Expectations

My grandmother could be brutal. In my first month at grammar school, I came home and proudly announced that I was second in the maths test. “Never mind” was her response. Of course she and my parents just wanted the best for me – but seven years later, when the post arrived I was feeling the pressure.

It was 10:30am on 21st December 1974 when the letter I had been waiting for from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge arrived, as I was enjoying the Marx Brothers in Go West on BBC1. My mother brought it in, and I tore it open –

***************

Pause there. Let me put this into perspective. My father and his brother, headmaster’s sons from a small town in North Wales, both went to Cambridge. On my father’s first day at Pembroke College, the porter greeted him with “Morning Mr Edwards! You look very like your brother.”

My mother’s brother – illegitimate product of an adulterous affair, raised in poverty, the son of a ship’s carpenter – studied English at Cambridge, went on to set up and head the English department at the University of York, and later became Director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon – a world-renowned authority on the Bard. That might explain my grandmother’s high expectations.

My brother was studying at Cambridge, having obtained a Scholarship two years earlier. My cousin had been offered a Scholarship to a Cambridge college two days earlier.

***************

– and I pulled out the letter. Before I could focus on it, the word “regret” had leapt off the page and hit me in the eye. I looked at Mum and shook my head. I sat down gloomily and tried to console myself with the Marx Brothers, but their antics had turned cold and juvenile. I got up and switched off the television.

I don’t mean to suggest that I had disappointed my parents, but seven years earlier, when the bedroom I shared with my brother had been refurbished by my grandfather, we had been given wooden stools upholstered in light blue for Cambridge and dark blue for Oxford.

Exam failure can be put down to lack of intelligence or to lack of effort. I chose to blame the latter, because it seemed fixable. But did I take the lesson to heart? Not especially. My academic career continued on its gentle downward drift, from frequently topping the class in first year at grammar school to an unimpressive 2:2 in my degree. Luckily the degree was at Warwick, whose reputation has grown over the years. “Warwick! That’s good isn’t it?” people say. “It is now” I reply.

Nor, a couple of years later, did I make the required effort to succeed in my accountancy exams. I put this mental laziness down to my fast start in education. I was bright: my mother had taught me to read before I started infant school, and most subjects came easily to me. I understood things without effort: I once scored 20/20 in a school comprehension test – although I rather spoiled the effect by asking my mother “what’s comprehension?”.

Easy progress made me complacent, so that when I encountered more difficult subjects – calculus springs to mind – I lacked the mental stamina to tackle them: I had never, if you will, learned how to learn.

But I was lucky, finding work in the City, where the relationship between hard work and success is tenuous. I enjoyed my career immensely, and things worked out well. So I’ve never had a chip on my shoulder about failing to get into Cambridge. No, hardly at all.

10 thoughts on “Expectations

  1. You got to Warwick. I only made it Lanchester Polytechnic although I can now say Coventry University. Like you the following phrase was true: “But I was lucky, finding work in the City, where the relationship between hard work and success is tenuous” and in the end “the boy made good!”

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  2. Oh Rik, you really do know how to bring ancient grudges back to life! I feel an over-long comment coming on!

    Windsor pushed me to Cambridge, which meant an extra term at school to take the Oxbridge entrance exam. Well, the rugby made that attractive – we were one of the best school teams in the south! St John’s was picked for me for some reason, but I got a similar letter – “not so very far below the Exhibition Class”, thank you, but no cigar!

    Actually I think we were all a bit relieved – I’d had a rather snooty document telling me what to expect if I got a place, but what hit me and my parents was the recommendation to bring a set of six sherry glasses. This was 1968, not 1868 (though I remember asking a visiting Army Recruitment team what were the requirements for Officer Entry. “Wrong school, lad!”

    Unlike you, but like so many then, I was the first in the family to go to university. (At primary school in Harrow, when I was 5, a teacher told my Mum that I was university material, and apparently the family laughed for days.

    So I accepted the offer of a place from Lancaster, and told my headmaster – who replied, “Is that in Yorkshire?”

    Just like you, I peaked too early academically, albeit at a much higher level (smiley face) and so it took me that much longer to find something where I could look good and successful by becoming expert at winging it – with, ironically, Cambridge University Press.

    Next July the story comes full circle, with a CUP “Glory Days” reunion dinner – in St John’s! I doubt if I’d be attending it if I’d been offered that place all those years ago!

    Thanks, I always feel better after a good rant.

    Biff

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    1. Thanks Biff.

      Well I wouldn’t call it exactly a grudge, or if it is, it’s only against my younger self. Education had certainly improved my Mum and her brother’s position in society, so it’s not surprising that she in particular placed so much importance in education.

      My excuse for picking at this ancient scab is a creative writing prompt of “expectations” which triggered a few stories of parental disappointment. But if I’m not completely over my lack of a Cambridge education, I can at least quote Liberace and say that I’m crying all the way to the bank.

      As for you, Mr “massively exceeded parental expectations”, that’s not a rant, you’re just telling your truth.

      I might have taken six sherry bottles and one glass. As a shy lad, I think I found it much easier to make friends at Warwick than I would have at Cambridge.

      I think in going to the wrong school for Officer Entry you dodged a bullet, perhaps literally.

      Wow, I hope your headmaster was joking. If not, he was spectacularly ignorant of geography. And history.

      You might have peaked too early academically, but not necessarily in life terms. An academic career might not have suited you. Anyway, the important thing is that we both reached a happy destination, even if we didn’t arrive by a planned route.

      We look forward to welcoming you so you can return to St John’s in triumph!

      Cheers, Rik

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  3. Speaking as another Cambridge failure, I felt a great deal of relief not to be offered a place. My interview at Newnham college was one of the most dispiriting experiences of my life and left me with the feeling that I wouldn’t fit in or make friends. Girton went a little better but by then I’d decided I didn’t want to go. I had a wonderful 3 years in Aberystwyth – Dad was comforted by the fact that I was in Wales.
    I think we’ve both done pretty well in spite of this setback.

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    1. Thanks Susan. Yes, similarly I think I found it much easier to make friends at Warwick than I would have at Cambridge. As you say, all’s well that ends well. And if I remember it right, didn’t you meet the love of your life at Aberystwyth?

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