How to be old—we're all learning

Rachel could do better: school reports

The old Christchurch Girls High School building before it was earthquaked — public domain

All through high school I had a stomach ache. I was a “happy, normal” girl (they say, and I thought so) yet in retrospect, a low-level anxiety was my default condition. I only discovered this after a few weeks at the University of Canterbury, when it dawned on me that I felt different.  Some self-study revealed an interesting fact: I felt different because I didn’t have a stomach ache. Intuitively I knew why — five years too late.

Every day at high school we had a load of homework. A typical day would chuck us three or four of the following: maths problems, a chemistry chapter, an essay to write, a list of French, German or Latin words to learn, a geography map to draw… I was a conscientious kid who tried quite hard, but it was so difficult to keep track of this weekly silo of obligations, and life beyond school was so full of duties and delightful distractions, and my mind had other intriguing matters to think about, such as the boy who mowed the lawns next door.

Every bit of forgotten homework meant a detention — oh dear oh dear oh dear oh dear oh me oh my, I abided for five years in a vicious cycle of effort, panic, blame, guilt, and punishment.

Our teachers were mostly admirable or likeable or at least well meaning, and included some brilliant women. They did their best according to the educational culture of the time. Nevertheless I left high school with the puzzling knowledge that I was never as smart or successful as they expected. I disappointed them. In a way I knew that was their problem, not mine, but that was no cure for the tummy ache.

I adored my friend Ailsa, who laughed at blame. She would call the teachers’ bluff. But I was a vicar’s daughter with a strong sense of duty, and I also had my own little cross to bear.

Peak IQ-testing

The 1940s–50s were peak IQ-test years. At primary school I’d come to the attention of teachers as too stupid for schooling. They suggested that I belonged in a special farm/school for the “mentally handicapped”. My parents responded by getting my IQ tested again and again and again. My highest score had me cast as a so-called genius. (I know, pathetic problem —  but it was further proof that grown-ups can be very silly sometimes.)

Consequently my high school teachers didn’t expect me to be merely very good, but extra super stunningly brilliant at every subject always — in an elite class of an academic school. Ridiculous. I did try to use more of my brain at high school, but I still needed some daydream time. Seems the inhabitants of my gut knew this situation was not healthy.

Free to study for fun

When I discovered my tummy-ache-free status, it took about ten seconds to guess the reason. Bingo! My university professors didn’t care whether I passed or failed! Apparently that was my business, not theirs. I had assignments, and I did them, but for my own reasons. Suddenly I loved studying! Free at last — autonomy suited me and my gut.

Yesterday I rewrote an old half-forgotten poem about the pressures of high school, as I experienced them. Nowadays I aim to keep my poems very simple (on the surface, at least), so I think you’ll enjoy this one.

Very good work (a work in progress)

Don’t feel sorry for me: I survived into happiness. But what about my classmates? Maybe the poem will set you thinking about the feelings that bubble up when you think about your school days — whatever they are.