My introduction to university life was a real shock to the system. In the first year we were required to study six mandatory subjects: Approaches to the English Language, Old & Middle English, Critical Practice, Shakespeare, Rise of the Novel and Four Twentieth Century Poets. So many books, plays and poems to read, so many essays to write to deadlines, and so little time to get it all done and still do my part-time job. But I was so, so proud to be there!
My heart soared every time I drove through the main gates and gazed upon the facade of the magnificent Victorian building.
I loved it, too, that you could look as if you had got dressed in the dark and no-one would notice! But, much as I enjoyed having multi-coloured nails and wearing Doc Marten boots, my wobbly start with the academic side of things quickly and starkly made it apparent that I was totally out of my depth. Apart from the 6 week Access taster course I had not studied at all since leaving school, and now I was being challenged to rise to a whole new level. From what I remembered of school essays the requirement was to regurgitate what had been learned, but university required in-depth critical analysis of a kind I simply didn’t know how to do.
All but one of my first essays came back with so-so marks, but the Shakespeare – my favourite subject – was handed back unmarked. “All you have done,” the tutor said, “is describe the plot. I know the plot. Everyone knows it.” She smiled sympathetically at my crestfallen expression. “I’m giving you a second chance because the way you speak up in the seminar discussions makes me believe you can do better than this. Show your engagement with the play, make sure you address the topic of the paper, and give me a new essay by the end of the week.”
She was doing me a kindness, but I had to hold back my tears as I took my sorry little essay from her. At 3 o’clock I left the campus and dashed to my office in Bracknell where I had a part-time job, wondering how I’d find the time to rewrite the essay and keep up with the incredible amount of reading I had to do.
My evenings and early mornings were now totally swallowed up in study, I wasn’t sleeping well, and it soon became apparent that something had to give.
I discussed it with George and, as usual, he offered the very solutions I needed. The next day I offered my resignation to my employer and they delighted me by saying I would be welcome to work there during the university holidays. I also found a local private tutor to give me a crash-course on how to raise my game to degree level.
The tutor was an elderly lady called Miss Durham, an Oxford scholar and retired teacher. She lived in a Victorian semi-detached house in Ascot, the front of which was almost obscured by foliage. The first time I went there I had a hard time finding the small wooden gate in a very dense privet hedge! Tall weeds grew through cracks in the path leading to the half-glazed door, the dark green paint of which hung off in strips around the unpolished lion-head brass knocker. I was led through the narrow hallway into a small room at the back, which was stuffed with furniture, books and ornaments, and very gloomy because the back garden was as overgrown as the front. She told me her disabled sister lived with her, but I didn’t see her on any of my visits, I only heard the creaking floorboards, shuffling of feet and the opening and closing of doors elsewhere in the house. Really, it was the perfect house for a horror movie!
By the time I had my first lesson in that creepy, unlit house I had rewritten the Shakespeare essay and been given a credible mark for it, but not as high as I’d have liked. Sitting opposite Miss Durham at a small round table, a pad and pencil in front of me, I explained exactly why I needed her help. She grinned, her fierce blue eyes almost obliterated by deep wrinkles, and said, “Don’t think that you can’t do the work, because that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, think only that you haven’t yet understood what is expected of you, and that will henceforth change.” She placed a pair of tortoiseshell half-moon spectacles on her nose and looked at me over the lenses. “You’ll be studying the poetry of T S Eliot, of course, so we will spend five or six sessions deconstructing The Wasteland and that will teach you all you need to know.”
Five or six sessions on just one poem? Really?
Well, as it turned out I had five lessons with her, and to say she opened my mind to the joy of English literature is an understatement. Her gift was not to tell me, but to guide me to my own conclusions. With patience and her faultless method of teaching she made me work everything out for myself and articulate it in a satisfactory manner. For instance, she’d ask me to read some lines of The Wasteland:
Then she would ask questions like “Why does Eliot say that April is the cruellest month? Why not December or January when it’s deep winter? Why is the snow forgetful, the roots dull?”
Now, I’ve been scribbling poems almost from when I learned to write, but I had never thought about how I constructed them, why I used certain words and not others. In just a few sessions this wonderful lady opened a whole new world for me.
She also taught me how to break down the given titles of each essay paper so I could be sure I had addressed every element of it. This would be invaluable when faced with exam questions too.
Miss Durham’s parting words to me were: “Even if your tutors don’t agree with your analysis of any of the texts you study, as long as you can put forward a cohesive and well-reasoned argument for your viewpoint they will award you top marks. If you remember nothing else, please remember that.”
I won’t say I found university easy, but I studied hard, particularly enjoying Middle English, Victorian fiction and Shakespeare, and my efforts paid off with steadily rising marks and my input during seminars being well received. I began to believe that I actually deserved to be there! I loved every aspect of being a student, I adored every brick and blade of grass of Royal Holloway, and I especially relished studying in the gorgeous library. I’ve always loved the musty smell of old books, and some of books on the shelves were very old indeed!
The first year flew past, then the second. I did well in the end of year exams, and went into the final year with high hopes of getting at least a Lower Second degree. All too soon it was time for the last challenge: the dreaded Finals.
Each day I would take my place in the exam room with my pens in a plastic bag and a bottle of water with a few drops of Rescue Remedy in it to help me keep calm. Some of the exams were held in the Picture Gallery, a grand and beautiful hall containing 70 or so famous Victorian paintings. There is a popular myth that one of them, an Edwin Landseer painting called ‘Man Supposes, God Disposes’, would cause a student sitting beneath it to fail. It is therefore tradition to cover it up with a huge Union Jack flag during exam times, and I did indeed sit some of my finals within sight of this flag-draped work of art.
When the day came to collect the results I drove to the college, my heart fluttering with both hope and dread. But I knew I had done my very best.
After I’d parked the car I met up with my friends, mature students like me, and we headed into the faculty building together. The lists had been posted on the board in Reception.
So many students had gathered there, and the room echoed with the shouts and screams of the successful. I waited my turn to step up to the lists. I swiftly located my name, then, hardly daring to breathe, moved my eyes to the right to read my result.
Jane Forrest …….. Pass …….. 2:1
Oh my gosh, I had an Upper Second!! With Honours!!! I would now be able to update my CV to restart my career and, if I felt so inclined, put BA(Hons) after my name!!!!
One of my friends had her expected First, the others had the same result as me. We congratulated each other and celebrated with a coffee in the cafeteria. Our three years together had come to an end, but we had the graduation ceremony to look forward to, when we would wear with pride our graduation robes and mortarboards. We didn’t know it then, but we would be awarded our degrees by Princess Anne on a gloriously sunny day.
We were reluctant to leave the campus and each other, but we were also bursting at the seams to get home and let our families know our results. They, after all, had seen us through so much, and I was mindful that a couple of mature students had left before the end of the first year because their husbands simply hadn’t supported them. It had made me doubly grateful that George had been my rock, every day encouraging me and tolerating the tantrums as each deadline loomed. When my faith in myself waned he would pick me up, dust me off, and tell me to get the hell on with it! And there was my mum, always eager to hear what I was doing at university, and Dad, who had at first been sceptical but had insisted on helping me when I gave up my job. He was not one to display his feelings, so offering financial help had been his way of letting me know how proud he was of me for grasping with both hands this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I knew my friends would be delighted for me too.
I remember so well finishing my coffee and taking my leave of my friends. Returning to my car. Driving slowly out of the dusty car park. Turning left out of those magnificent main gates onto the London Road. Stopping at a traffic light on red. Bursting into tears.
I was crying for so many reasons. Sadness that my student days were over, sadness too that it was the end of my long-held dream and now I’d need something to replace it. But mostly I was crying for the sheer joy and wonder at my achievement. The 16 year old girl who’d left school with four O Levels was now almost 42 years old and had a degree!
I really dared to believe – had reason to believe – that we can achieve incredible things if we want it badly enough and set our minds to it.
Now I could look ahead to a new job with better pay and prospects. We decided it was time to move out of our flat and buy a house with a garden. We talked of getting a dog.
The future looked bright.
Post script: Remember my unmarked Shakespeare essay? I hope you don’t mind that I end this story with a little crow about the 71% I got for my final Shakespeare essay. That’s a First Class classification folks!
J Merrill Forrest is the author of two novels, Flight of the Kingfisher and The Waiting Gate and a collection of poetry, Natural Alchemy. All are available from the usual sources, including Amazon, in paperback or e-book formats.