By Holly Bambury
Degree: Bachelor of Arts (Social Anthropology)
As a teenager, I had the privilege of attending an exclusive all-girls private high school in England. I call it a privilege because there was no denying that I received an excellent standard of education. You only ever needed to glance at the school’s position in the annual league tables in order to gather that.
Nonetheless, I found it a pretty tough place to shine. The school invested heavily in the prestigious A* students, the excelling sports stars and the freakishly talented musicians. Otherwise, they just ‘kind of tolerated’ everybody else.
I was most definitely the ‘everybody else’. Never quite good enough; always lacking; firmly rooted in average. Thus, my motivation to push myself was in short supply.
Shortly before I sat my GCSEs aged 16, I was summoned for a meeting with the principal. “Academia clearly isn’t your thing, and I’m not expecting you to produce decent grades.” She went on to ‘gently encourage’ me to leave school at the end of the year.
I was devastated and lost the will to revise for my exams. It didn’t seem like there was much point in trying any more.
Results day came around, and – hands trembling – I opened the envelope to find I had received 5 As and 4 Bs, in spite of my lacklustre revision. Elation, then disbelief, then relief.
My GCSE grades were still average from the principal’s perspective, but they were not so terrible that she could forcibly eject me from the school, so I stayed. From that point on, it was all about preparing for university. I’d long harboured a secret yearning to study a degree in Fine Art, but, despite my A in the subject, I was ‘never any good’. So, when pressed for an answer about my intended direction, I nervously suggested the idea of Philosophy instead. ‘And what do you hope to do with that?’ they asked with a sneer.
A few months later, I was back in the principal’s office, having a near-identical dress-down to that of the previous year. By this point, I had discovered boys, alcohol, gigs and friends outside of school. I had a job, and I hated the school so passionately that I did not take much persuasion to leave.
For the next two years, I dabbled with various jobs and college courses, not to mention quite a few parties. Finally, aged 19, I decided it was time to get my act together. I was not yet old enough to qualify as a mature student, but I did not have the qualifications to get into uni. Where there’s a will there’s a way, though, right? Right! So I cobbled together the best artwork I could muster, carefully crafted a personal statement, and applied to study Fine Art at various UK universities on the basis of my portfolio.
All five universities offered me an interview, but I could only afford the train fare to one. I went with the first date I was offered, hopped on a train to Manchester, and by the end of the week I had a piece of paper in my hand with a written unconditional offer to study Fine Art.
‘It’s finally my time!’ I rejoiced.
But the saga didn’t end there. With a matter of weeks to go, student accommodation booked, life almost completely packed up, I felt a strange, fluttering sensation in the pit of my tummy. Butterflies, perhaps? Well no, not quite…
That ‘fluttery thing’ is now an exceptionally beautiful and clever 9-year-old boy, and to cut a long story short, I never did go to university and do that art degree. It seems it wasn’t my time, after all. I was unceremoniously booted out of student accommodation once they learned I was pregnant, and strongly advised to defer my studies for at least a year. But by the time that year had passed, I was an exhausted, broke solo mum battling an undiagnosed case of postnatal depression, and studying was no longer on my radar.
I have since met a wonderful guy, settled down into family life, found contentment, moved to New Zealand (yahooo Aotearoa!) and had three more kids. I found it hard (read: impossible) to find employment once the global recession was in full swing, meanwhile my CV grew increasingly unimpressive with each year out of the workplace. I was Just-a-Mum. A heavily dependent, unskilled and uneducated housewife, as far as I could see. If my school principal could see me now, I thought… well, she wouldn’t be surprised.
Over those years, I congratulated all my school friends as they finished their degrees and later embarked upon their careers. I watched my baby sister and my even younger cousins with pride as they followed in their footsteps. I cheered on my partner as he climbed his own career ladder most magnificently. I have always been so happy for everyone and so in awe of their achievements. Never, though, have I shaken the deep, wistful ache in the core of my heart as they all passed me by.
I want that too.
There has always been a reason why it is not yet my time, ever since the day I left school. Too stupid. Too fickle. Too pregnant. Too busy. Too depressed. Too broke. Too busy. Too slow. Too unmotivated. Too undecided. Too many childcare obstacles. Too scared.
In February 2016 I had the experience of very nearly losing my life to an illness, of missing out on my children growing up. It would take a whole other blog post – maybe even a book – to describe the full impact this had on my life perspective. However, to encapsulate it into one very crude summary: I realised life is too short to waste it away thinking “if only” and “someday”.
Someday is now today, and it really is my time now. I enrolled with Massey University last July, two months after getting out of hospital, and took my first tentative steps into higher education. I braced myself for the disappointments and the failures, but they never arrived. Four papers and four A grades later, by Christmas I was beginning to learn what it is like to feel accomplished. Even proud.
My interests have somewhat evolved over the last decade, while in other ways are still uncannily similar. I am now studying a Bachelor of Arts in Social Anthropology and loving every step of the journey. Using my brain for more than housework and parenting is very much like starting out at the gym. Challenging, sometimes painful, but the rewards are out of this world.