Greg – another triumph for life`s triers

Greg Dyke, the BBC`s D-G, left school with just one A-level.
Amanda Foreman explains why late starters – she was one herself – often turn into super-achievers.

What were Greg. Dyke’s ambitions when he was 18? Did he think, “I’ve been written off, but one day I will show the world that Greg Dyke is an important person.” Or did he just want to own a flashy bike, like his mates? That is the great question about late starters: what happened to make them late?

When I was a teenager the one thing I wanted to do was follow in my brother’s footsteps and go to Cambridge. Considering my exam results this was a complete fantasy. I tried, nevertheless, and after three years of form filling, not only Cambridge but 25 other universities on both sides of the Atlantic had all turned me down. At the age of 20, I had a chip the size of Wales on my shoulder. Nowadays, you could describe me as a slow developer but, at the time, failure would have been more accurate.

The pressure to shine at school is one of the most unfair aspects of childhood. It is unfair for two reasons.

First, because the criteria for success are so contingent on fortuitous genes. Some children just are acne-free, good at sports, and clever; some are not.

As for the second reason, how often has it been repeated that success at school is no guarantee of success in later life? In fact, it can be a curse. It’s the old School Captain Syndrome. Life never again matches the glamour of being the most important kid in school. What can be more galling as an adult than knowing your glory days ended with the lst XV, while that spotty bloke whom everyone picked on is now the 30th richest man in Britain?

One of the problems with school and academic testing is that it tests a child`s ability to be successful at school. Children who do well are no doubt clever, but the tests do not prove that the children who perform badly are stupid. A teacher once told me that some of her most disruptive pupils had also been the cleverest. Sheer boredom had turned them into self-destructive terrors.

School is a wonderful place for children who fit the mould. In a perverse way, it encourages mediocrity. There is little in the way of helping the very clever and the very stupid. That is no doubt why some of the greatest minds this century were notable academic failures, including Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison. The one thing they all have in common is their originality: revolutionary thinking is not what school is about. Nor is school about bucking the trend, or controlling the marketplace: if you look at Greg Dyke, John Brown (the chief executive of the bookmakers William Hill), and James Dyson (the inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner), it is not only their lack of early success that marks them out, but their staunch individuality and unshakable belief in doing things their way.

The late film-maker Stanley Kubrick once admitted that he had hardly learned a thing at school. “I didn’t read a book for pleasure until I was 19,” he recalled. That’s roughly the age I started to read about history, long after I had left school. I can’t really explain why I failed to show much promise at school, it wasn’t for lack of trying. I was very interested in learning, but very bad at displaying the results. Although I have no hard feelings, I can honestly say that, 12 years after leaving, I am still relieved to be in the adult world. Children, as they say, can be so cruel.

Indeed, sheer unhappiness is probably one of the chief causes of academic failure. It goes without saying that it is easier for middle-class children from stable backgrounds and good schools to get into university. The way is paved smooth for them. But even children from privileged backgrounds cannot always escape bullying. In my experience, many slow developers were utterly miserable at school. They failed because the teachers and/or other children were horrible to them, and they lost their self-confidence.

A close friend of mine was tortured at school. There was nothing wrong with his brain but he suffered from two defects: he was very clumsy and almost breathtakingly ugly. In other words, he was a nerd.

For 10 years the children bullied him and his teachers taunted him. Whenever he entered the cafeteria people used to boo and throw food at him. He was such a target for abuse that even standing next to him was a terrifying experience, because mere association could lead to appalling consequences.

My friend left school with few social skills. His first job in London was as a lavatory cleaner. Without revealing his identity, suffice it to say that he is now. a famous writer, recognised by journalists and politicians alike as an intellectual giant. It just took him an extra decade to discover his true self. During those years, while his former classmates were enjoying the fruits of a graduate salary, he sat at home, berating himself for being a useless git. Not long ago he told me that he received a letter from one of his former schoolmates, asking for some professional advice.

As parents and teenagers contemplate life after exam results, it is important to remember the Greg Dykes and Winston Churchills of this world, not to mention my friend. If the choice were between early school failure and prolonged adult success, who would choose the former?

Of course, it rarely happens quite like that. Lots of people start slowly and go nowhere. However, there are enough examples to make initial failure a poor excuse for not trying in the future.

Antony Beevor, acclaimed author of the best-seller Stalingrad, cheerfully admits that he never passed an exam in his life. But he refused to give up his ambition to write. As George Eliot once said: “It is never too late to be the person you could have been.”

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