Having delivered my son, the youngest of my two children, to a prestigious international university at the weekend, I find myself ready to share the thoughts that are streaming through my mind right now … keeping the feelings of emotional adjustment at bay, while I picture our son adjusting to his new life in a new place, and we adjust at home to not having him around.
It is a strange head and heart space to be in, not for the first time another massive readjustment, a new place within a strange place, on a journey that has held many unexpected bits along its path.
Here is a little more of my own story …
It is a snippet about my starting out in the Big Wide World, showing up at the gate to the “University of Life”.
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Did you know?
I did not go to university.
Furthermore, I do not have any certificates from any institutions other than a matriculation certificate from high school, and there are no letters after my name.
I have no profession, no specific thing that I can tell anyone that I ‘am’, no one easy answer to provide when faced with a form to fill in about what I ‘do’. And yet, I do and have experience in a lot.
I have been educated to beyond tertiary level, by the “University of Life” … for those who do not know what this is, the best and shortest way I can describe it is: It is the long way round to blasting through glass ceilings, reaching full potential, and having ‘degree status’ clout. However, in matters of life, meaning, authenticity, sustainability and leadership in a range of ways, it is the path that I have travelled, is most definitely not a short cut nor easy way, and it means that whatever I say, I mean and have quite possibly seen, felt, tasted or survived.
It would be wonderful if there were a degree for this journey into and through the “University of Life”, a piece of paper to frame, a garment and a mortar board, but there is not. There is little recognition in tangible form for the courses that I have been on. As a result of the journey, and despite it, when you meet me, what you see is what you get. My communication is undiluted; I do not suffer fools lightly (nor does the book of Proverbs in the Holy Bible), and I have found that life is far too short to beat around the bush. It would be good to add a degree to this level of experience and integrity, but as yet I have not.
Why did I not go to university?
Plainly put, I might have gone to university (indeed would have loved to attend the beautiful establishment on the slopes of Table Mountain, where I lived), had circumstances that I was living within been very different.
Having left home pretty much, at the raw age of eighteen, it was simply too hard to take on university by myself – the funding and the focus required were a crippling prospect – as well as manage my life entirely by myself. That said, I tried to get to university or teacher’s training college, I even made an appointment and met with my senior school headmistress – who said in no uncertain terms that she believed in me, even offered to help me to find a bursary – but it all felt too hard to pursue at the time. I found that, as I needed to support myself, still contributing in certain ways to life at home, already by then well-schooled in the rigours and realities of some very obscure scenes of life, I could not afford the time nor the cost nor the luxury of a university life. How I would have loved to join all my friends who were able to do just that! But it was not the path that life had set me on.
Looking back (and at the time) I know I would have grabbed life on campus with both hands and squeezed every bit of juice out of a university experience when I left senior school – it was how I lived my life, anyway – but instead my mother directed me to undertake a Secretarial Course. I was told that I would be supported partially to do that, but not to attend university. The lion share of everything that I needed I would have to find myself … not least, it turned out, the guidance to do what I was gifted for. What a waste of twelve years of striving to be the one who would (and had so often done so or come close to) be winning the prize. There had been many Speech Days, when I was younger, where I had walked proudly up onto the stage to receive a book prize or some other form of recognition … and no one was ever there to support me. I gave up on that lark halfway through high school, when my home life became a series of rapidly changing and dramatic stage sets. It was hard to keep track in the pace of life itself, anyway … I do recall that our headmistress gawped when I told her that one day, during the public reading of our results at the start or end of a school term, in front of my entire year.
Therefore, despite my reluctance at going to do something that held no interest to me at all, the path that I had been told was my most realistic option was the one that I took. The little that I learnt at Secretarial College ended up being one way I kept myself from starving during many desperate times over the coming years. It was never my choice of career path … but it helped when I could find nothing else to turn my hand to fast.
Did I not receive a Certificate upon completion of the Secretarial Course?
No, I did not.
Because I did not complete the course.
Four months into my six-month secretarial course in the city of Cape Town, after and whilst enduring endless banging away on manual typewriters (ouch) in an effort to reach perfection and to get my perfect banging of keys up to reasonable speed, with countless sheets of paper and carbon flying in all directions, battling to get my head and hands to process the simplicity of shorthand, staring square-eyed at the columns of bookkeeping figures … and on and on … I could not take any more. I was feeling utterly demoralised. So, being used to ‘making a plan’ and finding ways to keep going within storms of life, I went straight to the nearest newspaper seller, bought myself a newspaper, and opened up the Classifieds pages to scour the list of Job Ads. I had to find a better way to do life than doing what I was most definitely not suited to, and I hoped that this would somehow lead me through an open door … instantly I saw various advertisements that I somewhat courageously, very determinedly, rather cheekily, circled and then set my sights on applying for.
The first job I applied for … “Girl Friday for City Insurance Brokers” … led to an immediate interview … and the immediate offer of said job. However, there was only one problem: the directors of the firm who were offering me the job, at what for me at the time was a huge salary – R300 (South African Rands in 1981) per month – required that I be at least able to operate an electric typewriter. Snag: I could barely manage to keep all the sheets of paper in the manual typewriters at the secretarial college down the road, let alone type one sentence without needing to erase and repair errors (times multiple pages) … and so they, being optimistic men of ‘making a plan’ too, decided to deliver to my little flat, with their company Driver, one of their new electronic typewriters, with the implicit instruction that I PRACTISE. I was to show up for work three weeks’ hence, armed with the electric typewriter that they owned … and in receipt of the necessary skills required to operate it. They were, clearly, believing in me to produce a miracle
I showed up for work … on time and on the due date … with the typewriter … whom I might have named by then … only just able to drive it.
My role as “Girl Friday” was a broad one, and it went from challenge to challenge, from strength to strength over a period of two years. When I became bored, the Directors and senior staff found new challenges for me … while they expected me to answer their incoming switchboard telephone calls with aplomb, and not trip myself in the process of dealing with miles of yellow tape attached to the office telex machine … a vital piece of kit in the inter-office and inter-national communication system of the time. Oh my word, it was all slog … but I loved it, because I was being mentored and taught and appreciated and given bonuses and helped to stretch and stretch and stretch … all in lieu of my much-coveted university place. The Directors and senior staff had taught me all that they could, from keys to claims and back again, and wanted me to pursue a career in their field. It just seemed grey to me, and so I declined their offers to support my studying to undertake the Insurance Industry Exams. C’est la vie.
When I could stretch no longer within the framework of the office and the company, when I decided that I could not face a lifetime in the insurance industry, when I was done with doing all the things that were possible for me to learn in that one office, when they had moved premises from the “Golden Acre” (and I had helped them to do so) to the outer suburbs of Cape Town … and all of life seemed to scream to a boring halt for me … I resigned. Job done. Great friends made. Wonderful experiences, including a yacht launching that I had organised to great success … but it was time to move one.
I am now in my fifties. Much has passed under the bridge since then.
I have much more story to tell, but that’s enough for now.
The “University of Life” is the hardest one on the planet to get into and to do well within … it requires a huge amount of tenacity and guts … and listening … and learning … and independent battle strategy … and following leads … and bumping yourself, getting bruised, picking yourself back up … but it often produces Eagles and Leaders and I have only to look at my children to know that I have defied a whole lot of what Life tried to use to trip me up. It has been an exhausting ride, but I am thoroughly proud of it and abundantly blessed as a result of never, ever, ever having given up.
So, without a degree and without a professional accolade to slip off my tongue, or any other seriously impressive title to blind you with, please know that what I write and what I do and what I speak is me being completely and utterly real, desiring to share what I have and to make the world a better place than the one that I found. I speak from experience, and all of it hard won. Often a lone voice, I have lost and found my voice … stronger and more vibrant than ever before … because I have the scars to prove that life is a powerful force and love will carry us through everything, if we just hold on.
Be brave. Be strong. Keep believing. Fall down. Get back up.
Cry. Shout. Scream at the wind. But don’t ever stay down on the ground …
Wait for the next current of life to come along … and then rise up!
It might take time to heal from the wounds, but just remember:
Eagles don’t have time to hang out with those who wish to remain forever on the ground.
If you’re on your path to graduation, go for it!
You’ve got a headstart.
With love and motivation,
PS. My typing speed is phenomenal now … and I still have no desire to be anyone’s PA … shall leave that role to those who can do it with aplomb. Oh, I did it, by the way … I worked as a PA in London, in a prestigious establishment there, and I have the experience to prove it … Just no Certificate, I’m afraid. There is, of course, other working experience to add to the bow too, but those stories are for another day.
PPS. I am still learning, changing, rebuilding … and it is now time for me to graduate to the next level too …
“the gazebo is scheduled for conservation work soon. Please respect the fragility of its interior”*
*(a sign seen in a beautiful garden in the Cotswolds recently, it is what gave me the inspiration to write this piece)
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