Posted by September Blue Monday, 25 August 2008

On a date last week in a sidling-up-to-trendy bar, the man I was with asked if I'd always planned to go into academia. Not really, I said, which is both true and not that unusual; lots of young academics seem to wear the same faintly confused expression, as if they'd closed their eyes for a second and woke up somewhere they didn't even know existed. I wanted to be a doctor. And then before that, I wanted to be a palaeontologist. And then before that, I wanted to be a vet. And then before that, a writer, I think? And before that a Jedi. Although, to be honest, I still want to be a Jedi.

"Well," he said, "you must have been quite academic at school, right?"

And three hundred miles away, all my old teachers clapped their hands over their faces and shrieked as one through their twitching fingers.

I was academic in the sense that I was clever and liked reading, yeah. I got good GCSEs and decent A-levels, and I didn't set fire to anything on school property. But from the time my dad called me downstairs after a parents' evening and said "I think your German teacher wants you dead," my future in higher education was, let's say, somewhat uncertain. It would be nice to claim that my teachers didn't appreciate my true genius. Really, though, I was just a brat, and a brat I remained for the rest of my time at school. Clever enough to get good grades without putting in much effort, and reluctant to put in any effort at all so long as there was something - anything - better to do with my time. What were they going to do to me? Put me in detention? Detention was half an hour of standing outside the staffroom, at lunchtime when I had to be at school anyway; homework was two hours of pointless busywork in my own time. This wasn't a difficult choice.

After a while, it took on the form of a semi-principled stand, and I stopped claiming I'd just forgotten to do the homework yet again in favour of protesting that I had to do it in the first place. It couldn't be about helping me to do better in exams and coursework, because I was getting excellent marks for those anyway; it couldn't be about improving my understanding of the subject, because if that needed improving, I wouldn't be doing as well at the exams and the coursework anyway; so what was it about, if not just jumping through hoops to justify the hoops being there? My teachers told me that there would come a day when I wouldn't be able to sail through on minimal effort, and come that day I'd be grateful for developing a work ethic. I shrugged, and went back to pointedly reading Solzhenitsyn in detention, which was where I spent most of my lunchtimes. I'm fairly sure I still have outstanding detention, come to think of it.

There were a few of us who took the same approach. Kate got into an argument with our biology teacher about whether or not she should improve her presentation ("but you already marked me down for it, and I still got an A - so who cares?"). Vicky proudly showed her GCSE grades to her French teacher on results day - excellent, despite predictions of failure, shame, and a life on minimum wage on the Morrisons tills - to be met with "Vicky, I don't even want to look at you right now." We talked through classes, put our feet on the tables, competed with each other about how many different store cupboards we had been sent to sit in to Think About What We'd Done. All of us got threatened with suspension at least once; during one incident, all of us got called in individually to be interrogated by a very angry head of IT, who told us all without reservation that if he ever managed to prove we'd done the thing he suspected we had then we were gone, that minute, and it was going to take some pretty impressive grovelling if we even wanted to be let back in to sit our exams. (He never did prove it.) We were brats. We were awful. We were the reason I couldn't ever be a secondary school teacher.

When I was thirteen, after several weeks of not doing any homework at all, my English teacher reached over my desk, grabbed me around the throat with both hands, and shook me. The whole class went quiet and stared. He let go, we looked at each other in stunned silence for a moment or two, then he told us all to read up to page 53 and left the room. I'm not sure in retrospect what's more surprising: that one of my teachers tried to strangle me, or that the rest of them never gave in to the temptation.

So, no, I wouldn't say I was particularly academic at school.

"So why did you decide to go into academia?" the man I was with asked, after a heavily summarised version of the above.

Huh. Good question.


  1. Autumn Song Says:
  2. Does anyone start off on their undergrad degree planning to go into academia...?

  3. Laz Says:
  4. I've known you for ten years and I never knew you were such a brat at school. I'm sure even I couldn't have forgotten about a teacher trying to strangle you. Although, let's face it, I've forgotten some unlikely things...

    I do understand now though, just why teachers gave your youngest brother such a hard time! IT'S YOUR FAULT!!!

  5. Autumn Song, I hear there are even non-Arts types who start off on their undergrad degrees with an actual post-university plan! ;)

    Laz, the youngest brother was more than capable of earning his own reputation! Although after two of us, the last name might've helped a bit. I blame our mother.