Letter about my short happy life


The occasion of my father's expressing disapproval of the way I was working at school was probably during one of the first two terms of my third year at the convent, which was when I started positively to enjoy life and to average A+ instead of A.†† I should have been more worried than I was;within a year everything positive had been knocked out of my life, and six or nine months later my life had been made seriously negative.†† But at the time my father's disapproval did not concern me.†† The educational system being as it was, if someone could get something out of working at it as hard as possible, they had a right to do so and could not be prevented - or so I thought.


But before my happy life was destroyed, it became happier still.†† My father returned from an interview with the Reverend Mother to say that she was proposing to put me up a year, into the Lower Fifth.†† In retrospect I wonder at my father's agreeing to this.†† It is a sinister possibility that he was aware, as I was not, of forthcoming legislation that would prevent the taking of the School Certificate before a certain age.†† So that I would not be able to take it with my new form, and perhaps he did not mind me spending more years in a higher rather than a lower form.†† He made the announcement to me and my mother with a dramatic solemnity, as if it were a portentous development in his eyes, and perhaps that was a bad sign.†† If it had been the kind of opportunity he wanted me to have, would he not have sounded more cheerful and matter of fact?


Of course I was overjoyed and agreed with my best air of sensible understanding that I would resist any temptation to work too hard in attempting to catch up with the girls in my new form.†† I always did agree with such things, regarding them as social noises which headmistresses felt it incumbent upon themselves to make.


My father was wrong and I was right about working hard, I thought.†† He does not understand life very well.†† One must take the opportunities one has as hard as possible, without second-guessing them, and they lead onto other opportunities which are better.


When I moved up into the new form there was only about a term to go before the end of the school year.†† I wonder whether this timing was deliberate on the part of the Reverend Mother, designed to ensure that I would cause no embarrassment by displacing the top girls in the end of year exams, or whether she had only just heard of the pending legislation about the School Certificate.


The girls in the new form had no doubt been carefully prepared by the Reverend Mother and were very nice to me.†† I found them a lot more interesting as personalities than the younger girls I had just left and there was a lot more conversation with them than there had been in the lower form.


My father took no interest in my work in the new form, beyond pointing out to me the most important chapters in the chemistry textbook.†† This was slightly helpful, but I would not have been much delayed in grasping the essentials of chemistry if I had read through the book from the start.†† I got full marks for my first chemistry homework; all I did wrong being to use tables of atomic numbers that were correct to more places of decimals than was necessary.


Rather to my surprise, I found I was getting high marks in almost every subject from the start, and it was exhilarating to pick up a year's work more or less overnight in one subject after another.†† I started to realise how to pick up the essentials of a new topic very quickly; confronted with this sort of challenge my mind went into overdrive in a way that it never had while plodding through the tedious routine of work in the lower form.†† There was a test on the poems of Catullus;I borrowed a notebook containing the translations, read the poems through in a couple of evenings, and came top of the test.


The end of year exams were approaching;could I come top?†† I was at least equal top in most subjects, but I thought the best girl in the form was a bit better than I was at Latin, although I was gaining on her with every lesson.


The exam results started to come back;there were only a few still unknown and it was almost certain that I would be top overall, unless my nearest competitor had done terribly well, and I had done terribly badly, in the remaining subjects.


Then it transpired that there had been some cheating in the Latin exam;too many girls had known the meaning of words which the mistress was sure they had never encountered in their reading, and several admitted to having looked at the vocabulary at the end of the book of unseens, which they had been told not to do.


You might think it would have sufficed if the translation from Latin was ignored and the marks based on the rest of the exam, but no.†† The entire Latin exam was scrapped;no one would ever know the marks.†† After some time for reflection, during which the nuns perhaps perceived this as an opportunity to prevent the embarrassment of the girls who had been in the habit of coming in the top places, it was announced to the form that, in view of their disgraceful behaviour, the whole end-of -year exam would be cancelled.†† The marks would never be given out on the remaining papers, and no placings would appear on the end of term reports.


Nevertheless, my report acknowledged my 'remarkable achievement' in coming top, so I felt only slightly cheated out of a triumphant climax.†† And that slight sense of disappointment vanished altogether when the Reverend Mother proposed that I should take the School Certificate in the Christmas term, the last time I would be able to do so before new legislation imposing an age limit of sixteen.†† At last, I thought, a real exam that could not be taken away from me; infinitely preferable to class exams which counted for nothing, however brilliantly one might do in them.


My father transmitted, as usual, the Reverend Mother's proviso that I was not to work for the exam, and as usual I sensibly agreed, but I was not by any means masochistic enough to deny myself so joyful a treat.†† The preparation time was just right;long enough to cover every syllabus thoroughly, but not so long that the work could become tedious.


I had arrived now at a life of perfection;I saw now very well what went into the taking of exams, and once I had taken this one, I would prepare for some more

at the same ideal tempo.†† The problems of my life were all behind me;continuous illumination and intense activity lay ahead.


I thought that I was starting this exam-taking rather late;I could have been doing this years earlier.My parents had been stupid about it, I thought, not yet suspecting that they had adopted a deliberate policy of not letting me do things before the 'normal' age for doing them.†† But it was not too late, I thought. ††I was still young enough for it to be slightly exceptional, and so long as I wasted no more time I would be able to clock up enough exam-taking to constitute an adequate assertion of my exceptionality.


I was profoundly satisfied with the suitability of my position, ands the perfectly wonderful life that now lay ahead.


But my father, usually so uninterested in my education, was showing signs of agitation and making heavy weather of the situation.†† He was working out how I could be helped to prepare for the exam.†† But officially, I wasn't supposed to prepare at all.†† It was surmised that I would pass without any further preparation.†† I was only working to please myself, so what was he worried about?†† He would read Macbeth with me, he announced.†† (This was the set book for the English exam. )†† Well, he could if he liked;I knew he liked Shakespeare, but he didn't have to if it was any trouble to him.††


I was perfectly capable of reading Macbeth myself and I knew from recent experience that I could get high marks on a set book in any language by going through it once.


Then he started pedalling off on his bicycle to find teachers who would do Latin with me.†† Well, I thought, he can find out if he likes, but it isnít necessary.†† I can do Latin perfectly well on my own.†† All the teachers he asked refused, saying I should not be 'pushed', and I thought nothing of it.†† It had not yet occurred to me how dangerous it was that he was attracting everyone's attention to the fact that I was apparently seeking help with preparing for an exam for which I was not supposed to do any work.†† And, furthermore, an exam which I was taking before the 'normal' age and in which I was going to do spectacularly well.


At an early stage my father had made some enquiries about how much I knew on the various papers, which had apparently convinced him of my ability to pass them, but now he returned to a more exhaustive analysis of how many questions I could answer on each paper.†† Paper by paper, he concluded that I would probably get a distinction.†† This crystallised my own impression that I would be able to do as well as possible and increased my zeal to get on with it.†† But, strangely enough, his realisation that I was likely to do a lot better than merely passing each paper seemed to disquiet him.†† His enquiries into the state of my knowledge had been punctuated by gestures and exclamations of impressed amazement that I should have learnt so much in only one term in the Lower Fifth, but perhaps this emotional response had contained an element of shock.It seemed that he had found the situation more acceptable when he was assuming that I would scrape through the exam unspectacularly, simply to evade the future restrictions of the legislation.


It was not long before he started to produce arguments against my taking the exam, starting with ' Now I see that you are likely to get distinctions, doesn't it seem a pity to risk not getting a distinction on one paper by taking the exam prematurely, instead of in three years' time?'


Of course I replied to this in no uncertain terms, as to all his subsequent objections, that I was sure it was absolutely right to take this exam, and his reasons for suggesting not taking it were irrelevant.


He embarked on fresh bicycle expeditions, but now he came back from them, not only with refusals from teachers to give me special lessons, but with suggestions that I should not take the exam at all.†† This horrified me: I had thought of his excursions as silly and unnecessary, possibly resulting in some tuition which I would accept if it materialised, but the last thing I wanted was any expression of doubt about the taking of the exam.


I tried very hard to induce him to stop his agitations and leave me to get on with the work.†† I still did not think he could prevent me from taking the exam; he could not produce any argument against it that had any validity and I would keep on rejecting them.†† My mother showed her solidarity with him and hostility to me by absenting herself whenever an argument took place.†† Subsequently she was able to disclaim responsibility by saying that she had left it to him, thinking he knew more about education than she did.†† She had appeared in the past to have a bit more psychological insight than my father, and a bit more sympathy with me.†† I imagine she might have found it more difficult than he did to feel justified in overriding me by opposing me in something which I clearly wanted so much.


I kept concluding arguments with my father and returning to my deeply absorbing and inspirationally exciting preparations for the exam.I remember crouching over Caesarís Gallic Wars, book VI, scowling hard at my father to make him go away and let me get on with it.He was hovering anxiously by the doopost, looking as if he wanted to start arguing again.I knew what he wanted to say.I hadnít read this book before, had I?I didnít know what every single word meant without looking it up, did I?I couldnít account for every ending and construction at first sight?But I wasnít bothered; I would do all right when the time came, just so long as I was left alone for long enough to study it page by page.


But my father would not give up, and my life turned into an increasingly vertiginous alternation between a day or two of preparation so concentrated that I lost all sense of external perspective in focusing on the structures of ideas that my mind was producing, and hours of argument in which I was required to consider the taking of the exam in relation to every conceivable factor: my age, my sex, my physical strength, what people would think now and in twenty years' time if I failed to get a distinction in one subject by one mark.††† And gradually my father was presenting his case more and more as if it was not up to me to reject his objections to my taking the exam, but up to him to decide by taking advice from other people what was the 'right' thing to do.†† Still, he found it impossible to extract from me any expression of agreement to not taking it.


Finally, as a last resort, he stopped producing the sort of arguments which he would really have liked me to accept and produced instead an argument designed to appeal to my motivation, even though he did not like me being motivated in that way.†† 'If you donít take the exam, ' he said, ' you won't have to waste your time doing elementary work any more.††† You will be able to go straight on to more advanced work.'.


By now I was finding the constant alternations of perspective stressful, and I thought of ' more advanced work' in terms of taking a more advanced exam in the shortest possible time.†† So I thought that if I agreed to this I would be able to shift my exam taking drive to taking the Higher School Certificate and since he was proposing this, once I had shifted my drive to this new objective, my father would leave me alone to get on with it.†† I still did not want to shift my objective in this way;I was now so thoroughly in focus on the School Certificate that that was what I wanted to take before proceeding to other exams, whether it was elementary or not.


I gave way only because of the continuing strain of never being left alone to get on with the work for more than a day or two at a time.†† Some days later my father revealed that the new legislation affected not only the School Certificate but also the Higher School Certificate.†† By not taking the School Certificate at Christmas I would be debarred from taking any exams at either level until I was sixteen in nearly three years' time.†† My father produced this piece of information as though he had only just discovered it, but it is quite possible that he had known this to be the case when he tempted me with 'more advanced work'.


I stopped getting anything out of life quite accurately on the day it was decided that I was not going to take the exam, and I stopped working for it.†† This broke my relationship with my education and I was never able to restore it.