Once a week my mother would send me over to our neighbour Mrs. Fairy. She had a G Plan stereo console and we would listen to The Lark Ascending in her front parlour, she taught me to imagine being the bird flying over the moors while the delicate violin played. She also taught me how to make Rice Krispies cakes, we would include cherries because we both loved them and she said life should always include things you love, regardless of the recipe, I learned how to paint ballerinas on little cards to use as thank you notes and how to cut and arrange flowers from her garden. Mrs. Fairy was about 75 and I was 10, she was a very good teacher.
I’ve worked a full-time job since 16, until three years ago when I turned 40 and moved from England to California. I’m a product of the archetypal British working class family, not much in the way of formal education, simply because back then schooling was an anomaly to my parents, who raised their family with a fierce sense of independence and heavy importance on a work ethic, and books, we always had to have a book on the go. It was enough for them to provide and love unconditionally, respecting each other and to be present in our family – which is sprawling and so very exhausting socially – I learned that strong roots can weather the harshest of storms.
Having turned down a foundation place at Central St Martins for no other reason than fear, my father handed me the Yellow Pages, he sat next to me while I telephoned advertising agencies to ask how they hired staff. Those were the days when companies such as Saatchi & Saatchi existed in the telephone directory and people answered landlines. I was hooked up to a government apprentice scheme and within three weeks on a full-time placement, I appreciated my Father’s help. I took weekend work and had no days off for a very long time. The work ethic kicked in.
Finding myself surrounded by educated professionals I became fascinated to know what they knew, yet being so young, I was held back by a sense of inferiority. I overcompensated by downloading from acquaintances, asking all the questions all the time. “Ask away”, is something I now tell my two children, questions are how we learn, but also remind them to take time to carefully listen to the answer, or else nothing is learned.
As a teenager, I volunteered with the Terrence Higgins Trust at their London Lighthouse. I had a friend, Edward, who I would visit on Sunday mornings, he was dying of AIDS and consequently in a wheelchair. Together we would wander Notting Hill talking about life, I had mine ahead of me and his was now behind him. He shared with me stories about a side of life I had never known, he was bohemian and I found his lifestyle exotic, inspired, a contrast to my own. When he died I couldn’t bring myself to attend his funeral and I have always regretted it. At the time I wasn’t sure why but now I know I was scared, understanding for the first time how life can be determinate regardless of one’s hopes. That significant people will come into and leave my world, that I can’t always hold on to them so time together must be spent well. Not being part of Edward’s funeral was a mistake, but I learnt much from our friendship, seeing that although life would happen regardless I had a chance of influencing the ‘how’ and ‘what’. I began to understand the desire to learn and grow is common and innate, however, we are not on the same journey, you can’t compare your own successes to those of others. It’s all just different. I think about Alan Watts: Things are as they are, looking out into the universe at night we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.
My career succeeded over the following 20 years but the idea of ‘a career for life’ was something I never grasped or even wanted to, I consider that if I’d stuck with the education process I would have had a better understanding of this concept, that actually the structure and practice of learning is just as important as the subject you are learning.
Now settled in California, I’ve made the conscious decision to return to school as a student, I’m no longer flying blind. I’m able to better understand and equate formal learning with independent thought process. I’m gaining the benefit of qualifications through applying my existing knowledge to an institutional format, something I was just not capable of as a teenager. What they say is true; learning is only as good as your teacher, and they don’t teach subjects they teach people. So while I listen to wonderful professors, I can see we all have the ability to teach each other because we are all capable of choosing to share what we have learned. And where I was once scared by exams I now see they are only hurdles in announcing ourselves as formally qualified, and not something that ranks us personally.
For sure, going back to school in your 40’s is the longer path, but I made it eventually, right? These days I find myself attempting to write a book, produce a film and study to be a Horticulturist. What’s that all about then? It hasn’t occurred to me that I can’t achieve these goals because determination is still my favourite companion. I know that in reality I might not realise any of these, but I’ve learnt that living on the edge of failure is the only place you get a decent shot; ultimately, the success is going to be down to me. If there’s one thing I have gleaned from successful people, educated or otherwise, it’s that you have to want it, whatever ‘it’ is. Straight up, from your core, really want it.
I used to be confused by my parents not paying attention to my education, however in my older years I can see they still have the same confidence in me, just as they did when I was a child, they continue to tick me off when I slack and support me when I dream high. Their commitment has never diminished and in the long run, it possibly outlives any application they might have been able to give to my schooling. I have instead lived outside of comparisons and judgments, expectations and examinations. So I wonder, perhaps the very notion of me sitting here, musing on education is actually the article in itself? I contemplate my own role in my children’s education and try very hard to stay balanced, spending much time talking with them about this world and its possibilities, supporting their hopes and ambitions regardless of my vision for them. Their grades are not important to me but I understand they are important to further their horizons, and so I encourage them to be passionate about the learning process. Learn to take lessons wherever they find them.
I think about Benjamin Zephaniah, a 60-year-old poet, writer and musician, raised in Birmingham, England. He left school aged 13 and didn’t learn to read or write until he was 21. Now he’s a professor of poetry at Brunel University and has sixteen honorary degrees. I think about Edward and the lesson he gave on being present in the time we are given. And then I think back to Mrs. Fairy for all she wholesomely taught me through the kindness of just sharing.