A recent conversation between my school friends went something like this: “Can you remember when Lauren made Mrs White cry?” (knowing smiles from the group). “Was that after she told her she was incompetent?” (collective giggles). “No, no, I think that was Mrs Elm” (pause for confused silence). “I thought she made Mrs Cass cry?” (Nods of agreement). “Yeah she did, but that was another time.”
I cannot excuse my bad behaviour at school. In fact, I am the first to admit I was a monster from the age of 11 to 18, exasperating both my teachers and parents at every opportunity. But my teenage tantrums were not caused by hideous hormones alone. I had an inkling then, which has developed into a concrete belief today, that the school system, with its cruel competition, endless bureaucracy, mindless inflexibility and blatant elitism, is fundamentally failing its students. If I had been part of a system which channeled my energy and specific (albeit limited) talents, rather than one which threatened and cajoled me into the same starched uniform as every other child, my educational experience might not have been the disheartening slog it turned out to be.
I can only imagine what it has been like for young people over the past 12 months. Not only have they had to deal with a year of disrupted lessons, isolation, dodgy internet connections and chronic anxiety but they’ve also been force fed a narrative perpetuated by the media that they are the “lost generation”; a pitiful cohort who will never be able to get back on the academic hamster wheel unsuited to many of them in the first place. Their futures, those of us on the other side would have them believe, are bleak.
As soon as I was freed from the rigid box I was stuffed into aged four, I have become the inquisitive, focussed, dedicated student my teachers were desperate for me to be back then
But speaking as someone who wasted many hours of my academic career standing outside of classrooms until I had “calmed down”, I can assure students today there is still hope. Education does not end at school. In fact, in my experience it begins as soon as you leave. In the decade since leaving school, I have slowly (my joints aren’t what they used to be) discovered a thirst only quenched by the great fountain of knowledge. It seems as soon as I was freed from the rigid box I was stuffed into from the age of four, I have become the inquisitive, focussed, dedicated student my teachers and parents were desperate for me to be back then.
A huge part of this is a direct result of being free to decide my own curriculum. I can follow my instincts, pursuing subjects which resonate and energise me rather than wasting time memorising formulas that could easily be Googled. I promised never to return to formal academia once leaving University, but three years later, I enrolled as a postgraduate at the London School of Journalism. It turned out to be one of the most rewarding, productive and empowering things I’ve ever done, providing me with purpose and fulfillment away from my job, my friends and my family. It was a endeavour entirely for me. Instead of dragging my feet over the finish line marked by my final exams, I positively skipped; charged by the knowledge this was a triumph of my own volition.
The joy of learning as an adult is you can choose to pour your newly gained enthusiasm (as well as cash of your own making) into subjects far from scholarly. When I did a quick poll of friends asking the things they had learned as an adult, very few listed anything academic. Instead I was inundated with a wide range of pursuits ranging from weaving to coding to gardening. This variety matches my own experience. In the past year I have learned the rules of laying an electrical plan in Rita Konig’s Create Academy course, understood the importance of compounding in Ellie Austin-Williams’ Investing For Beginners course and discovered the life changing practice of harnessing my hormones in Alisa Vitti’s book ‘In The Flo’, all of which have made me feel like a well rounded and capable person -something school never did.
Learning is something which grows and stays with you, enhancing your experiences and helping you link together the intricate web of life
Be wary though. There is a difference between learning new things and the dreaded “hobby”, which so many people feel the need to adopt in great numbers and at vast expense. A hobby, in my opinion, is a trend driven excuse for mass consumerism, as fleeting as it is unproductive. It breeds the kind of mentality which leads you to buy a drone or an adult colouring book. Learning is something completely different. It is something which grows and stays with you, enhancing your experiences and helping you link together the intricate web of life. Your new found subject will reverse every sour school memory as long as you choose slowly and instinctively.
So if like me, you wasted your school years in a mist of begrudging indifference, or, more recently, had your education disrupted by a global pandemic, good. You are now primed for a lifetime of self propelled tuition. Let indignation be your fuel. Who needs a satchel full of A*s and a sweaty fistful of glowing reports, when everyone knows it is the awkward, angry, weird and woeful children who become the most interesting adults. The ones who make their teachers cry, become something entirely different.