A very slow degree

Academically, my first few years at University were a disaster. My non-existent study habits finally caught up with me. Without the external pressures of high-school teachers watching me and talking to my parents when I tried even less than usual, I went through each university subject with a cycle of just-adequate marks for assignments and failure at exams. I can see now that I was also out of my depth socially; from the country, with no friends at first, and feeling the ostracism of a public school boy, in a University where old money and family connections meant many of my peers arrived there with a whole cohort of friends from their private schools. The small group I became part of were none of those things, drawn together by our efforts to cope with a sense of being outsiders.

Off-campus, I was enjoying many adventures, earning quite a bit of money at various jobs, and becoming close to the woman who became my wife a few years later. But after three years I had only passed three subjects—at this rate it would take me nine years to get an undergraduate degree. I was running out of options with the University.

My father cut off my allowance after two years, but I still earned enough with various jobs to keep a roof over my head, eat and drink well, smoke expensive cigarettes, play billiards, act in amateur theatre, take my girlfriend out and go surfing whenever I wanted to. I even had a car; an ancient Chevrolet that just kept going and going with virtually no maintenance. Outside the lecture rooms I was living the good life; inside my confidence was rock-bottom and I was getting gloomy about my future. It still puzzles me why I was doing so well at every other job I took on; praised for my work ethic even; but as a student I was so lacking in confidence and bereft of any plan to get better marks. Was this the legacy of my father’s constant belittling of me? I guess I’ll never know, and in any case, I’ve always had a fierce aversion to blaming others for my troubles.

At the end of 1966, I was ready to consider anything. Eventually I made a decision not to follow a friend of mine into the merchant marine as a trainee officer, and to go to teachers’ college instead. At that time there was a small allowance for these students, your university fees were paid, and there was a structure not unlike high school for the education subjects. I accepted I needed that structure to have a chance to turn this all around.

At first it was a one bitter pill after another. At 20 I was two or three years older than most of the other students, and much more radical; we didn’t have much in common. I was put on probation after only a few weeks, for being seen smoking in public, hitch-hiking to the college and for wearing rubber thongs instead of proper shoes. At my disciplinary interview I was told that it would be better if I shaved off my beard. The College principal said ‘Most of the men I’ve known who had beards were troublemakers with a chip on their shoulder, and some were outright communists’.

This was 1967, and his days were numbered. By the end of that year, many of the lecturers were smoking, bearded, wearing thongs, swearing and openly debating the value of school education. Scott McKenzies’ ode to hippies, ‘San Francisco’ was like an anthem for a growing minority of staff and students. And the first wave of baby-boomer feminism was coming on like a tsunami, throwing into question all our comfortable assumptions.

Such as the ‘private talk’ the college principal had with us male students. “You have all chosen the best possible career path. Two thirds of the students here are female. Within five years or so, most of them will be off having babies. The demographics mean that there will be a shortage of teachers for the next ten to twenty years. Play your cards right, and you will be the principal of your own school before you’re 30.’ He retired shortly afterwards; just in time to avoid the furious backlash from the women at the college that he so richly deserved.

Ironically though, I had been right to choose teachers’ college. The rigid structure worked wonders for me, and I began to pass every subject. In the middle of the year, I got engaged to be married; that also settled me down and helped me develop some regular study habits. In fact, I don’t think I ever got less than a credit grade in any subject after my engagement, something for which I will be forever grateful to my ex-wife. Acting had been a passion of mine until that time. I loved the stage, and being somebody else for a change. But as the end of year exams drew close, I turned down the offer of the lead role in a Beckett play because I knew I just couldn’t do both things well. The lazy boy from high school was starting to grow up a bit.

I had some scars from those first wasted years at University that didn’t fade easily. Friends from high school had degrees and the well-paid jobs that went with them, while I was still in teachers’ college, boosting my small allowance with odd jobs. At one stage I had lectures from 10 AM until 3 PM. I managed to fit two jobs around that—a very early start sweeping factory floors, and a late shift three days a week driving a taxi. Sometimes I didn’t have time to shower before the morning lecture, so I would have a quick wash in the toilets then sit down and try to stay awake. I still got good marks, by working hard on the weekends and the evenings I wasn’t in the cab. Looking back, it was quite an achievement, but at the time I saw myself as a failure who had to keep running to have some chance of catching up.

After three years at teachers’ college and university I had a Bachelor of Arts, a Diploma of Teaching and the Teachers Certificate that would allow me to practise. It had taken me six years to get a three-year degree, but it was done at last. Typically, my dad got drunk the day of my graduation and didn’t even turn up. Mum was stoic about it, but I could see how hurt she was. He doubled down the next day by telling me that just because I had a degree, I shouldn’t ever imagine that I was as smart as he was. It hurt a bit, but his grip on my self-esteem was weakening. I knew I didn’t have his drinking problem, I knew I was turning into a reasonably dependable worker, and that I had good potential to succeed at higher study. I was coming around to seeing him as an unhappy man who said things that I didn’t need to accept. I had enough on my plate with my own self-criticisms without letting myself be upset by him anymore.

That year, 1969, ended very well for me. Marriage was a great adventure, we had a funky apartment in an old mansion and a great circle of friends. The University was encouraging me to take up a master’s program, and I was offered a job as a part-time tutor in the Politics Department. About to begin my first teaching appointment at a primary school in the Northern suburbs, it was all coming together. The deep dents in my confidence were beginning to ease a little, although they remained a major issue for at least another ten years. I kept defining myself by those school friends who were three years ahead of me because of my slow start, convinced they had some elusive strengths that I couldn’t understand. Objectively, my work career in those years was a great success, enjoyable, fulfilling and well paid, and I did start to believe in myself a bit more. But even in my mid-30s, a besotted parent, and a young Regional Director, the nagging feeling that it could all come crashing down never quite left me. Looking back, it was nearly all wasted worry, wasted time, wasted self-absorption. But there you go—you do the best with the psyche you’ve got.

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