There’ll have been a fair few tears yesterday – some sad, some of joy, every last one of them would have been unnoticed by someone my age had it not been for the invention of social media. That’s how relevant my A Level grades are right now.
Yesterday, as I have the last couple of years, I posted a tweet with words to the effect that your grades will never define you and your certificates will travel further and further down your box of important things, to the point where – when you reach my age (around the 25 mark, give or take) – you may not even know where to locate them*.
Somebody responded saying that today (results day) it does matter – and I almost agree with them – the results are relevant, but the grades are not. Regardless of the letters next to your subjects, all will set you on some path, be that to university, to a job, or to whatever alternative adventure you find yourself on instead of your original plan. Kind of like being put on a road diversion and then finding a shop you’ve never have seen should your journey have progressed as planned. Maybe you’d even buy a lottery ticket at that shop…maybe it wouldn’t have won, but maybe…well, you get the idea…
I’ve been averse to proper plans all my life, mainly because – as Burns wrote – plans often go to shit. Nothing worse than a plan in my eyes, nothing more predictable or dull or excitement sapping. A plan guarantees disappointment pretty much every time. In fact, so averse to proper plans have I been, that I’ve often manufactured situations to counter plans when I’ve had to be seen as planning properly. Some call it self-sabotage, I personally call it staving off boredom. It started with my A levels. I offer it here so you can see – should it be pertinent to your life just now – that they aren’t nearly as important as you have been conditioned to believe. It also applies to university grades, GCSE’s and spelling tests. The only thing it doesn’t apply to is the driving test, as I’d argue that’s something worth passing.
Like a million other children, the time to make decisions regarding my future came far too early. Suddenly one day I was being asked to decide what job I wanted to do, and what university I would go to in order to get that job, what subjects I would take to get into that university, and they wanted to know smartish. My entire life – it seemed – was hanging on this decision, and I was half way through reading a comic, I was supposed to drop everything (the comic) to cast in stone the next five years of my life? During which time – I’m sure you’ll have already realised – there would have been loads of other comics out. My friend at school wanted to be a teacher, she was going to go to Edge Hill in Ormskirk and get the qualifications to be a primary school teacher. So I said I’d do that and got on with my comic.
Then it gradually became a real thing, suddenly I was doing placements at a nearby primary school, convincing myself that this was the right way of doing things, that it should be primary school, senior school, university, job, die. That’s how it has always been, and you are also meant to meet someone, marry them and reproduce during this time too. Structure, follow the crowd, follow the rules. They very nearly got me too, and there’s no shame in being got, but at the last minute – and I really mean the last minute – the minute before I sat my A level English literature, after being dragged in a blur by my mum to several universities for interviews and receiving conditional offers, in that moment as I was about to walk into the examination hall at Selwyn Jones High School to show off what I knew about Hamlet and Waiting For Godot (and – for the record – I know a lot about them – ask me anything), I had the awful realisation that I was very nearly past the point of no return, I’d spent two years in the sixth form, working towards being a primary school teacher of all things, everything was tentatively planned for me to be going off to Edge Hill and spending however many years of a teacher training degree I was meant to do (there we go, I don’t even remember how long the course was now), and I had been so caught up with it, so convinced by everyone, that I’d not even realised that I simply didn’t want to do it. I’d barely looked at a comic.
In a nutshell, I threw my A levels.
You’ve no idea how liberating yet terrifying that is, exhilaration and dread simultaneously. I realised that somewhere along the line I’d had my original long held desire to be an actor (I didn’t even know that comedy was an industry itself at that point) knocked out of me, dismissed in favour of doing it right, proper qualifications, proper job, etc.
So when my inevitable qualifications came through on results day, with my English teacher wide-eyed and baffled, and me already flexing my acting muscles to show I was “upset”, when the uni withdrew my offer as I was a grade short (even when throwing an exam there was only so thick I could pretend to be, nearly misjudged that), when the phone calls to UCAS clearing were all half-arsedly done and dusted, I could finally get on with what I actually wanted to do.
Now, here is where it gets a bit murky, and may sound slightly hypocritical, but hopefully it will come clear if you bear with me.
I applied to drama schools – or rather I applied for drama degrees. Such was the continued obsession with those around me that I should go to university – and by the way, if ever somebody was less suited to university life than a non-drinking misanthrope as me – that I followed the same format and plan, just with a subject I actually was bothered about. I got conditional offers from several and went off to a further education college in Halton to do drama A Level, coupled with a nightschool class at St Helens Tech to do Sociology A Level, to get the grades I would need for a Dramatic Art degree.
First day at Halton college, I met a lad called Martin who was also on his own there (everybody else there knew each other already) so we latched onto each other. To this day he’s the only person from any of my years in education that I remain in touch with. Had I gone along with the plan, that would be a hugely valued friend from my present life who I would just walk past in the street now. The courses were one year long, and I went to one class at St Helens before deciding it was pointless, mind numbing and uninspiring, so I taught myself the syllabus at home, on my own terms. I walked both the courses and got way above the grades I needed to be accepted, and trotted off to Bretton Hall for three years to do Dramatic Art.
Now, before you start shouting that a minute ago I was claiming that A Levels are irrelevant let me explain properly.
I’ve been through both situations, the not getting the grades and having to reset situation (admittedly self-inflicted), and the getting the grades and following the path situation. I should clarify that I spent three years at Bretton Hall kissing girls and ignoring the course in favour of just using their facilities to do my own thing. Whilst others on my course were in the Student Union drinking, I was writing plays and putting them on in dormant, well-equipped theatre spaces for zero pounds. To my knowledge, there aren’t many people from my course actively working in theatre or TV or whatever, a few certainly but most of them went off and got proper jobs – they were the ones that were just following the conditioned path of school, university, job etc. This isn’t a criticism or condemnation, nor is it a superior stance from my point of view because god knows I’ve had plenty of moments in my career where I’ve envied the structure and security of that, I am just pointing out the difference between taking your own path and following the ‘correct’ one.
Martin, who I told you about earlier, didn’t go to drama school or university. He did the drama course with me and then moved to London, got a part in a west end show, and presently runs a hugely successful theatre company. He doesn’t have degree, and having one – as I have – wouldn’t have made the slightest difference to his career – same as mine. If I could go back now, I would have skipped the university bit, and done what Martin did – gone all Dick Whittington and travelled down to London town to seek my fortune. In my line of work, all my qualifications have been irrelevant and are just a reminder of all the time that’s been wasted.
I am well aware that certain careers require degrees and qualifications, teaching for example (much lower grades for P.E teaching I would guess), and if you have your heart set on doing that, if it’s the most important thing in the world for you to do, then I throw my hands up and say, well, sucks to be you if you didn’t get the grades you needed, but even in that situation, you have not reached a dead end in your life. As I said at the top of this, getting your exam results is merely a crossroads, some will go left, some right, some straight ahead, but everyone’s journey can continue, and as time passes you will realise – I hope – that every turn off has adventure ahead, the cross roads will get further and further away from relevant as you go on. Nobody remembers the roundabout before you get to Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and even if you didn’t take the right onto the Golden Mile, you’ll find that taking the left to Lytham has equally rewarding destinations.
*I genuinely have no idea where any of my exam certificates are now, have never used them, and I was going to include grades in this but honestly cannot remember what they were. All I do know is that I have never, ever got an A in anything ever. Nor do I ever want to.