I didn’t really like school, let alone enjoy it. I think the most predominant feeling I had at the time was fear. I was just a fearful child. I don’t remember ever being a problem for the teachers. I was pretty quiet and unassuming, and always seemed to somehow end up towards the sides or back of the classroom. Letters and words I got the hang of fairly easily. However, numbers turned into one of my biggest handicaps. We were given exercise books with various arithmetic tables on the back cover. I think I was given homework to learn my multiplication tables by heart.
I remember one particular evening, I was sat at the dining room table studying these various formulae, when my Dad decided to help me. His assistance took the form of very quickly losing patience with me, dragging me screaming to my room and insisting that I couldn’t come out, until I had learned my multiplication tables from two to twelve times by heart. Unsurprisingly, I’ve had an aversion to maths since that day.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been shy of learning. I’ve had an almost insatiable curiosity about many things from very early on in life. It was just that the things I was interested in, weren’t the sort of things that my Dad or even my teachers considered to be important. I was also learning them wrong. As far as they were concerned there was a right and wrong way to learn a subject. Being curious and seeking out knowledge and experience for myself about something was clearly, in their eyes, the wrong way to go about it.
It seemed that the best way to get a child to learn something, was to have them sit quietly and attentively in a chair behind a desk. Then for the teacher to write lessons on a board mounted on an easel or on the wall, and have them copy it into an exercise book. You had to spoon feed data to the child in this way for several years, in order that they become ready for the world of employment by the age of sixteen. Unless of course they became so good at soaking up data in this way, that they could be marked out for more of the same in something called further education.
The one thing that had to be avoided, when educating a child, was any form of praise or encouragement. Mostly, I seemed to be told how poorly I was doing. Reading back over old school reports, most of the comments were along the lines of, “must try harder”, “rather slow”, “irregular spasms of quality”. Always the assumption was, that it was the child that was at fault and not the educational system.
When I think about it, I wasn’t just fearful as a child, I was also rather puzzled by the adults around me and the image I had of the world that they seemed to function in. I had no sense that I was soon to be entering this world. As an adolescent I was aware of bodily changes but I was totally unprepared for the psychological assault I was about to be confronted with. The education system seemed to be focussed purely on filling me up, with a narrow band of data that was going to be related to the world of work. However, it paid scant attention to preparing me for the emotional challenges of adult life.
It’s a measure of my naivety, that I had no idea that I was going to leave school and go into something called a job. That I had to earn money and become independent. I had an innocent sense that my life was going to carry on the way it was. I had always been very fond of natural history programmes on TV, and from very early on I had decided that I was going to be a naturalist. I didn’t envisage this as a job or career; just as something I was going to be. Probably via some sort of evolutionary process.
The first I knew of anything other than this process, was that one day in school a teacher broached the subject, to the class in general, about what we wanted to do when we left school. I froze; the idea hadn’t even entered my head. Most of the boys were planning to apply to the local Steelworks. To try and get something called an Apprenticeship. What the heck was an apprenticeship? I’d never come across the word before. Clearly, everyone around me knew something I didn’t.
The school did organise a couple of factory visits. Obviously the steelworks was the first place they took us to; it was the biggest employer in the area. However, we were also taken on a visit to a local aircraft factory. This seemed to be much more up my street, as it was a lot cleaner and quieter than the steelworks; not to mention cooler. So I duly applied for an apprenticeship there, still not really knowing what it was all about. It turned out to have an excellent training scheme, with a dedicated training school designed to give the apprentices a taste of many of the different trades on the shop floor. I’m quite spatially aware and manually dexterous, so I thoroughly enjoyed trying out these different skills and working practices. Another pleasant surprise was that our tutors were much more relaxed and respectful around us in comparison to the teachers in my school.
The real difficulties for me began when we were moved to begin our apprenticeship on the shop floor. The guy I was apprenticed to was an unpleasant individual with a bullying attitude, so I went downhill pretty rapidly. On the production line it seemed to me to be pretty chaotic. There was limited space inside a fuselage and several trades working in there at the same time. This often necessitated working over, under or around someone else; you couldn’t have any hang ups about physical contact. Sadly though, this was exactly my problem, so I really felt uncomfortable in that environment.
Eventually, someone realised that the chemistry of the relationship I was in was making me ill. So I was switched to work with an older gentleman who was much more experienced and, crucially, kinder than the previous guy. This chap also seemed positively laid back about the whole work thing; spending quite a bit of time sitting on his toolbox smoking his pipe.
Quite by accident, I think, he managed to tap into my learning style. He gave me small projects and minor responsibilities. One that sticks in my mind, is the day he gave me a stainless steel bolt out of his scrap box and tasked me with making a replacement hinge for his broken reading glasses; I relished the challenge and he was happy with the result.
I spent quite a bit of time during my apprenticeship learning new skills. The factory was divided into departments that dealt with different processes and materials, and I was moved around to spend some time working with those related to my chosen discipline. So I gained experience working with a variety of metals, plastics, wood, bonding agents and their related processes. All this variety was one of the better aspects of my whole period in training. However, once I’d completed all this and finished serving my time, the world of work on the shop floor was a bit of a let down. Modern production methods demanded speed and efficiency. Construction of the aircraft was broken down into stages and it was considered more efficient to have the workers dedicate themselves to a limited number of tasks; tasks that were mostly repetitive and unstimulating. I couldn’t understand why they had invested so much in training me in such a wealth of skills, only to have me doing the same things over and over. Consequently I became quite depressed and alienated and eventually resigned.