Lying naked, face down and crying onto the scuffed linoleum of the room I refused to call home, I knew then that University was never going to be a positive experience for me.
I knew then that this thing-something I now take to be a ‘nervous breakdown’- was never going to be the beginning of the end; it was never going to be the lowest point on a road to personal epiphany or glory or intellectual triumph; it was always going to be just that: an eighteen year old boy lying naked, face down and crying tears and snot onto a scuffed linoleum floor.
University was probably the worst time of my life. In the three years I spent there I had a nervous breakdown, ballooned from 14 to 17 stone (in just 8 weeks), and found myself in (minor) trouble with the law.
I think that my schooling prior to University was largely responsible for the inadequacy I felt during my time there. In a (yes-cathartic) effort to ensure that other students don’t experience what I did, I’m going to to outline the reasons (as I perceive them) for my time at University being so stupendously shite, before going on to offer a few suggestions as what teachers and schools can do to better prepare students for the kind of University Life that doesn’t make its way onto Facebook statuses and Snapchat Stories.
So firstly, why was it so crap?
- The Class Issue
Whether I’m actually working class or not, I identify as such, and my experience at University played no small part in the class sensitivity I feel everyday, in my occupation as a teacher.
In the four hour car journey from home to University, I went from a world of Tesco Value Basics and Bailiffs to a world of Jack Wills and Gilets. University was a distinctly upper middle class environment and it was entirely new. If 90% of the world’s red trousers are worn by the 10% wealthiest people in the world, then that 10% went to University with me.
Signs of the enormous chasm of wealth between me and my fellow students were found everywhere: in the brand new sports cars they drove around campus; in the invites to birthday parties held at Scottish castles; in the countless sports society trips to far flung destinations. Even in the lighting. How much money did people have to spend on fucking fairy lights?
Everyone, everywhere seemed to be richer than I was.
(Of course, this wasn’t true; I’ve since found out that actually, 68% of my University cohort were from state schools just like me; the rest were from independent schools. However, it should be noted that this is still an unacceptably low percentage, in comparison to national data.)
My own feeling of socio-economic inferiority reveals itself most clearly in my recollection of how my manner of speaking instantly set me apart from everyone else. Growing up in the suburbs of London, when Guy Ritchie gangster movies and Geezer culture was at its peak, me and my friends all spoke in the Mockney accent that made us feel like the geezers and gangsters we saw in the films we watched and the pubs we frequented. We couldn’t afford the 13 quid it’d take to get us to Waterloo, but we spoke like we’d been born ringing those Bow Bells. At home, calling a fiver a ‘lady’ and a suit a ‘whistle’ like made me feel like Ronnie Kray. At University, it made me feel like Ronnie Corbett. My manner of speaking made me into a caricature: a figure of fun (the working class clown) to be patronised and called upon to invoke raucous laughter by a simple greeting of “Alwight mate?”
I’m not saying that everybody from privileged backgrounds at University actively sought to make me feel worthless. But, what comes with wealth, is a arrogance of a kind that isn’t intentioned. I couldn’t stand the fact that I worked in McDonalds to pay my way, whilst they spent Daddy’s money. I couldn’t stand the pitying looks when I told them I went to Devon during the summer break, and not the Dordogne. I couldn’t stand the way they wore Ralph Lauren shirts as Pyjamas. I hated the way I turned up to every single lecture, and every seminar, regardless, for three years straight, whilst the rich kids mocked me for doing so, proudly boasting about the fact they got a first on their latest essay without even reading the book. And still, in spite of their bragging apathy, they seemed to embody a kind of success I could only dream about.
It was all too much, and my Secondary Education had simply not prepared me to face this level of class difference head on.
2. I Knew Nothing
When I got to University, I had no idea what Socialism was. Nor did I know what Communism was. Or Capitalism. I didn’t know why Right or Left Wing meant. I’d no idea who George Orwell was. I didn’t understand a word of Latin and Homer had all but passed me by. University is both an academic and a political experience. My own Secondary education, or my upbringing, had left me deficient in both these areas. During seminars, I was frightened into silence as fellow students and professors talked to each other using words I could not fathom and allusions I could not access. Everyone seemed to know what everyone else knew, and I remained throughly on the outside. My GCSEs and my A Levels didn’t matter. What mattered was a very specific domain of knowledge- of Cultural capital imbued me with.
I felt deficient in two areas: wealth and knowledge. As I referred to briefly earlier, this had a hugely negative impact on my mental health. I became depressed and my refusal to seek help eventually ended up in me taking off all my clothes and laying on the floor of my bedroom for six hours crying into myself. I put on lots of weight and I started fighting. Lots of fighting. I was a mess.
People say that anger is a weakness, but that’s not true. It was anger with my lot, that got me off that linoleum floor and into the gym. It was anger that got me through those three years. I’m still angry now.
I’m angry that my school didn’t given me the cultural capital I needed to compete intellectually with those students from independent schools who seemed to breeze through University life. Even my vocabulary was deficient. At the most basic level, I didn’t even have the words to engage with people on their level.
I’m angry that I didn’t have the strength to just give up. I was too proud. I didn’t want to let my family down. I didn’t want to admit to all my mates that never went to University, that I’d made a go of it and failed.
I’m angry that nobody-not a single person, myself included- took it upon themselves to ‘google it’ and read the litany of internet blog posts and articles that routinely condemn the University for the Sloane Square Play Pen it’s notorious for being. Surely someone must’ve known what it would be like.
As teachers in state schools, it’s important that we give students the vocabulary and the knowledge that allows them to compete with their more privilege peers. It’s important that we don’t peddle this poisonous idea that your University years are the ‘best years of your life’, because the truth is, they ain’t , always. Not really.
Personally, my own time at University is still something I look back at with loathing. There’s no sense of ‘being glad I endured it and got through it’. I’m still ashamed of how rubbish it was. As a person, I didn’t cut it there and that’s my failure.
But, as I teach, one thought drives me. The thought that the kids I teach- the kids in the tracksuits; the kids for whom football is the sport of choice; the kids with the Formica work tops- willwalk into University with a swagger-an arrogance even- that allows them to compete with the ‘best’ of those gilet-wearing, ski resort visiting, gorgeous people who wear the (red) trousers at University.