have a drive for education, if that curiosity is overwhelming, you will make it in the end. It might take longer, it might be harder, but you’ll look back and be proud of an achievement through adversity. Take it from someone who’s been there, and if I can do it, believe me anyone can. Stick with it and it’ll be worth it, I promise.

* A top-grade Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) was equivalent to a mid-grade O-level. They were replaced in 1987 with the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education).

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