Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

It ain't what grade you get, it's what you do with it

I’m feeling in a wise elder mood today. Perhaps it’s because because Facebook insists on showing me photographs of friends from school getting married or, as it did yesterday, a photograph of a school friend holding his wife’s baby bump. I, of course, am using the fact that I cannot legally get married as a great excuse for why I’m both single and spending my days arguing with stupid people on the Internet rather than being a proper grown-up. Ha ha, only serious.

Anyway, it’s A-level results day for kids in England. So I figure I should give some advice for the people getting their A-level results today and potentially trotting off to university next month. I shall, of course, give this advice in the only way I know how: ramblingly.

I did my A-levels about ten years ago. Hell, that’s a long time. Here’s the thing though: I never really planned anything. I just sort of fell into it. Some people seem to have it all worked out. They wanna be a doctor or a scientist, so they do maths and biology and physics and get straight A’s and get into Cambridge. Or they want to be a writer so they do English and history and a foreign language, and get straight A’s and trot off to Oxford.

I didn’t really know what I wanted to ‘be’. There was always the potential to be a computer programmer, I guess, but… I don’t know why I didn’t see that as a viable option at school, but I didn’t. My school had a careers advice lady. I went and had a slightly uncomfortable interview with her when I was about 14 and trotted out a few ideas and she gave me some advice, but nothing that really stuck out. So I just bumbled along.

I took five courses at AS level: Law, Business Studies AVCE, English Language and Literature, Biology and the mandatory ICT AVCE.

I dropped the Business Studies AVCE after a few weeks, and wished I could have done the same with the ICT AVCE. Curriculum 2000 was a bloody stupid idea in forcing people to do these ghastly pseudo-vocational courses (they didn’t really contain any useful vocational skills, but they did have all the academic difficulty trimmed away). It didn’t help that the Business Studies course was filled with a bunch of the same arseholes that I hated from previous years at school.

As for ICT AVCE, well, I had an absolutely crazy mental teacher for this called Penny Rowden. She combined a complete inability to teach the subject with a complete inability to understand computers or IT. She did wander around the classroom singing “Anarchy in the U.K.” by The Sex Pistols. Eventually, I decided to not bother turning up for this piece of shit course and would go hang out in a nearby cricket pavilion with a similarly disenchanted student.

I was similarly horrible at AS Biology. In retrospect, I had some attitude or something that made me not like it. Can’t remember why. It’s a shame, because we had two teachers: one was absolutely astoundingly awesome, the other was a creepy old perv who used to hit on the girls when he wasn’t reciting bad jokes about adenosine triphosphate. Anyway, I got a U in AS Biology, and promptly dropped it.

Which leaves Law and English Language and Literature. Lang & Lit was a course offered as an alternative to a full English Lit course, and had a much wider range of texts. While the pure Lit students were poring over every word in Hamlet, we had novels, TV screenplays, poems, short stories, diaries and speech etc., and there was much more of a focus on the mechanics of language. I had to read Angela Carter’s book of feminist fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some feminist reappropriation, I just couldn’t stand the way they were written (which is strange: I later borrowed a collection of Angela Carter’s non-fiction writing and she’s a great journalistic writer). It was a weird and strange course, sort of an A-level in English Literary Miscellany. But I had great teachers. I had a guy called Mr Stewart, who was the school’s resident disciplinarian, but when he wasn’t shouting at people, he was challenging A-level students Socratically to understand the works of the metaphysical poets.

I had another great teacher called Mr Hill, who used to shock the younger students by reading absolutely anything. Some crappy teenage magazine article about the Spice Girls? He’d read it just as proudly and openly as he’d read Keats in order to, I don’t know, teach some moral lesson about how language is everywhere.

Law was great fun too. It allowed me to bring out the inner pedant, and taught me how to draw subtle distinctions. The teacher was a fantastically sharp woman called Mrs Short who didn’t take any shit from anybody.

In the evening, I started taking evening classes in photography. A lovely retired woman called Inga taught them, and I did the GCSE in a year, and the A-level the second year. It was enormous amounts of fun, plus I learned a lot. I miss Inga dearly as a friend — she died a few years ago and I went to her memorial service. She was probably the best teacher I ever had precisely because she wasn’t full of shit.

At the end of all that lot, I had a B in Law, and C’s in English and Photography. What can I say? I’m a lazy pupil. All the other guff the school tried to make me do under the guises of the government’s stupid Curriculum 2000 bollocks? Didn’t bother. ICT AVCE? Bollocks to that. Key Skills Qualifications? Bollocks to that. I haven’t missed not having them in the slightest, nor have university admissions departments, nor have employers. They were idiotic then and they are idiotic now. So are most of the government schemes to change qualifications: the endless parade of new “diplomas” are basically the government polishing up a turd to make you believe it isn’t a turd anymore.

I trotted off to study photography at degree level. I had applied to various art schools, and most of them wanted me to do a Foundation year: a one year course where one tries a large variety of different visual arts from drawing to painting to fashion to photography to sculpture. I obviously had no intention of doing this. I just wanted to get on and study photography. I applied for a whole lot of different places and was accepted in the Photography and Video programme at DMU in Leicester.

Here’s the thing, I didn’t really think about why I wanted to do this. It just seemed like everyone was sort of expected to go off to university, and, well, I probably should too, so I should probably find something I like doing. So I spent a year living in Leicester. Practically, it was very nice. It was about 3 hours to get home on the train, and I lived in an all-male flat about five minutes walk from the college.1 The lecturers were great… but something didn’t quite fit. I started attending meetings of the Leicester Secular Society at Secular Hall, an amazing old Victorian building dedicated to freethought. We had wide-ranging debates there on all sorts of subjects: mostly politics, philosophy, religion and ethics. We had a woman from the council come along and get grilled about how local government in the city handles religion. These debates sent me plunging off into the library stacks to read about anything and everything philosophical.

During A-level photography, I’d sort of had to dabble in “theory”, hand-wavy philosophy for artists, basically. But the combination of that and the real-world experience of debating smart people over tea and biscuits at Secular Hall pushed me into reading some real philosophy. Of course, I was just fumbling around in the dark a bit. I read Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche, Richard Dawkins (promptly realising that biology, contra my diasterous AS Biology course, becomes really interesting when you understand evolution), and many more: a little bit of Sartre, some Plato, some Adorno (yeah, I know).

The stuff I was reading cooped up in my little academic-monastic cell in Leicester, or a few minutes walk away in the library, was far more interesting to me than the pedestrian photographs I was taking during the day. I didn’t know what to do. I thought about applying to do a law degree and trying to become a lawyer. Eventually, I ended up dropping out of my photography programme rather unannounced (always a bad idea) and going home. I was in a rather depressive mood for a while. I’d successfully buggered up my life, I thought. I’d got myself into thousands of pounds of debt for something I didn’t really want to do, and now it was basically inescapable because to get into a different university to do something I wanted to do would require me to get a reference from the tutor who would probably be pissed off that I hadn’t turned up to their lectures for the last two months or whatever.

I managed to somehow pull myself out of this little rut and apply for a bunch of courses right at the last minute. One of those happened to be philosophy at a funny little philosophy and theology college called Heythrop in London. Rather oddly, they decided they wanted to let me in, although not to study pure philosophy (the course was full) but to do a course called Philosophy, Religion and Ethics.

Quite why, I’m not sure. If I was an admissions tutor and someone had turned up and said “hey, I’ve got a bunch of mediocre A-levels, I started at art school and pretty much failed, but I’ve read some Bertrand Russell”… I would have told them to get packing.

I had a wonderful time and got a 2.1 at the end of it. I commuted in from home, which means my student loan is about half of what everybody else has. And this was when tuition fees were a grand a year, not nine grand. I looked up yesterday and saw that the government are now making it possible for you to get £50,000 in debt to get a 3 year degree in London. That’s absolute madness.

Right or wrong, I can’t honestly say that I would have gone to university if I had to get into £50,000 worth of debt to do so. The great problem is that it makes failure so much more expensive. And ordinary people going to university fail to know what they want all the damn time.

That’s the advice I’d give you young’uns: know what the fuck you want. If you don’t know what you want, work that out before you commit yourself into £50,000 worth of student debt. Your school will want you to go to university. Your parents too, especially if they didn’t go to university. Do so if you want to. Because your school teachers aren’t going to pay off your student loans, and unless your name is Rupert Poshington III, your parents probably won’t be paying it off either: you will be.

Don’t use going to university as a way to put off important life decisions. If you hear yourself saying “well, I’ll sort that out when I’m done with university”, that might be a clue that something is wrong.

If you are gonna get into £50,000 worth of debt to get an education, get your personal shit worked out first. You have to face reality now that university will cease to be a place to “grow as a person”, because, damn, it’s fifty-fucking-thousand-fucking-pounds of your future earnings we are talking about here. All that “finding yourself” stuff, well, £50,000 is an expensive way to find yourself. If you are lacking in self-confidence, not sure what you want in life, have any, oh, unopened closet doors that need kicking open… that sort of thing, you bloody well need to sort that out before taking on a £50,000 debt during a recession. Know exactly why you are going into it.

Anyway, that’s just me scaring the shit out of you a bit, perhaps on the misguided basis that if I was 18, I’d want someone to scare the living shit out of me.

I guess I should give a positive moral from all this stuff rather than just wave a very big scythe around.

I got very average A-level grades. I got into university, both to do a subject I didn’t really want to, and then again to do a subject I really enjoyed doing. I went back and got an MA, and aced it with Distinction. I got into a Ph.D programme (which I decided I didn’t really want to do)… and I can find good, well-paying work doing interesting things with nice people. I’m pretty happy with my life right now. I’m not going to say my life is perfect, because nobody’s life is perfect. I’m not holding myself up as a shining example to emulate, because, really, you don’t want to emulate my life. But I’m happy, I’ve gotten through things and I have both a functioning brain, a job and awesome friends, so I have got to be doing something right.

So, yeah, on the work thing. Just as I said you need to sort your personal life out and take charge of it, you need to take charge of your work life. I’m slightly astounded that people want to pay me for the things inside my head, but apparently they do. But that’s all down to spending an enormous amount of time learning for myself. Churning through manuals, playing with things, building stuff, hacking, thinking, tinkering, meeting people, hanging out, learning stuff. Running in parallel to the formal education I got at university was an enormous amount of teaching myself practical skills. If you hope to have a job at the end of university, these days you need this too.

Also, the most important moral for all the nerdy, geeky, queer social outcast kids who fucking hated school: you are absolutely right to do so. School was shit. I don’t ever want to go back there. I’m not exaggerating here, this isn’t some angry teenager thing: this is one of the few certainties in my life I will preach to my grave. I occasionally have slight bouts of nostalgia for my school days, then very quickly remember that it was basically a sociopathic anti-intellectual heteronormative dictatorship run, with the permission of the staff, by a cabal of young men who were able to kick a football proficiently. And, you know, FUCK THAT SHIT. That’s an absolutely bloody terrible way of either teaching people how to be good human beings or cultivating knowledge, intelligence and intellectual curiosity. The best thing about finishing my A-levels was walking down the school drive, passing through the school gates, out in to the street and realising I’d never have to go back there ever again.2

If you’ve just finished your A-levels, your life starts now. It doesn’t matter whether you got A’s or D’s, the important thing is you now get your head in order and build a life for yourself in the best way you can. The most important lesson, and one they don’t teach you in school: form your own opinions, shout loud and don’t take any shit from anyone.

  1. The potted highlights: I didn’t fancy any of ‘em, the shower didn’t work for about 3 months, was offered weed precisely once during the whole year.

  2. Some people will say “ah, it wasn’t so bad”. They either weren’t bullied, were bullied and have come to accept some horrendous blame-the-victim shit about bullying, or are in the ghastly grip of some shitty nostalgia trip. For a second opinion, read Orwell’s Such, Such Were The Joys.