Wasted Opportunities (part two)

Photo by Mwesigwa Joel on Unsplash

One of the few things I actually do remember doing during this officially sanctioned twenty-four month work avoidance scheme was to write ‘articles’ which I posted on the Sixth Form Notice Board for the entertainment of my peers and educators.  The internet (along with mobile phones, laptop computers, pocket calculators and Salted Caramel Mars Bars) did not exist, but this cork wall became my blog.  I was regularly encouraged by tutors to stop ‘posting’ on it, but I was never prevented from doing so.  I live with the hope that somebody gleaned something from what I was doing, other than the conviction that they were in the wrong job. 

On the first day of my Sixth Form studies, the impossibly old history tutor told me that he considered that ‘as I was now an adult’ he would be setting no home work, but he would rely on me to hand in essays on subjects of my own choosing for his appraisal at will.  Consequently, adult that I was, I didn’t hand in a single one and failed the subject abjectly*.  I did scrape a pass in Art despite handing in ‘coursework’ all of which was started the night before in an orgy of Coca Cola, Chipitos and poster paint.   Believe me, I take no pride in this, I am ashamed of my behaviour, but I can’t go back and change it.  I am stuck with that past and it has dictated my present.  The ‘missed opportunity’ has provided the framework for my entire adult life.  I have had only three full-time jobs in my life, giving me a total of forty four years continuous employment without even the slightest hint of ambition.  I have only ever attended one job interview and I vowed that, despite getting the job, I would never attend another.  I have been head-hunted twice, which probably says far more about the paucity of heads around here than it does about me.

Having seen both my children through University I decided to find out if I was capable of doing it myself and, having discovered that I really can apply myself when there is no conceivable benefit in doing so, I now have a Degree of my very own, of which I am very proud even though it merely makes me ever more aware of what I could have achieved forty years ago with just a little application.  (No, I am not talking about Clearasil.)  Who knows what I could have become (a pompous prig I fear).  Would I have been happier?  No, I’ve been married for more than forty years and my wife still talks to me from time to time.  We have two brilliant daughters and four life-enhancing (though energy-sapping) grandchildren – I’ll definitely settle for that.  Would I be richer?  Possibly.  I may have retired much earlier, but then again, I may have died.  Would I be more fulfilled?  It’s very unlikely unless my university education involved developing strategies for not losing interest in what I have written at the very second I have stopped writing it.  I don’t really bother with even the pretence of ‘sending stuff off’ these days.  Old Git Lit has never proved to be the Book Club  draw I thought it might be and TV and Radio are currently only interested in what you have to offer if you are already famous for doing something else – tying knots in cherry stalks with your tongue on Tik-Tok or being third-last voted off Love Island.  I fear the proof that it is not merely my lethargy that forms a barrier to success, but a complete lack of talent, might just kill me.

At least as it is, I always have something to write about.  Let’s face it, disappointment is always good for a few hundred words.

*I offer, as some kind of mitigation, the fact that the set text was the God-awful ‘Origins of the Second World War’ by A J P Taylor, an exciting subject for a post-war eighteen year old, rendered into blancmange by an English academic – the foremost historian of his time – of, I estimated, at least a thousand years old, with all the writing verve of a Grattan’s Catalogue compositor. 

Wasted Opportunities (part one)

Photo by Mwesigwa Joel on Unsplash

When I look back on my schooldays, my overwhelming sense is one of wasted opportunity coupled with the intense sensation of crushing disappointment and the faintest scent of Mycil Foot Powder…

I was a bright kid in my early school days and I cruised through my eleven plus* without any real idea that I had ever even taken it.  This is the pattern of my life: I am successful at things only when I don’t realise I am doing them.  In retrospect, that is the point at which everything started to go wrong.  Those of us who ‘went up’ to the grammar school from the council estate became class traitors, the enemy of some of those we had grown up with and, although I’m pretty certain that it never even occurred to any of my new school friends, I felt keenly a class structure that I had never encountered before and, most particularly, my own place at the bottom of it.  Worse, I had always been one of the brainboxes at my junior school, but here I was in the midst of an intake of about a hundred kids, all of whom I felt  were considerably brighter than me.  (They were.)  I knew that I was going to find school a challenge, but I was not prepared for the misery that a walk home through the streets of my formative years was to bring me, bedecked in the reviled Billy Bunter cap and blazer** I was forced to wear, facing the hatred of those whom I had formally thought of as friends.  A daily trip from school gate to Dante’s abandoned tenth level of Hell.  It was alarming how quickly I cracked. 

I buckled down for a while, tried to work my way through it – in class I had my hand up more often than a trainee vet – and at the end of my second year I was awarded the prize (a book about Tutenkhamen that I still have to this day) for ‘Progress and Industry’ which, even then I understood was a euphemism for ‘stupid, but tries hard’.  Armed with this knowledge, I immediately stopped trying hard and became a full-time pain in the arse instead.

I scraped a handful of GCSE passes by whatever means, I am not sure, having reached a point where I did not even attempt to offer an excuse for not doing my homework.  My low point being an assault on an English Literature exam having made no attempt whatsoever to read any of the three set texts: Twelfth Night a play that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing live, but could make neither head nor tail of on paper; Far from the Madding Crowd the coma-inducing text of which I hoped to bypass by reading about a quarter of a revision guide, and The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales which I saw no point whatsoever in even pretending to have read since I was so out of my depth by the foot of the first page that I would have required rescue by the RNLI***.  Never-the-less, for reasons I can only begin to imagine, I was offered a place in Sixth Form – a future-life enhancing gift that I gratefully accepted by making no effort at all to study during the two years I was granted.  For whomever it was who saw something in me back then, and for all of those who had to put up with me during those two years – most especially those who had to try and ‘teach’ me – I can only offer my sincere apologies.  I do, at least, now have the maturity to know how badly I behaved towards you, and the self-awareness to understand that I completely blew a chance that I didn’t really deserve in the first place. 

An opportunity wasted on an almost Oliver Reed scale…

*A basic IQ test, taken at age eleven, and the means of determining whether one went to Grammar School and took ‘O’ levels or went to Comprehensive School and learned to smoke.  That the most successful people I know failed the eleven plus, and most of those with emotional difficulties passed it, probably tells you all you need to know.

**God knows how my parents afforded it.  It cannot have been easy for them and, as my gratitude levels were below zero, not terribly fulfilling.  They never complained.  I wish they had.

***The Royal National Lifeboat Institute