I remember much of my first day at junior school like it was just yesterday. It was quite an introduction to formal education: the disappointment of discovering that my only friend was in a different class to me; the excitement of meeting up with him at break time; the bravado involved in asking the boy 2 years my senior (his name was Ben) whether we could join in with his game of football; the resultant ecstasy when he granted us permission, and the humiliating lesson in football that followed. I loved every minute of that day, and did not have a care in the world.
Now it’s time for me to be brutally honest, both with myself and with you.
Almost 16 years later, the education system has chewed me up and spat me out in the cruelest of fashions. Yesterday, on the 4th of July 2014, I was granted an unexpected and thoroughly unwanted independence. In an email received from the University of Portsmouth, I was told in no uncertain terms that my failure to make significant academic progress over the last year had left the relevant authorities with no choice but to exclude me from my course (English Literature & American Studies, for those not in-the-know) with ‘immediate effect’.
It was all rather callous, rather cold. It felt strange to not receive a message saying ‘We hope you enjoyed your four years at Portsmouth’, or even a simple ‘Thank you for your £14,000’. Not that I was expecting words of that nature, of course, but it still hurt. There was merely a short paragraph comprising of 4 sentences which spelled the end of my academic career that started all that time ago on that busy playground. I was pretty torn up.
Anyway, I’m lying in bed at 1.30am (it’ll probably be much later by the time I’ve finished this post)* and the rain is hammering against my window. I don’t think I’m going to get to sleep any time soon, so I want to get to the bottom of how this all happened. How did my time at university end with just a meaningless piece of paper as reward?
Academically, I struggle. In fact, since the age of about 13, I always have done. As a child, my parents and teachers agreed that I showed a lot of promise. I won an academic scholarship to my senior school, King’s Worcester, and immediately my every move became heavily scrutinised. Academic scholars were expected to set an example for others in their behaviour, work ethic and exam results. The truth was, I had never achieved proficiency in any of those three disciplines. I secured my scholarship through an aptitude for mental mathematics, a relatively good understanding of the English language and a decent grasp on the logic behind verbal reasoning.
My behaviourial record throughout school was poor. I recall a 5-day period in year 5 when, partners-in-crime in-tow, I appeared in the headmaster’s office every day. Even at an age when I would have been expected to be showing signs of maturity, I regularly found myself sitting in detention on a Wednesday afternoon while all my friends skipped merrily home. I actually bagged myself a Saturday morning detention for snapping a clothes peg off a changing room wall, but thankfully that particular punishment was cut short by an hour due to rugby commitments.
Maybe I’m exaggerating for effect. I wasn’t a rebel, and nor was I a notorious attention seeker. I was just a bored child who was completely disillusioned with the very concept of education.
My teachers were excellent, and must have despaired at my total lack of enthusiasm for their subject (ex-teachers, if you’re reading this – you were all great, thank you). Still, my academic performance was becoming a cause for serious concern. My distinctly average GCSE grades – 5 A’s, 3 B’s, 2 C’s – set in motion a drastic plan to rescue my university prospects.
Before long, an educational psychologist had been called in; I’d been instructed to spend all of my free periods in the library, I was assigned a personal mentor in the form of the (lovely) deputy headmaster Richard Chapman and I was required to collect weekly progress reports from all of my teachers.
No pressure then, Jonny.
Sixth form was a difficult time for me. Halfway through fifth form (year 11), I sustained a serious knee injury during a rugby match which ruled me out of all sport for a year. This came at a time when I was heavily involved in rugby, football, basketball and tennis.
When the physician broke the news to me, I wanted to cry for days on end. Confined to the library, it was heartbreaking to watch all my friends traipse happily off to the playing fields every Monday and Wednesday afternoon to enjoy the sports that I loved so much.
Not only did my abstinence from sport hurt me mentally, it also damaged me physically. Without regular exercise in my life, I started to put on weight pretty quickly. In my younger years, I was a decent athlete. Anyone who knows me will have heard how I came extremely close to representing my county at the 400 metres, and I regularly played A team rugby and football. On one occasion, I even snuck into the A team for cricket. It was infuriating, therefore, to lose all that hard-earned fitness in my year away from sport.
King’s was a great place to be at school, and I’ll always be inexpressibly grateful to my parents for sending me to be educated in such a pleasant environment. I still have many treasured friendships and memories from my 11 years there – it is a time that I’ll always look back upon with much fondness. Sadly, the same cannot be said regarding the decisions that I made about my future. Or, to be more specific, what influenced those decisions.
[At this point, I stopped writing and went to bed. The date is now the 1st of August, and once again I am lying in bed unable to sleep. My emotions are no longer raw, and the feeling of disappointment has subsided somewhat.]
I’d always had it drilled into me that the natural path for my life to take after school was the university one. After that, everything would just slot into place. However, as my time at school began to draw to a close, it became increasingly apparent to me that I was not cut out for academia.
Everyone kept talking about my ‘potential’, and how I wasn’t living up to it. The truth was, my potential never lay in school work. Notions of me attending one of the UK’s more prestigious universities started to dissipate as it became obvious that I wasn’t going to get the necessary grades. As a compromise, we started attending open days at (no disrespect intended) ‘less selective’ establishments – Northampton, Oxford Brookes, Salford, Aston, Lincoln and finally Portsmouth.
Through (limited) natural intelligence alone – I honestly can’t have done more than 10 hours of actual revision – I scraped three C’s at A level. It was enough to get me into my first choice of university, Portsmouth, but the overwhelming emotion felt on that day was relief, not joy.
Phew. Didn’t let anyone down.
Truly, I didn’t actually want to go to university. And if I did, it was for all the wrong reasons. I remember mulling over all the fun things that I’d miss out on if I didn’t go to Portsmouth, rather than being excited about the potential long-term benefits of gaining a degree in a subject that I supposedly enjoyed. I told my house tutor that I was considering going straight into employment after leaving King’s.
‘That sounds like a very sensible idea, Jonny’ was her reply; knowing smile and all. Maybe I should have heeded that smile.
Then again, maybe not. Whilst my time at university has come to an unsatisfactory conclusion, I can’t claim to have not developed as a person during my venture into higher education.
I’ve enjoyed four truly brilliant years at Portsmouth, and have learned many life lessons that can’t be taught in a classroom. I spent a thoroughly challenging but equally enjoyable year as President of the Christian Union, organising – and the ‘etc’ is fully justified here – a weekend away, a carol service, two weeks of events…etc! I’ve had my heart set on sports journalism for a fair while, so in more recent times I have relished the opportunity to get involved in reporting for the sports section of the university newspaper. Two of my greatest passions are sport and writing, so what better career to pursue than one that combines the two?’
The city of Portsmouth is awesome, as are the people who inhabit it. The number of wedding invitations that I’ve received for this summer serves as an apt reminder as to just how dynamic and warm the social scene is in Portsmouth, and having my Grandma 20 minutes’ walk away made for unpredictable entertainment on an all too irregular basis. Only those who have been fortunate enough to meet the aforementioned Grandma will fully appreciate my use of the word ‘unpredictable’.
However, despite all the thrills and spills of the last four years, there is no hiding from the fact that I have failed in what I set out to achieve. I’ve covered the highs and lows that I experienced at school, and you’ve heard about the positives that I’ve drawn from my prolonged and unfruitful time at university, but now it’s time for the post-mortem.
I think I lack the motivation required to complete a degree. To be more specific, I hate learning for the sake of learning. If new knowledge serves a practical purpose and provides an immediate outcome, then I’ll lap it up and wrap it up.
I could, for example, label every English county, every US state and every country in the world without looking at a map. Those things were fun to learn, and are always useful in a pub quiz. However, writing a 3,000 word essay on how African Americans turned their service in war into civil rights is not going to directly enhance my ability to write an article on Worcestershire’s latest cricketing triumph. I’m aware that this isn’t a problem for most people, but my brain just ain’t wired that way.
It’s fair to say that, largely inadvertently, I’ve been under a considerable amount of pressure to succeed academically. I’m not pointing the finger here. Honestly, I’m not. I am solely responsible for the course that my life has taken thus far, and I will continue to shoulder that responsibility in the future.
However, both my parents are both Oxford graduates, two of my grandparents were Cambridge graduates and my education cost over £100,000. I know these are things that would give most people an advantage in life, but I think the personality and mindset of the individual plays a large role in determining whether that supposedly advantageous position works for or against them. In my case, I think the evidence points to against.
An overwhelming expectation to succeed, married to an apprehensive fear of failure.
I think this pressure is largely self-inflicted, a direct result of poor decision-making and misplaced motivation.
The truth is, though, that through all of the failures and successes, in all of the valleys and on all the mountain-tops, there has been one constant and that is my Lord Jesus Christ. He is my rock and my shelter, and in my weaknesses and my shortcomings his perfection is magnified. The world will look at the last 4 years of my life and tell me that I’m a failure. The world will look at my future and tell me that it is uncertain.
The world will stop at nothing to make me adhere to the standards that it sets. But when I come to Jesus, I know that he has already done everything that I need to be accepted, and I know that my future is in eternal glory with him!
Jesus took my sins and failures, and made them his own when he died on the cross. He loved me so much that not only did he want an eternal relationship with me, but he was willing to die in order to make that happen.
“You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.” – Psalm 139:5
So whilst I’d have quite liked my time at university to have finished in a more positive manner, I am not afraid of what the future holds. I know that Jesus loves me more than I can possibly imagine, and I know he walks with me down every path – rocky or otherwise.
Sure, I’m going to have to learn how to manage my expectations and discover what stimulates my mind, but the one person whom I can never let down is Jesus because he already knows all of my weaknesses and stumbling blocks. In fact, he knows exactly what lies in store for me – how exciting is that?!
My plan now? I’m going to give my brain a rest. I’m taking a week’s holiday to Normandy with some friends, and when I return I’ll weigh up my options. I think the Lord is presenting me with several doors of opportunity, and I would appreciate your prayers as I seek his will in discerning which one to open.
If you made it this far, thank you for reading this testimony. I never intended for it to be this long, but once I started writing I just found I couldn’t stop.
*4 weeks later, in fact!