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Wednesday, 26 December 2012

#64: Two Degrees of Separation — Part One

Throughout high school, the Holy Grail – or so we were led to believe – was university.

Netting a place at either a university or polytechnic and then studying hard (the night before Finals) to gain a hallowed degree was faithfully endorsed as the key to securing a dream job; dream life and living happily ever after.

As I had no better plan, I put faith in this strategy, studying hard (mostly the night before) at St. Peter's High to get my GCSE's (the UK system's first tier of high school exams and the replacement for O Levels) aged 16 (plus maths a year earlier) – which secured entry into the SPHS Sixth Form Centre. And the right to tackle A Levels.

Unfortunately, right around this time – in fact, two months before my GCSE's – I discovered golf.

This was pretty bad. Not so much for my GCSE's – but for my A Levels. I'd obviously done most of the work for the former.

The A Levels were a virtual write-off. I was too busy grooming my back-swing when I should have been chaining myself to a desk and discussing why European leaders of the early 20th Century were all corrupt, follically-challenged dictator-types.

As such, I screwed my A Levels up. I was a member of the DEN club: D-E-N. D for English Literature (grades were A-to-E, BTW); E for history and N for Spanish.

Yes, that’s right: ‘N’ for Spanish. This supposedly stood for 'Near-miss'. As in, you Nearly claimed a barrel-scraper (grade E). Which just seemed like rubbing salt in the wound created by my golf addiction.

The argument behind awarding an 'N' was something like: "Well, you Nearly failed outright and got Ungraded. But Not quite. So if you’d like to pay 3000 British pounds and retake the exam next year with the vague hope of scraping an E (which, to all intents and purposes is just as hopeless), we’d be delighted."

I had a provisional place to do an English Language degree at the College of Ripon and York St. John (CRYSJ). CRYSJ had some vague, wiffly-waffly connection with Leeds University at the time, I recall.

It’s now known as York St. John University (most former polytechnics and colleges are now called ‘universities’ to make them sound more distinguished and less like the poor, long-lost hickster cousin of a reputable educational establishment).

However, scooping a DEN didn't quite cut the mustard at CRYSJ. I think I needed BCD to solidify my spot. Crap.

“And my other options? Do I have any? 'Clearing', you say? Tell me more.”

It turned out my university 'dream' wasn’t over (at least for the time-being), after all. A sliver of light pierced the end of the tunnel.

Even though I’d made a spectacular Horlicks of my A Levels, the UK education system featured an option called Clearing, where surplus degree spots were offered up as alternatives.

The system could be compared to the North American discount clothing store Winners, or the British equivalent Matalan, where items and sizes and colours that most of us wouldn’t be seen dead in are resold at knock-down prices. Of course, there was the odd ‘bargain’, though locating it was like searching for a needle in a haystack blindfolded.

I’m not exaggerating when I say there must have been about a million courses listed and places offered.

As such, it took a while to navigate through such gems as a Bachelor of Arts in Curtainology; a Bachelor of Science in 17th Century roof engineering or a Bachelor of Some Repute; perhaps the most eligible in the country, and possibly ripe to take the lead role in a reality TV show some 20 years later. Oh, wait a minute, the latter may have slipped onto the list by mistake.

Anyhow, it seemed like about 750,000 of the listings were offering computer science places. Often with a random language as a minor. Such as Hebrew, Schweizer-Deutsche or Kling-on.

I managed to find one that offered French – something I’d done at GCSE level (and gained a grade C in) – at Staffordshire Polytechnic.

Which I found was somewhere in the Midlands region of England (not a million miles from where I was born and spent my first 13 years), and was more of a quirky country town than a hustling-bustling big city – probably always more up my alley.

“What the hell, I’ll go for that.”

And so it was that I left the family home in Quarhouse (near Brimscombe, nr. Stroud), Gloucestershire to head to Stafford in late September, 1991. To do a BSc in Computer Science with French.

The fact that, even though I was addicted to computer gaming (on my Commodore 64; then Commodore Amiga), I had zero interest in computer science or pursuing a lifelong career in computer programming was neither here nor there.

This was all just about getting a PLACE and filling the next 3-4 years of my life with something at least vaguely worthwhile.

I invested in a few second-hand versions of the required computer course texts – and also a giant English-French dictionary that needed to be delivered by cargo van.

I was ready, willing and… able? That remained to be seen. But committed, definitely.

So I plunged head-first into a new life as a trainee computer geek soon-to-be fluent in French. Confident that this was really going to take me places. Somehow. Some way.

Then, two weeks later, I quit.


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