Google Analytics

Tuesday, 1 November 2022

Weekend in College

(New month old post: first posted 23rd September, 2015)

You been tellin’ me you're a genius since you were seventeen,
In all the time I've known you, I still don't know what you mean,
The weekend in the college didn't turn out like you planned,
The things that pass for knowledge, I can't understand.
It was as if Steely Dan’s phenomenal ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ was aimed directly at me, cutting through the pretentiousness to the stupidity beneath. It was actually four months but might just as well have been a weekend for all the good it seemed to do. With the anticipation of arrival smothered in a blanket of disillusion, I detested myself as much as the subject of Becker and Fagen’s song.

City of Leeds and Carnegie College

It was the first of two attempts to escape accountancy. After four mind-numbing years, I decided it was not the career for me, and applied to train as a science teacher. You needed five G.C.E. Ordinary level passes, and to have studied your specialist subjects to Advanced level. In other words, you did not actually need to have passed the Advanced level. That was me exactly. I didn’t tell them about the failed accountancy exams.

It beggars belief that you could become a Secondary years science teacher with nothing better than weak Ordinary level passes in your specialist subjects. They should have told me to go away and re-sit Advanced Levels and reapply, assuming I still wanted to. Anything less would be to inflict my limited knowledge and ineffectual learning techniques upon other poor innocents. But you can talk yourself into anything if it’s on offer.  

Around 1960

The City of Leeds and Carnegie College, now part of Leeds Beckett University, was one of the loveliest campuses in Britain. It was built in 1911 in a hundred acres of parkland that once belonged to Kirkstall Abbey. Hares ran free in the woods and each spring brought an inspiring succession of leaf and flower. The magnificent main building dominated a sweeping rectangular lawn called The Acre, lined by solid halls of residence named after ancient Yorkshire worthies: Fairfax, Cavendish, Caedmon, Leighton, Priestley, Macauley and Bronte.

But instead of moving into halls, I remained off-campus in my seedy shared house. It meant not taking full part in the friendly community of cosy study bedrooms around the grassy Acre, and the activities I might have enjoyed. I felt old and awkward. The music drifting from open doorways flaunted the easy friendships within. While the Carpenters sang that they were on top of the world, Steely Dan mocked that “college didn't turn out like you planned”.

The course quickly became tedious. Chemistry classes were interminable, like being back at school. I began to sink into the old malaise and find fault in everything. A biology technician “humanely” despatched rats for dissection by cracking their necks on the edge of a bench. We sampled the vegetation growing on The Acre lawn, my accountant’s brain adding up the data almost before the other students had got out their calculators. In English classes, reading through a play, I realised that some of the others were not fluent readers. It was astonishing. They were training to be teachers for goodness’ sake.

We were sent out on teaching practice. I found myself in a Comprehensive School on a council estate. After two weeks, we were asked to plan and teach a small number of lessons ourselves. I had good ones and bad ones. In the best, observed by the teaching practice tutor, the children used Bunson burners, all happy and engaged in what they were doing. Do they still let them do such dangerous things? Fortunately, no one saw the worst from which I was saved only by the school bell.

The school had none of the liveliness of the grammar school I had attended myself, and staff made no secret of their dissatisfaction. “Here I am with a First in English,” said one, “and I’m supposed to teach kids who have no interest in reading anything at all.” And one of the most inspiring teachers left to open a pottery.

Despite good marks, the doubts grew as I returned to my old employer to earn money over Christmas. The uninspiring course, the mediocrity, the dismal school I’d seen, it was not what I wanted. It was not a substitute for university. More hopes and dreams dashed by another abandoned course. What now?

I was by no means the last to leave. A few went on to successful teaching careers, but many never taught at all. During the year that my course would have finished, the press was rife with accounts of unemployment among new teachers. Despite a chronic shortage just two years earlier, Governments had not planned for the falling birth rate. Around two thirds of newly qualified teachers were unable to find jobs.

One poor girl in London had previously been guaranteed a post, but after staying on at college an extra year to improve her qualifications with a Bachelor of Education degree, she now had to find work outside teaching. Perhaps it was fortunate I did leave.

It was thirty years before I visited Beckett Park again. The passage of time gave rise to quite an unsettling experience. I was haunted by half-remembered faces and snatches of conversation from a particularly intense episode in the past: here is where I usually managed to find a parking space for my Mini; across there is where I resented a tutor telling me I would have greater authority if I stood straighter and walked with shorter steps; that window, in Leighton Hall, is the study bedroom where a girl I seriously fancied took me one afternoon for nothing more than a cup of coffee and a long talk.

Ghosts aside, the place looked much the same. Most of the original Edwardian campus survives, although the internal use has changed, such as residences replaced by staff offices and teaching rooms, with students bused-in from off-campus and financed very differently.

Smoke gets in your eyes. You can convince yourself anything is right when you’re desperate enough.

[The original post was even longer and more over-written than this, but if you are interested, it is still here]

26 comments:

  1. That is a very beautiful College, Tasker!
    You didn't feel as if you belonged there - because you were older, it wasn't stuff you "burned for", and the aim - teacher - was not really what you wanted, as you found out.
    You then already owned a Mini - good, but also a possibility to leave as soon as possible after a lesson.
    I am highly interested in which career you then decided for? And was it a happy choice?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was right not to continue with teaching. The degree in psychology I then took, with lots of ideas, was right. Later, working in academic computing was in some ways similar to accountancy. I may have started in the right thing at the wrong time, but all turned out very well in the end.

      Delete
  2. Sometimes it takes awhile to find our true calling and our niche in the world.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It took me a long time. I'm still not sure whether I've found it yet.

      Delete
  3. Your columns (for I think of them as newspaper columns back in the days when Keith Waterhouse graced The Daily Mirror twice weekly) are full of ghosts I would not be afraid to meet on a snowy night in auld Edinburgh.
    I thought your recent blog *Clients* was brilliant and it was a pleasure to read again Weekend in College; you have the knack of taking us there.
    David Storey taught in rough London secondary moderns while penning his first novel This Sporting Life and writes about it in his posthumous memoirs *A Stinging Delight* which I mean to read again.
    There's a Storeyite world just as there's a Taskerite universe or should that be multiverse ? We have all gone quantum.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It would be great to think I could turn out so much stuff that was that good. I try to tell it as I remember it, but it's not nostalgia.
      I notice Ian Jack died last week, one of the best journalists of his generation. Some of the obituaries accuse him of nostalgia, but like me, he was only trying to understand the changes, not to be back there. Remembering the eighties doesn't mean you'd want to sink the Belgrano again.

      Delete
    2. I did not know that Ian Jack had died.
      *When the Oil Ran Out* is in a book closet in my back bedroom.
      It reminds me of a book in front of me set in Aberdeen.
      *The Oil Rush* by Mervyn Jones (1976) a Quartet paperback.
      Its pages are imprinted with photos by Fay Godwin.
      Grainy black & white portraits of oil men: workers & managers.
      It started me reading Emile Zola's *Germinal*.
      Somehow Zola's prose matches Godwin's brilliant eye.
      Mervyn Jones was a novelist and columnist (New Statesman).
      There are YouTube films on Fay Godwin who had been married to Tony Godwin the celebrated book editor.
      She was a singular woman, someone I'd like to have met.

      As for your own writing, it is as good as Ian Jack's.
      A book on the Eighties is an idea although it will look back too to the Sixties. And before that to 1945 and the Welfare State.

      Delete
  4. All these years later, what is still being talked about here at least? Student literacy and numeracy but something I never noticed when I was young, and I don't think it was an issue, is teacher literacy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, teacher literacy was never mentioned then, I'm sure that we have all come across teachers that should never have been allowed in front of a class. I know that I certainly did in my grammar school, amongst the good and the inspirational there was certainly some dross as well. Alongside a Latin master that could keep 12/13 year olds spellbound we had a dire biology teacher who was out of his depth over the most basic elements of his subject.

      Delete
    2. I certainly would not want to imply that they were all like that at the college, but if it was becoming difficult to recruit because of the expansion of higher education then perhaps the minimum standards were too low. Some of them were training to be sports teachers because the Carnegie College part of the establishment was founded for that.
      More recently, one of my daughter's class teachers was a games teacher and some of the reports she wrote contain spelling and language errors.

      Delete
  5. It seems you had a restless spirit when you were a young man. Nothing felt quite right. You couldn't help it. After all, you didn't choose to be that way. Was it about what was without or what was within?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fair comment. It was from within - gross underachievement as later success on a properly academic degree course proved.
      Wouldn't this have been around the time you graduated into teaching? My course would have finished in 1976 if I'd stayed. Did you see any of the difficulties in finding jobs? I bet your VSO experience was a tremendous advantage.

      Delete
    2. I left university at Christmastime 1977. I had my heart set on a job in London but as it turns out the internal candidate at Fairlop High School got the advertised post. Scrabbling around, I ended up at Dinnington Comprehensive School in South Yorkshire - being appointed the week before Christmas. I had never been to Dinnington before. It was the opposite of La La Land.

      Delete
  6. An interesting post. Thank you for writing so openly about your ups and downs. I never went to college or uni (what is the difference, actually?) but straight to Librarian training after school, and never regretted it even though I have stopped working at the library in 1992. From every job and every course I have taken, I have learned valuable lessons - maybe not always the intended one, but still useful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's me, Meike. Somehow your blog won't let me sign in with my google account even though I am signed in and appear as myself on the other blogs I commented on this morning. Oh well.

      Delete
    2. I don't understad the comment problem, either.
      A very able girl I was at school with became a librarian. I think her degree was in Information Science (or did they come later?).
      I did enjoy my later academic course because of the ideas covered contained, but it strongly practical elements too, such as statistics and evaluating evidence.

      Delete
  7. I'm not at all surprised to hear of prospective teachers being unable to read fluently (or any other words, ha ha), I read the same even today in the newspapers, "qualified" teachers who cannot pass literacy and numeracy tests at grade school levels.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha ha! They say if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. But there are also many very able, dedicated and inspirational teachers in schools. I don't know how they cope. It would destroy me.

      Delete
  8. All those experiences made you the person you are today, which is no bad thing I feel.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think I would change a thing, even though some of it was hard to take at the time. Nothing is ever wasted.

      Delete
  9. You write very eloquently Tasker:...an inspiring succession of leaf and flower.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. I suspect the place has since been badly affected by the massive increase in student numbers.

      Delete
  10. I went back to college in my fifties, and I understand everything that you're saying. I didn't fit either.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The later course I took was more suitable, it felt entirely right despite me being 4 more years older. This first course was completely wrong for me.

      Delete
  11. Steely Dan and The Carpenters...both songs you mentioned came immediately to mind. I could hear them both in my head. (I'm certainly still trying to figure out what to do with myself both personally and professionally!)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Do we ever really figure it out? It is a moving target.

      Delete

I welcome comments and usually respond the same day (unless it looks like you are trying to advertise something).