Thursday, 16 August 2018

Flunked your A-Levels? A message from 'a failure'.


My A-level day wasn't great. I'd been a high achiever all my life, aced my GCSE and had a conditional offer from Cambrige University, which coming from a Northern comprehensive school and from a disadvantaged background was quite something.

The two years of my A-Level studies were hard. I was studying 5 A-LEVELS and my father was in and out of a psychiatric unit because his bi-polar and medication made him frequently suicidal and when he was home, life was incredibly difficult.

My mother was working 3-4 different jobs at a time just to keep the roof over our head and to feed us. I will always respect her for that.
Me in Paris for a book signing Sept 2017

I was working part time as well as studying because it was the only way I would have any money, and because Friday and Saturday nights were party night--a chance to completely forget all the shit going on at home. I had a very unhealthy gin and red wine habit, but it was the 1990s and most of us from the age of 16 had unhealthy alcohol habits.

I was also in a really messed up relationship (or maybe a couple of messed up relationships) in that first year of studies.

And amongst all that, I had taken it upon myself to apply for Cambridge, get an interview that no one prepped me for and get a conditional offer.

The day of my English Lit A-Level was the day after my father had a serious psychotic episode that resulted in hospital admission. I'd been up until past midnight as the services were dealing with him and I was a mess.

Me in New York for a book signing
Sept 2017
It wasn't a time that schools really got that whole student well-being stuff, and it certainly wasn't a time that people knew how to handle discussions about mental health. I was ignored by the staff because they didn't know what to say. There were no allowances, no care, no special circumstances.

When the results came, I got a B. I'd been predicted a top grade in English, just like 3 of the other A-Levels. It didn't matter in the end, apart from pride, because all my other grades were Bs and Cs too.

I wasn't going to Cambridge.
I wasn't even going to a 'top university'.

To be honest. It felt like the world had stopped spinning for a day or two.

I took my fourth choice of St. Mary's University in Twickenham, and convinced myself that it was going to be fabulous to be so near to London... and it was.

St. Mary's was exactly what I needed in my life at that moment. It was small, caring, faith based (not my own but nevertheless) I was a big fish in a small pond. I aced my first term assignments, I became head of the literature society, I built great relationships with my tutors, who restored my esteem and faith in myself, I roomed on the small campus with a room mate and it was a village where I could start to rebuild and discover myself.

I will be eternally grateful for not getting the grades to Cambridge, which I honestly believe would have further destroyed me.

Today, I travel the world as an author and small publisher, I go on the most incredible adventures, I hang with the most amazing people.

I'm married to the guy I got together with in the second year of A-LEVELS and who stood by all the crazy. I have two beautiful daughters and live close by the university, where I now hold a residential conference for writers every two years.

What this tells you is that things happen for a reason. If you didn't get the grades you needed, or wanted, then maybe there's a bigger picture for you.

Life isn't all about grades, but it is about doing the very most you can with the resources that you have, about not settling in the same place, to always believe you can do better, attain your dreams, even if it's not in the way you've been raised to believe.

I was a secondary school English teacher, in charge of GCSE English for many years. In the end, I left partly because I couldn't reconcile my soul and ethics to the exam and grade culture we are enforcing on our students. It's destructive and it isn't true.

IT ISN'T TRUE. I promise you that your grades are merely an advantage, not the answer. They don't guarantee you anything in life. They make getting through some doors a little easier, but once inside that room, they're like ether.

It's your personality, your values, your work ethic, your confidence, your belief, your integrity, being well-read, being well-travelled, culturally aware, business savvy, good with money, knowing when to risk it all and when to protect it all that will make you a success.

It's your ability to truly love and accept yourself that will allow others to love you and for you to build up relationships that make you happy.

And honestly, happiness is the ultimate goal, and no one needs top grades for that.
Be strong. Good luck and always reach for your dreams   

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