At 14 I decided I wanted to go to university, the first person in my immediate family to feel this way. But we knew a few friends with the right connections, so they got hold of some battered prospectuses for me to have a look at. Firstly, I enjoyed the picture of the pigs on the page about Natural Sciences, and secondly, all the courses I liked the look of were labelled ‘Bachelor of Arts’. So I concluded I should take Art GCSE, and then A-level, despite not being suited to either one.
By the time I worked out that roughly half of all undergraduate courses were also called Bachelor of Arts, and studying Art as a discrete subject was nowhere near a requirement for any of the ones I was interested in, I was months into my A-levels. Had any of the project briefs been ‘Just draw a load of old shit’, maybe I could have done alright. But there was this insistence on direct observational drawing, which I lacked skill in and was bored by, and also a demand for quantity combined with quality, which I never delivered. I drew a few of the school’s cows – so Essex – and some ornate gravestones at the big church in town. For the final assignment, I twattishly picked a topic called something like ‘mythical beasts’, which immediately raised the practical problem of how I was going to find any fucking dragons to draw.
As a token gesture towards giving a shit, I arranged a trip to a nearby zoo, which had some lizards (that’s dragons covered), and some wolves (werewolves – they’re in the bag). I wanted some sketch material for vampires as well, but you just need people for those, and them’s all over the place. D and I packed a lunch and made the journey cross-country, borrowing an uncle’s Ordnance Survey maps. It would have been more time-efficient to get the bus or a lift off of a grown-up, but that would have meant more hours at the zoo, and therefore more drawing time.
Miles out of town, on one of the many winding country roads, we found a sign announcing the border of Essex. Twenty metres away there was another for Cambridgeshire. Where, then, was this space between them? Essex starts here, and Cambridgeshire starts all the way over there. It’s not Hertfordshire, and it certainly can’t be Suffolk. There’s no litter or people with webbed fingers.
Pausing to look down at this unexpected tarmac of the people, the spirit of our colonial ancestors suddenly pumped through our veins, and we claimed this no-man’s land as our own. Photos were taken, grand conquistador poses struck, fists clenched in symbolism of our land grab, imperialist feet planted astride the white lines etched on the smooth virgin surface. Whose street? OUR STREET!
It’s possible if we hadn’t spent so much time dicking about with our newly-taken empire, we’d have got to the zoo earlier, I’d have got more photos, gone on to do more drawings, and not utterly wanged up that extremely important assignment. But I think this is one of those cases where in every possible timeline and alternate reality, they all end up with me submitting a limp handful of sketches of poorly rendered creatures, and a papier-mâché bas-relief of a dragon on a pile of gold coins, of which passing critics would say, ‘My six-year-old could do that. Not the one that’s good at art, though. The one with no hands who I’ve kept locked in the cellar since birth. Fuck me, that kid’s a talentless loser. I might sell him for parts’.
Since Curriculum 2000, anything lower than an E grade at A-level gets a U, meaning ‘Ungraded’. For my 1997 result, I had an N, falling between a U and an E, meaning ‘No grade’. This was somehow different, in a way which was never explained to me. The countrywide curriculum changes which came with the new millennium had a number of problems, but dropping the N grade was a good move.
Because AS levels are a stand-alone course lasting only a year, it’s now just half the tragedy it used to be if someone ends up studying the wrong thing. Had I been able to drop Art, I would have done, but even though my first year wasn’t even over, I had the choice of either continuing on to the end or dropping out of school entirely. I picked the first one, the resultant N foreseeable long before it was printed on my results paper. And it’s to this level of consumer choice we’re now returning, as AS levels are facing execution in coming academic years.
it looked a lot like nothing like this
Parents evening is like a night of speed dating, where one side of the table doesn’t realise the other is thinking it’s like a night of speed dating, and the other side is really glad it isn’t a night of speed dating for around 98% of the people they get teamed up with.
Given the 16+ age of the students, we don’t get a high percentage of parents coming in for a chat about their tinies’ progress. And out of them, most are the keener ones who’ve made the keener children, and all I have to say is ‘Keep it up, yeah? Exams coming, bit more effort, you’ll be alright, thanks bye’. Meanwhile, I’ll be speculating on the relationship dynamics of the couples or singles who’ve turned up, and/or mentally trying to match up bits of parents’ heads to that of the children they’ve created.
There’s an institutional fear of the Aggressive Parent, and the teachers are typically placed in rooms with at least one co-worker, presumably in case things kick off. I don’t know how much good any of them would be if plastic chair legs started being pulled off for use as cudgels, so maybe it’s for future witness-for-the-prosecution eventualities rather than their streetfighting skills.
In school catchment areas with a bit more life to them, it’s possible teacher-on-parent death matches happen more frequently, but the most I’ve had to deal with over the years in my leafy cultureless backwater is some grumpy demands for an explanation as to why their child isn’t doing as well as we imagined they would. They’re very clever, you know. They did really well at GCSEs. Their art project was particularly impressive. The dragon scales were so beautifully crafted.
My advice to you, less experienced teachers, is just to remember who’s got the upper hand here. Admittedly, they may have known this student their entire lives, but you’ve read at least one book cover to cover without even checking if there was a film adaptation of it starring Adam Sandler. Use your cultural capital, teachers. All you’re dealing with here is a bunch of oafs who were so lacking in proper hobbies they thought they may as well give it a shot at creating an entire person out of tiny bits of themselves. But you probably know how to use semi-colons, or possibly even understand what quadratic equations are actually for. So stand tall and just tell them their kid’s got a stupid face, and the reason they’ve got a stupid face is because they’re stupid. If things get a bit fistpunchy after that, run behind the Classical Civilisation teacher you’re sharing the room with. They’ve got your back.