During the heated grammar school debate a few months ago, I read a few excellent blogs such as this one, from teachers who were the first in their own families to go to university and how their bright and intelligent mothers had been denied the opportunity to better themselves because of a poor education in secondary moderns. That got me thinking about my own mother and her legacy to me, and I have finally got around to writing my thoughts about it.
I wasn’t the first generation in my family to go to university. My mother was. It was all the more remarkable because of the difficult circumstances of her early life. She grew up in Damascus, Syria, at a time in the early sixties, when women were not generally expected to get a university education. Her father died when she was two, leaving her widowed mother virtually penniless with five children to care for. Her mother eventually remarried but her new husband was not interested in bringing up or funding some other man’s children. And so my mum and her siblings were left to mostly fend for themselves and times were often very hard. She told me once how she would wear two skirts on top of one another in order to fatten her skinny frame up.
In spite of all this, my mum did well at school while having to overcome the handicap of being forced, as a left hander, to write with her right hand. She was also very politically engaged from an early age. Those years in the late fifties and early sixties were full of political turbulence in Syria. This was the time of the disastrous political union between Syria and Egypt and my mum was a vocal opponent of the union, sometimes openly disagreeing with her teachers at school who toed the party line. Somehow, and now I wish she were here today so that I could ask her for more details, she got offered a place to study commerce at Damascus University. Going to university was how she met my father.
He was not a student at the university. In fact, when they got married, my mum was the one with the degree, not my dad. He was from Saudi Arabia but had a Syrian mother and had grown up in Damascus until his late teens when his father had summoned him back to his home town of Medina to help with the family shop keeping business. This did not work out very well and after a falling out, my dad headed to the coastal city of Jeddah to seek his own fortune. As luck would have it, the newly established Ministry of Foreign Affairs was looking for some recruits. My dad sat the civil service exam, passed and entered the diplomatic service.
His first posting was to Franco’s Spain in the early sixties. In Spain, he lodged with a landlady who taught him about social etiquette, dallied with Spanish girlfriends and learned to speak the language fluently. My grandmother was not happy. On every visit home, she tried to pressure him into marrying, putting forward as a candidate the next door neighbour’s daughter. My father was having none of it but as his posting in Spain came to an end and he had to return to Saudi Arabia, he knew that his mother would continue her insistent nagging about him getting married unless he did something about it. He decided to give in gracefully but find a bride of his own choosing.
With this in mind, he said his goodbyes to all his friends in Spain, packed his belongings into his smart new car, and decided to drive down to Syria in one last road trip as a bachelor. On arriving in Damascus, he sought out an old school friend of his and asked if he knew any nice girls he could be introduced to. This old school friend happened to be at university with my mother and immediately thought of her. My father promptly turned up at the university and my mother was pointed out to him from afar. He obviously liked what he saw because he soon presented himself to my grandmother as a suitor for her hand. Now it was my mother’s turn to have none of it. She wasn’t about to give herself to an unknown, uncouth Saudi Arabian. She initially refused to come out of her room to meet him but eventually deigned to do so. One look at him and the rest, as they say, is history.
Following her marriage (in a hand-me-down dress from her older sister’s wedding), my mother left Syria and started her new life as the wife of a diplomat. There was no opportunity for her to find a job and develop a career. In any case, she soon fell pregnant with the first of her four children, each one born in a different country. While my mother settled into a life of domesticity, my father’s star was rising rapidly. He obtained a degree in politics, a master in international relations and even started a PhD at Oxford University though he never had the chance to complete it. He steadily moved up the ranks of the civil service and, two years or so before his untimely death, was made a deputy minister of foreign affairs.
On the face of it, my mother was a conventional stay-at-home housewife but her keen mind was constantly whirring. She taught herself French in our posting in Geneva and then English when we came to London. She read avidly in both of these languages as well as her native Arabic. She followed the news and discussed politics with my dad when he came home from work. But then, as the years went on, things changed. Her children grew up and didn’t need her so much anymore and dad’s work took him away from home far too often to summits and meetings all around the world. All alone in her big house in Riyadh, she got lonely and drifted into depression. When my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 55, she nursed him with utter dedication until the day he died, but then her depression deepened even more. Just over a year later, she died suddenly of an aneurism, a much loved, deeply intelligent but lonely and diminished woman.
How does my mother’s story relate with my decision to enter teaching in my mid-forties? Let me explain.
I am an extremely lucky person. I grew up with loving and supportive parents who encouraged me to make my mark in the world. I was educated at a select private school for girls and went to a Russell Group university. One of my dad’s proudest moments was when I graduated with an MBA. The world was my oyster when I started working as a business consultant. I had grown up watching Joan Collins strut her stuff in shoulder pads on Dynasty, and I pictured myself walking into board rooms and making power deals. The reality was rather different. There were no power deals in board rooms. The work was sometimes interesting, often dull, and all around me were alpha males in suits who were massively better than me at self-promotion. By the time my parents passed away, I knew the business world wasn’t for me and I eventually jacked it in and decided to re-train as a reflexologist and aromatherapist. I wanted to do something that involved daily positive interaction with other human beings and I wanted to feel useful. For a few years, I eked out a living as a complementary therapist. I think I was good at it and it was satisfying though not hugely challenging.
Then my own little thunderbolt happened. I met and married a wonderful man and welcomed my son into the world. Following in my mother’s footsteps, I dedicated myself to my family. We bought an old house that was a bit of a wreck and I spent hours meticulously planning the refurbishment. I immersed myself in happy domesticity but after my son started school, I found myself at a bit of a loose end. I started thinking about resurrecting my complementary therapy career but kept putting it off for inexplicable reasons. A new Netflix membership two years ago saw me lounge on the sofa for hours on end watching one episode after another of popular drama series. Throughout, the memory of my mother kept nudging my mind, reminding me what happens when an intelligent and educated woman wastes her talents away. I don’t think I was depressed but I did lose a lot of my self confidence. I applied for a part time job in the administration of a newly set up local primary school but didn’t even get an interview. I had been so thoroughly de-skilled that even my BA, my MBA and my business experience couldn’t get my foot through the door.
So what saved me? Well, the first nudge I got into teaching was when I found out my son had been placed in the middle ability group in his class. Outrageous! How could my bright and clever son ever be considered to be of middling ability? Why were they streaming five year olds in the first place? Why hadn’t I been told of this? I had never before in my life encountered streaming in practice. The closest I ever came was when, as a teenager, we were divided into 4 “teaching groups” for maths. I hadn’t expected or ever thought that young children in year 1 would be judged on their ability and separated in this way. I was galvanised by outrage. Following a meeting with the deputy head of my son’s school, I scoured the internet for all the information I could find about ability grouping. I bought Carol Dweck’s book on mindset and Alison Peacock’s “Learning without limits”. I encountered blog after interesting blog about education and I read and read and read. I decided to do some extra tutoring with my son at home, and found great satisfaction in seeing his rapid progress once I took his education into my hands.
Then last year, at Christmas, I turned 45. The clock was ticking and I was no closer to finding a way to make my mark on the world. Next day, I happened to read an article about the crisis in teacher recruitment and how there was a particular shortage in secondary teachers. The day after that, I saw an advert on TV encouraging people to get into teaching. Could this be something for me? I sought advice from my husband and siblings and was surprised to find it uniformly positive. “You’d be a great teacher”, they told me, “fantastic idea”, “go for it”. I set about trying to arrange some school experience by volunteering, which was easier said than done. My first day at the inner city academy where I now work was scary and nerve racking. This was a world away from the girls’ school I had attended. I stuck with it though. It has been incredibly challenging at times but I have stuck with it and I know I will go the distance. The alternative, as my mother’s story keeps reminding me, is far scarier.