My good friend Tom Cairns has written about his experiences progressing from secondary school to university, and coming to live with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in the progress. (I edited the piece for him.)
In June 2008, I formally left secondary school with four GCSEs to my name: English Literature, English Language, Maths and Physics. Three Bs and one Cs. Up until the point I left, I had been a nominally straight A student. I’d won several awards in primary school for being the best performing student each year. I still haven’t recovered enough to be able to manage that again.
Even discounting the fact I don’t have CFS, don’t spend my spare time hopping on planes with a BA Gold Card on my shoulder, and am not responsible for a wildly popular railway departures website, Tom’s experiences broadly mirror my own.
Despite a few (really) great teachers, and a couple of good friends I’ve remained in touch with, my secondary school was an awful, mismanaged mess. Leaving it for the sixth form1 and going to Woking College instead was easily one of the best things I’ve ever done.
While at Woking, the people I met, the routine I settled into, and the experience I gained, made me into the person I am today. It was a struggle at first—I passed one further maths exam literally by the skin of my teeth, away from a fail by one mark—but I made it, and eventually, in my final test, got a good C grade on that module. This galvanisation of my own confidence, plus friends who helped me to flourish personally (including one who later ended up at Queen Mary EECS, helping me make some good friends) made going to Woking entirely worth the long commute and the miserable waits at freezing bus stops.
Being at Woking, and later at Queen Mary, taught me that it’s not the end of the world if you cock up. If you foul up, or if life just kicks you in the nuts, things will go on regardless.
I suppose luck comes into it to some degree, but in the end, the message remains the same. I was miserable as a teenager. But things got better. If you’re in the same position, don’t panic, don’t look back. It may not be rainbows and unicorns ahead, but things can get better.
The sixth form at my old school—which I’m not naming here—closed down shortly afterwards. The last I heard, some of the best teachers were facing compulsory redundancies, one whilst she was on maternity leave. Which was just charming. Incidentally, this teacher (also my mentor) was the person who suggested I would be better going to a separate sixth form, for a change of environment: I owe a lot to her, too.↩