I was raised in Burnley. Apart from my teachers, I didn’t know anyone who had ever been to University. I didn’t even go to Manchester until I was 17 and that was just for a shopping trip. Apart from family holidays and day trips in fact, I’d never stepped outside my small town. Books were my way into another world.
Yet somehow, the idea of University had taken hold in our family. My Dad spoke of it for as long as I could remember. I was going to be the first. His daughter was going to go to University. I remember knowing I was going before I even knew what it was. Without my Dad, I wouldn’t have even heard of it. My Mum, who’d left school at 14 to work in the mill repeatedly said “Get an education. Don’t be like me!”
In my secondary school, only six of us went on to do A Levels. Others took vocational courses at college or went on to YTS (Youth Training Schemes). Many have grown up to have successful jobs in lots of different areas. They’re happy. I’m not writing to diminish their choices. Professions and further study didn’t interest them.
By the time I was 18, I was wavering. Did I want to go? I went through the UCAS process reluctantly. I was scared. Not sure about what it would entail. I’d talk to some of my teachers. They assured me it was great – a chance to grow, mature, see wonderful things. The cities I applied to were largely based on their own experiences of London, Cardiff, Hull, Birmingham… My Dad dutifully drove me around the country and I settled on London. There were squirrels in the garden.
I didn’t study hard at Uni. I was one of those irritating people who could churn out an essay quickly and do well. But I read a lot. And I got involved in politics. I marched and campaigned, attended NUS conferences, learned to speak up and out. I would walk from West Hampstead into town, right down to the river, stopping at Regents Park, The British Museum, passing through the National Gallery. I remember some days, standing, looking at the history of it all and welling up. Debbie, from Burnley – here. The walk would take me all day. I’d sit by the river in one of the greatest capital cities in the world and read my book. On hot, sunny days, after a dip in the Hampstead Ponds, I’d sit under a tree, reading Austen, Hardy, Jackie Collins… whatever. And I’d feel joyful.
I learned to love. I learned to lose. When my boyfriend beat me black and blue, I was able to put 200 miles between him and me. And go home to Lancashire. And I was a different person. I decided I wanted to teach. I wanted others to have what I had.
Over the past 25 or so years, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve talked to pupils about University life or about what London is like. Or other places. Because once you get confidence in one city, you want to visit more. I’ve taken so many trips – kids who’d never stepped out of Oldham – walking them through London from Museum to the Royal Court Theatre with confidence and excitement. But also to Amsterdam, Paris, Prague, Warsaw and to concentration camps, museums, war graves, galleries, planetariums, theatres, forests, castles and gardens. Because I knew. I knew that every experience was growing their minds, stretching their view of what life could be…
I had a wobble when I was 18 about going to University. For a while, I tentatively talked to my Dad about maybe working instead. I was scared. I knew I could maybe train to be an accountant in his firm – perhaps take over from him. But my heart wasn’t in it. I knew he’d worked his way up from nothing – that having a child take over from him would make him (almost) as happy as having one who went to University. But I didn’t want to be an accountant.
I thought about other jobs. Had a teaching apprenticeship been available to me, I may well have taken it. I could have stayed there, with shopping trips to Manchester a regular treat. I’d probably have been happy. I may still have been a ‘good’ teacher – in terms of caring, being good at imparting knowledge, preparing kids for tests. But I’m not sure I’d have been in a position to offer to my students the world view that I now have. I’m not sure I’d have been me.