13 Sep 2014

Growing up, leaving school and how to give your parents grey hair.

The last two or three weeks have been full of events, some very pleasant, some less so. That old saw about life’s rich tapestry has been on my mind. At times the tapestry becomes a tangle of threads and it’s difficult to see the pattern.

So, to start with the worrying bits. The grandson did not get the GCSE results  he had demanded of himself. Not that we, his mother and I, were disappointed, on the contrary. Considering all he has had to cope with over the last six years, any likelihood of him absorbing school subjects was much reduced.  But then came his own ambitions, suddenly announced, (probably as a result of much time spent in A&E for one injury or another.) He wants (wanted) to become a doctor. For that he needed sciences and -  gloom - maths. His grasp of mathematics is about as good as mine, which means he doesn’t have one. The subjects he has a natural aptitude for, like English, Art  and Design, they were dismissed as being ‘no use to him’ and therefore no comfort when he got creditable passes in them. He didn’t do badly in physics and chemistry either but maths, oh dear, oh dear.  

So he declared himself fed up with schooling and determined not to go back to it. He is just sixteen. In Scotland that means he can get married without parental permission and officially leave school. Mother and grandparents held their collective breath in fear. This is the point it can all go horribly wrong. Luckily we are unified in our belief that no good comes of forcing a sixteen year old, especially a stubborn and otherwise sensible one, to do what it doesn’t want to do. The time has come for a little faith in the innate intelligence and good sense of the person he is showing himself to be. Still, it was a nastily worrying moment. 

His next step took our breath away. He fixed himself up with an interview for the Navy. 

He downloaded the necessary forms, filled them in, and persuaded his quaking parent to sign them.  He wants to be a medic - or an engineer..... or...  He was very nearly accepted too. The interviewer was enthusiastic, said he was just the sort of young chap they need. Then he was given some test papers. He passed them all until the b***dy maths.  ‘Come back in six months’ he was told regretfully. ‘If we can see you have been working at your maths  then we’ll see what we can do.’ 

It turns out he has been watching documentaries, youtube clips, researching on the net, about life in the Royal Navy, for two or three years. He knows, as much as he can without the experience, what he is letting himself in for. Sharing fish and chips and a bottle of wine with him last night I was amazed by the details he has picked up.  It still seems ridiculous that this young man who disliked the institutionalised life of school so heartily, would put himself into an organisation that imposes an even stricter discipline and demand for conformity.  

Increasingly, he reminds me of his uncle who was not at all absorbed or engaged by academic subjects as they were taught in school, but once he had a purpose in mind could achieve anything he set his mind to. After years of managing water sports centres he is now on his way to becoming a chartered accountant.

What I do wish schools (governments?) could get over is the emphasis on exams. The school we chose for him was founded by a man with ideals. He saw the importance of developing the whole child, of allowing the full potential of that child to emerge. Nowadays, with league tables and the unnatural emphasis on the certain sort of intelligence that enables people to pass exams, the school has lost its way. At sixteen they are given the impression that a pass or fail will determine the whole of their future. That’s nonsense, but teenagers are intense creatures and take this to heart. It’s dangerous. They learn to define themselves by results and it is hard work to swing the emotional balance, to stop them from writing themselves off as failures.

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