As I enter the final stages of my MSC, naturally the question arose: ‘why the hell am I doing this, anyway?‘. I sat with that question for a while, and realised it was a need to prove myself. But to whom?
When I was 30 I was diagnosed with ADHD, and suddenly everything made sense. Not least of which the years I spent at school. The day I left school, I left feeling lost and inadequate, not in the least bit prepared for the ‘real world’. With no GCSE’s to my name, I had a fight on my hands. What was a surprise to me was, it actually panned out quite well. Pursuing vocations that I found interesting, I suddenly thrived. And, over the years I realised I wasn’t in the least bit inadequate. But I’d internalised 14 odd years of school reports that used language that wouldn’t be allowed today.
Phrases like ‘class clown’, ‘doesn’t fulfil his potential’, ‘lazy’, ‘easily distracted’, etc were used over and over again. Perhaps the nicest thing a teacher ever said about me was ‘Sometimes I think your son’s remedial, other times I think he’s the next Einstein’. Being described as ‘the next Einstein’ should have been every parents dream at parents evening, if it weren’t caveated with ‘but I also sometimes think he’s stupid’.
In one instance, a teacher uttered the words ‘Ewan’s naturally bad at maths’. I was 6. So how do you suppose that affected my efforts with maths from that day on? Obviously, I did what was rational with that information, and never put an ounce of effort into maths ever again. What would have been the point? It wasn’t until much later, by the time I’d already left school that I realised no one was ‘naturally bad’ at anything, especially not a 6 year old.
So, it’s fair to say I had every reason to be spiteful towards the education I had. It was at best, poor, at worse actively harmful.
Don’t let schooling interfere with your education. Mark Twain
I have deep insecurities from my school life, I’m constantly desperate to prove I’m not an idiot. From small things such as wanting to shout the correct answers out first when there’s a quiz show on TV, to bigger things, such as doing a Masters in Computer Science.
You might think ‘but why is this a problem, it’s clearly motivating you’. Well, in some sense it’s not a problem, quite the opposite. But in a few important ways, it is a problem. Every victory, every success is not my own. It’s a moment I share with an array of teachers who have likely forgotten I even exist. No victory motivated by spite is ever your own, you share it with those you are trying to prove wrong.
Secondly, failure becomes impossible. Which, again, sounds like a good thing. But it’s inevitable that you will fall short of something from time to time. For most people, that’s just a part of life, something to learn and grow from. But when you’re motivated by spite, failure becomes damning evidence. Oh, so you lost your job? Well, maybe, your year 4 head of year was right when he said you’d never amount to anything. You failed at a maths heavy module? Maybe that teacher was right about you being naturally bad at maths.
The burden of spite becomes crushing in instances where you have failed at something, or didn’t do your best. Failure becomes an unbearable current that undermines your very being.
They say ‘if you’re not failing, you’re not pushing yourself’, which is very true. If your fear of failure is rooted in decades worth of spite, chances are, you will avoid certain situations where you might fail. To ‘play it safe’ so to speak. So asides from being a motivator to some degree, it may also further prevent you from putting your head above the parapet and pushing yourself.
I originally titled this something like ‘dear teachers’, and I also rewrote the entire piece, realising that it read like Alan Partridges auto-biography, in which he uses the phrase ‘needless to say, I had the last laugh’ on every page. Reading back the first draft of this was actually what made me pause and spend a few more weeks thinking about how this spite might not be such a healthy burden to carry after all.
I’m now writing this in an attempt to start letting go of that spite. Just like I was during school, those teachers too were probably doing their best, and making mistakes, as we all do. Instead, I thank them for trying, I thank them for their patience. I know I derailed nearly every class and I know that many of you at least recognised the potential, and tried to get me to see what I was capable of. But the truth is, the format of traditional schooling just didn’t work for me. And I now know why. But, I found my path eventually, and continue to do so.