Elspeth Cooper

Purveyor of fine fantasy adventures

Photo of Newcastle University

Defining success

It’s that time of year when the newspapers are full of pictures of joyful girls (and it’s always girls, isn’t it? Funny that) leaping in the air celebrating their A Level results. These will be followed in due course by lots of well-meaning but uninspired advice for those whose results were less gravity-defying, and in turn by outraged harrumphing on the letters page about how the pass rate going up (again) can only be due to the standards going down (again).

“Not like proper A Levels!” they’ll huff. “In my day exams were hard!” What the letter-writers forget is that their day is not the current day, and what was considered best practice then is different now, and ‘different’ does not automatically mean ‘less than’. But I digress.

The reason for this post is I want to tell you a story.

I was quite a bookish child, academically able, with a reading age well ahead of my peers. I was expected to do well at school, go on to a good university and all that. My parents wanted the best for me, so they offered me the chance to go to an independent school for girls. I said no, they said okay, and I went to the local comprehensive.

Education had lost all appeal to me. I was frustrated, bored, and couldn’t wait to get out of the hothouse.

GCSEs had only just been invented, so I was one of the last years of kids to do O Levels. Got a nice set of results, and went through to the sixth form. Where the wheels came off, big style.

I picked a poor balance of subjects for A Level. One of them was maths and statistics; my dad was a maths teacher, how bad could it get? The answer: bad. I’d started to struggle at O Level, and the A Level syllabus showed me that I wasn’t really cut out for it. Despite copious past papers, extra coaching from Dad, and a resit, I failed A Level maths. Twice.

There were other reasons. A newly-qualified maths teacher who didn’t really have the personality for teaching and a growing disaffection with the whole process of education, due to the teachers’ strike that was happening at the time. That caused me to get a worse result than expected in history, and led to me sabotaging my interview at Oxford – I was honest, and told them I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, so they wisely decided to offer my place to someone who valued it more. The maths fail meant I didn’t have the grades to go to Durham, my number 2 choice, but my dad’s alma mater, Liverpool, had offered me two Es, so all was not lost, right?

I said no to uni, too.

Education had lost all appeal to me. I was frustrated, bored, and couldn’t wait to get out of the hothouse. I have never regretted it. Given my personality at the time, I think the bigger mistake would have been going to uni, and studying a subject (medieval and modern history) that I enjoyed but didn’t really love.

My lack of a BA didn’t hinder me getting a job, or becoming a published writer. That requires no qualifications. You get to be a writer by writing, and I’ve been producing novel-length fiction since I was 14.

My heart was always in language, I think. English Literature was the A Level I aced, and although my employment career ended up being more science-y (21 years in IT), language is where I have ended up. Writing books.

The good school > good grades > good university > good job track was never for me. Despite my parents’ hopes and expectations, it was never going to be a good fit, even if the circumstances of my A Levels had been different. My lack of a BA didn’t hinder me getting a job, or becoming a published writer. That requires no qualifications. You get to be a writer by writing, and I’ve been producing novel-length fiction since I was 14.

Having a BA would probably have taken me in a different direction though. Given me different friends, different goals, a different life. Different is neither better nor worse, but a different life might have been one in which my books didn’t get written. I probably wouldn’t have met the man who is now my husband. Would I have been more successful? I don’t know. It all depends how you define success – or whether you accept someone else’s definition of it.

On balance, I think I’ve done okay, sans letters after my name. I haven’t won any awards or achieved any kind of fame, but I own my own house, there’s food on the table and I can put a little joy in readers’ hearts. That makes me happy. Happy counts as successful, right?

 

Featured image: Newcastle University By Roger – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28815490

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1 Comment

  1. Jacqui Bennetts

    To right. Especially as you do the things you want to to be happy. You want to write so you do . No if onlys.

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