I’m in a reflective mood today, in part due to two things. Firstly, there have been several insightful blogs on my twitter feed this week that have stimulated my thinking juices (such as this and this). Secondly, I’ve spent the last few days putting together some flat pack furniture and repainting my son’s bedroom, and I don’t know about you, but there is something about the rhythmic movement of the paint roller that makes my mind go wondering.
So what is it I have been reflecting on? It’s been an eclectic mix of issues covering the likes of social mobility, racism and privilege. I read Michael Merrick’s account of his working class family roots and the effect upward social mobility has had on his relationship with them. It got me thinking about the changes that have happened to me in my lifetime. Unlike many of the bloggers on my edu-twitter feed, my social mobility trajectory has been downwards, not upwards. Actually, that doesn’t tell the full story.
My father was the son of a shopkeeper in Medina, Saudi Arabia. He joined the fledgling Saudi diplomatic service as a young man and worked his way up. When I was a child, he was a very junior functionary and my early memories of growing up in Geneva (one of his postings) were of a cramped two-bedroom flat and few luxuries. But my father’s star rose rapidly and by the time I was a ten-year old living in London (our next posting), I was getting chauffeur driven to school every day in the embassy Mercedes. I didn’t feel particularly privileged because the private school I went to was full of children far wealthier than me. When I went back to Saudi Arabia during the holidays, I would be invited to visit family friends in houses far grander than ours.
However, over time, we got used to a certain way of living, particularly after my father moved back to Riyadh and was promoted to a position high up in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There were some heady experiences: first class plane travel, accompanying my dad on a business trip to New York, staying in the Waldorf and eating at expensive restaurants. I became used to the fact that my dad was a person of influence and it opened a lot of doors for me. Looking back at this time in my life, I’m struck that all this privilege did not bring me much happiness. Dad was working long hours, constantly on the go, mum was depressed and lonely and the social merry go round was mentally exhausting, constantly having to dress the part and making small talk at cocktail parties.
And then, quite suddenly, this life of privilege ended. My dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 55 and died less than 5 months later. My mum died within a year (of a brain aneurysm or a broken heart?) The big house in Riyadh and the BMW went back to the government and our London house was sold off to pay inheritance tax, with the proceeds split amongst me and my three siblings. I was hardly left destitute, but it was a big come down in lifestyle. And lest you think this is a sob story, let me hasten to tell you that this heralded the beginning of a new and much happier life. A life that finds me revel in contented domesticity, building flat pack furniture and getting paint all over my fingers. A life in which I can find meaning and purpose, working in a challenging school and training as a history teacher.
Now I know that my fairly unusual story may not hold too many lessons for my pupils but if I had to give them any life advice, it would be this. Life isn’t fair. Never has been and never will be, although we can strive to make it fairer. All we can do is make the best of the hand that we’ve been dealt. Money can come and go, just as social status can come and go. But knowledge, once banked in your long term memory, is with you forever. Knowledge will open the door to more knowledge, it will make you wiser and help you to cope with all that life throws at you. So read, learn and work hard. The nature of exams such as GCSEs and A levels is such that there will be winners and losers. If you’re one of the winners, well done and good luck. If you’re one of the losers, this isn’t the end of the road. It never is. There is always something else over the horizon and new opportunities, so don’t give up, just readjust.
What would my advice be to other new teachers entering the profession? Don’t worry too much about social mobility or trying to fix people. Our job is to teach and impart knowledge. If your students leave your classroom knowing more than when they entered, then you’ve done your job.
And that little homily was the result of my wondering mind as I wielded the paint roller back and forth. Best lay off the flat packing and painting in future, I hear you say. No can do. Got to go now and lay the second coat of paint.