A university in London, one I can’t remember the name of, is running an advertising campaign at the moment called ‘Ambition is contagious’.
It wont stop resonating. From listening to Mary Rand talk about her winning the gold medal in the long jump in 1964 igniting the aspirations and expanding the expectations of the rest of the Olympic team to listening to Euro 2012 commentators talk about the England team as a family, this statement wraps itself around and inside many situations. Work being the obvious one. If you are sat inside the collective expectation of changing public services forever, the expectation of success, whether you like it or not, is probably tied quite closely to the collective expectation of success. GDS aspires to deliver and change. It could be argued, I suppose that entering that environment means the expectation is contagious.
But it is something far more personal inside me which has attached itself to this statement and become a ringing little bell in the back of my mind.
I am accidental. Or, rather, my education is accidental. And I believe, very fiercely indeed, that that is quite… wrong at the lowest level and perhaps concerning at the highest. So in order to explain I am afraid I must go backwards in order to go forwards. And as usual I might be accidentally brutal, and as usual I expect no sympathy, no sentences with the word ‘poor’ within to be aimed at me, but instead I expect you to pay particular attention to the very last paragraph. You can jump there, but you may not understand the visceral irritation which has led to that point.
We were poor. Poverty line, quite literally penny left in the purse at the end of the week, needing sometimes to buy bread on credit at the local corner shop poor. Our house was not falling down. We had an inside toilet. The door locked. Damp did not run down the walls. But by contrast to most of the people I have mixed with since the age of 18, it was difficult, harsh and sometimes painful. To this day I cannot bear to be hungry. I panic if I have no food in the house. I dread receiving letters because of what they may contain and I fear unexpected phone calls even though I know I owe no one a thing. I own little because you cannot repossess something I do not own, and I spend a lot more lightly than most other women my age. I wear clothes until they are broken, shoes until they simply cannot be reheeled any more.
I spend money on experiences because experiences are beautiful and you cannot remove them from me. They are mine. And perhaps when you have had nothing new, no new clothes, no new books, no new games, when Xmas presents have been returned to shops and not replaced, when Xmas trees have been wheeled from the loft way past their best, when joy has not been brought from things but instead from escape, you are wary of becoming attached to things, and perhaps never learned to see the point of doing so.
In retrospect, perhaps, the cold I remember is not as cold as perhaps I felt it was, but Reynauds means cold is not skin deep, but literally blood deep and the gnawing insistence of your body craving warm on a morning with icicles formed inside the windows is something I will never forget.
It is hard to aspire to anything within this. It was not accidental that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs resonated deeply with me on being taken through it in my HR module at university. If basic needs are not satisfied, it is very hard to concentrate, never mind aspire. You can’t see anything to aspire to. You can’t see a way out. You can’t perceive of a life which is not as it is right now when you are young, because all there is is today, and tomorrow may as well be next year for all you can comprehend. I did my homework in the way one does a su-doku puzzle. Methodically, quickly, efficiently, and with a complete lack of emotion, except the simple pleasure of completing something.
I was ‘young and gifted’. For everyone else this meant books and learning aids and being stretched as far as possible. There was no room for this in our house for a number of reasons and money was perhaps the least of them but that is the easiest thing to focus on. People can understand a lack of money, it is simple. You cannot have things. You cannot have more than 1 pen, 1 pencil, 1 rubber and 1 ruler. You cannot grow out of things, either physically or mentally. There is no space to.
So school gave up. Especially when mum stopped attending the meetings that they called in the evening which she could not get to because there were no buses and we had no car. Buses in rural Somerset did not run in the evenings, back then. Taxi? Yes, of course, the family would go out with food for a night in lieu. School was a 30 mile round trip away.
And so we come to the point, the reason for painting a somewhat bleak picture which misses out peoples capacity for endurance and for finding the light inside the small things, of watching caterpillars and bees, of knowing the seasons as they turned and passed, of the brief conversations with intellectual equals and the quiet joy of racking up the A’s.
My mother didn’t know what on earth to do with me. Her family were not educated, my mother left school at 15 with one O Level in English. I didn’t know what to do with me either. My GCSE predicted grades were so far off the mark of what I actually got that even college was looking unlikely and the Sixth Form washed their hands of me, making it very clear I was not A level material. As it turned out I did okay, considering a parental split 1 week before my first exam but as it happens: ‘ambition is contagious’.
At this point, due to parental splits, we moved, from a village of 300 people where in the evenings there was exactly zero other female children in the same year as me, to a town which contained my best friend. And perhaps, no disrespect to Hannah who was a life saver in more ways than perhaps even she will ever realise, her parents.
I am sat right now, where I am sat, typing this, because of my best friends parents. Mum was a supply teacher at local primaries and had, in fact, taught me at my primary school for a few weeks many years before. Dad was a police officer in the local child protection unit. It was entirely an accident, a twist of fate that we moved when we did to where we did and yet what followed was two years of utter and complete life shaping, aspiration changing fun.
You see, there was never any conversation between us about whether I would go to university. No. There was just the assumption that I would, in the same way that there was the assumption that their son and daughter would. Because that is what everyone in their family did. They succeeded. At whatever they decided that they wanted to do, they succeeded. They simply worked hard, paid attention, found something they believed in, that they did because they loved and they succeeded. And you know what? It rubs off, that attitude. It sinks in. Not straight away – in parallel to this I was acing every single module in my National Diploma in Business and discovering that I was doing so because my brain worked differently and came up with different solutions to everyone else, not despite it. Yes, I got marked down in English Lit for having the audacity to have an emotion evoked by Shakespeare that was not mentioned in the Cliff notes. Quelle surprise.
So the year I was 16 was the year I accidentally got ambition. I got aspiration. Like someone popping a blue pill in front of me, slowly but surely I decided it might be worth taking. That life could be different, that being smart was okay, reading books was fine, teaching myself everything was also fine and catching on quick was a positive luxury in life. I got a part-time job in a local supermarket stacking shelves, worked 12 hour days quite happily, threw 6 packs of 2 litre bottles of soft drink around all through a very hot summer and discovered I could play well with others and I also could work very very very hard indeed.
But it was accidental. And it makes me angry. Not for me. I’d have noodled my way ‘here’ eventually, where here is mostly happy, mostly succeeding, mostly confident and mostly intensely curious about just about bloody everything that exists in the entire world. I’m fine.
But somewhere, out there, are a couple of thousand kids who are not. Who can’t see past tomorrow and don’t know life could be different. Who can’t see the point of using their brain because they don’t understand that a) it’s okay to get ahead by using your smarts and b) yeah it’s not cool now but later, much later, it will be about the coolest thing on the entire earth to just ‘get it’. They’re being bullied and getting miserable. They’re becoming detached from the education system because it doesn’t understand them (or their parents) and their apparent lack of interest (or their parents). They can’t flex the system to make it better, because you can’t hack the school system to make it work better for you. They can’t afford books and it’s not cool to go to the library. They don’t have internet access in the evening so they can’t learn the entire world all at once and see the potential that might be out there.
They’re locked. In a box. And I can’t stand the idea that the only thing which will get them out of that box is the accidental confluence of coincidences which might mean they cross paths with someone for whom the box simply isn’t there.
Ambition is contagious. But I do not believe that ambition should be accidental. So, I think I’d like to spend some time thinking about how I can tip the scales, how I can rewire the paths, how I can intercede into inevitability, how I can reroute and how I can break those boxes.
I abhor the idea that social mobility, which is what I am talking about, is accidental. I abhor even more the idea of social engineering. But in order for those people who are smart and young and smart, to not end up with convictions due to boredom, or worse, I believe it is worth devoting some time and attention to. So, if you’re reading this, expect me to come calling in a few years time. Expect me to come asking some difficult questions. Because as time passes I become more determined to quit talking and get doing.