Updated: Oct 5
Like many people our age we have been juggling between the generations raising teenage children and dealing with an elderly parent at the same time. This has been a year of change. A couple of months ago, my father’s dementia reached a point where he needed to go into care. It was one of the hardest things we’ve had to do but the right thing in terms of his safety. At the same time my daughter has got her grades and is off to Oxford.
A wise theologian once talked about good and bad arriving on parallel tracks...
On a few occasions in recent years I have started the college year by showing students the photo of my dad’s family taken in 1942 and talking about the similarities and differences between me and my father. My dad is the boy in shorts with his mother’s arm resting on his shoulder. He is the 8th of 9 children. My gran would be about 29 in the photo. The first 8 children were born before she was 25. She had one each year from the age of 17 usually around September time - my grandad would have leave around Christmas and I’m sure you can do the Maths. The family grew up in poverty. Grandad, when he returned from the war, was a severe disciplinarian who liked a drink. I never met him; he died in the 1950s and the official version is that he had an accident whilst cleaning his gun but given the effects of the war on mental health, there is a more likely cause.
My dad left school at 14 with nothing to show for his 10 years in education. He was one of those who having failed the 11 plus was effectively written off. His talents were more practical/vocational and he was able to show these talents fully in his DIY projects at weekends. For most of his working life he worked the North Staffordshire coalfields. He was never out of work and always busied himself getting things done on the house or garden in his spare time. He worked far harder physically than I ever will yet probably earned relatively less than I am doing now.
Relatively speaking I have been more fortunate or blessed in terms of some of the opportunities I’ve had compared to my father. It turns out that education and qualifications often do open doors that were closed to good and skilled people such as my dad. For me 3 A levels (in science!) led to a degree (in theology) after a couple of gap years and eventually I stumbled into teaching. One thing has led to another - senior exam board roles and publishing deals in addition to the day job.
My main message to students as they start college A levels is that their college education may well open doors for them that were closed to previous generations. That’s not to say that university is for everyone, it isn't, but the door is kept open.
Actually I am not completely different from my father. I share my dad’s work ethic as well as his energy. Or it may be restlessness - though I am getting better at sitting still! We are both people of effort. I learned the importance of hard work hearing our front door close at 5.30am each morning. Whilst I am not the brightest person in the room, I will make up for it in effort. Over time I have probably punched above my weight. A second key lesson for students - it’s effort over time that matters more than intelligence
You see, there is also a confidence (or cheek) that I share with my dad. When he was well, he was convinced he could fix anything - most of the time he was right. When he lost a factory job in his early 50s he came home, had lunch and then knocked on each door on the industrial estate offering his services. He had a new job by the end of the next day! Perhaps it is a similar get up and go that has led me to put in book proposals and apply for jobs slightly above my station. A similar spirit that led to my daughter applying to Oxford because why not? You never know... May we keep this boldness in the coming years.
So I hope that I can pass on lessons to my children. As I look forward, I worry that we have dealt my daughter’s generation a rather more challenging hand. Compared to us she will have university fees, higher house prices and a raised retirement age. Add in a pandemic and whatever joys Brexit brings - she may have quite liked the right to live or work in one of 28 countries - and, although life may not be as hard as is was for my dad, it is harder than it need be.
Nevertheless there is a value in education and a power in effort. She understands this so I feel sure that all will be well. And I think Grandad will be very proud.