Getting schooled

They say you never fully escape your schooldays; as is often the way with received wisdom, they’re probably right. That vague feeling of dread settling in the deep of your belly every Sunday night, still, years later, even decades after leaving school: you don’t shake that. Mostly it’s unnoticed, but the viscera never completely forget.

School is possibly the greatest formative influence on anyone’s life, especially (and self-evidently) with regard to education. What you’ve learned, what you recall, what you know, and how all of this stuff comes together over the stretch of a lifetime to create, in large part, the person you are.

So it was unexpected, even strange, for me to realise that my schooling has had such little impact on me. Notwithstanding some 18 years of formal education, in some ways I’m almost an autodidact.

Despite attending classes and taking exams up to the age of 21 and degree-level, with a brief coda in Art & Design tagged on, I’m pretty much self-taught in the ways that matter most.

I can barely remember what modules I did for my degree in English and History, never mind the actual subject matter. I hazily recall a course on the Cuban Missile Crisis in third year; definitely did a black American literature module.

I’ve fond memories of studying Restoration comedy in second year – or was that third year too? – mainly because the lecturer (name forgotten) was a charming, boisterous, rudely funny man, resembling something from Restoration comedy himself.

The subject matter, sadly, only endures in atomised bits of knowledge, snippets of poetry misquoted, random memories of writing essays in the Boole Library. The bulk of it is gone, poof, like a magic trick.

And most of what was learned before that, in school, is long vanished also, except for the educational rudiments: times tables, grammar and punctuation, capital of France, longest river in the world, and so on. The building blocks are solid, alright, but the rest of the house has turned to dust.

This either suggests I’ve got a terrible memory – a possibility – or I wasn’t really “educated” in a deep sense. I was told things and remembered them well enough to pass exams and secure my degree. But I didn’t, it seems, fully engage with any of it; I was a passive sponge, not an active drinker from the font of knowledge.

I never particularly liked school; Churchill was right, with that line about only bores and bullies enjoying those days. College was a blast, but the courses themselves were tedious, constrained, overly ideological. The rich historical past and richer literary heritage were calcified, bled dry of life; they sucked all the joy and excitement out of reading.

So I didn’t read much at all, until my early twenties. Then, presumably because I no longer had to, I suddenly wanted to: read for pleasure and intellectual exercise, knowledge and insight, distraction or a guide to living.

I’ve read voraciously ever since – I honestly think, no exaggeration, that I couldn’t at this stage live without it. It’s as though that thirst for education, in its broadest sense, rises again in the gorge once you’re freed of those formal parameters.

So virtually everything I’ve read and remembered – everything that’s changed me on a profound level, stayed in my mind, or woven its way into the intellectual and emotional construct that is “me” – has been done on my own time.

Most Don DeLillo novels, the finest oeuvre in modern fiction; most Anthony Burgess, perhaps the finest of all. Continental greats like Calvino, Schnitzler, Moravia, Koestler, Hesse. Grass’s Tin Drum, the century in reduction; Orwell’s 1984, religiously reread annually. A philosophical tradition of millennia, from stately Marcus Aurelius to life-affirming Camus; I’ve even manfully wrestled Hegel (he won on a knockout). Books on genetics, cosmology, neuroscience: incompletely understood but gripping on an almost molecular level. Ballard, Zamyatin, James Ellroy, Philip Dick. Foucault’s Pendulum, Resurrection Man, Neuromancer. Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Christopher Potter’s You Are Here, possibly the most wondrous thing I’ve ever read, a love-poem to life, the universe and everything.

There’s a lesson in all this (appropriately enough, sez you). Although they can feel insurmountably massive at the time, life doesn’t end with the Leaving, or any other big exam. For some of us, that’s when it’s just getting started.


  • First published in the Sunday Times, September 2013

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