Thursday, 30 October 2014

Of ghosts and skeletons....

So it's Hallowe'en once again: the time of ghosts and skeletons, one of which I let out of its cupboard exactly five years ago this week.  The relevance of all this will hopefully become clear at the end of the story, so keep reading!

I've written and reminisced quite a lot over the last five years about my schooldays: they were happy times, the memory of which I've grown to treasure.  The culmination, back then, was that at the tender age of 17 I left school and went off one October's day down to Exeter to take up a place at Exeter University.  I was overjoyed at getting the grades I needed (two As and a C against an acceptance requiring two Bs), and full of optimism and plans for the future.  I'd always been young for my age, shy, timid and slow to make friends: whether I ignored that warning sign, didn't think it mattered or simply thought na├»vely that it was magically somehow going to change I can't say.  But the constant round of partying, socializing and clubbing which is traditionally supposed to mark a Fresher's first experience of University just didn't happen for me.  I don't think any of my classmates from school had gone to Exeter too, so I didn't know anyone, and on the course we were split into different groups for different seminars and tutorials and so on.

The inevitable and predictable result was that after only a very short space of time I was lonely and homesick.  To make matters worse, two or three of the compulsory initial modules covered classical literature and drama, the very things I'd hated most about doing French A level at school.  I'd take copious notes in the lectures, but otherwise it was simply going in one ear and out of the other.  I'd re-read my notes in my room in the evenings and they wouldn't mean anything: it simply wouldn't sink in.  The rest of the time I whiled away listening to the radio or sometimes records, interspersed with an occasional trip to the communal TV lounge, hoping no-one else wanted to watch something else on one of the other channels.  On Thursday nights there was a "formal" Hall Dinner in the evening, so we all gathered together, dressed up in our suits and gowns, to watch as much as we could of "Top of the Pops" just before the dinner started!

The worst time was the weekend when there were no classes.  Saturdays I generally used to go into town for a spot of "retail therapy".  Most weeks it was just window shopping as although my parents had given me access to a savings account they'd started for me as a small child, it was only supposed to be for buying books and emergency essentials!  Sundays were especially awful.  I couldn't go home for the weekends - it was a four or five hour train journey each way even supposing I'd had the money for the return fare, and I think I managed it once in the whole term.  There was a payphone downstairs in the entrance hall, but this was in the days long before mobile phones, when "trunk" calls were prohibitively expensive.  So that just left letters and I wrote home as often as I could, eagerly checking my pigeon-hole each morning for a reply from home.  Somewhat peversely, in the light of what I've just written, I gave no inkling of how unhappy I was: I suppose I just didn't want to worry anyone.

Eventually Christmas came, and back home in all the excitement and festivities marking the occasion, I got a respite from my worries.  Returning in the New Year, I somehow hoped things would get better and I secretly resolved to try harder to make it all work.  If anything, it got worse.  The long dark nights and cold dismal days of winter and early spring did nothing to lift my low spirits.  I started to get lethargic and lose what little remaining interest I still had in the course - I couldn't settle down and I found myself struggling to keep my head above water with the work.  That said, it wasn't all bad: I was thrilled to hear that in my Italian language classes, which I'd started from scratch, was really enjoying, and which had been the main reason for my choosing Exeter in the first place, we were already up to an O level standard!  And I remember too the weekly trip up the hill on the other side of town on a Friday afternoon to where the Language Laboratory was situated, for the bizarre highlight of the week - a session listening to our own choice of current French pop songs, decyphering the lyrics and singing along karaoke-style!

The rest of that second term passed in something of a blur, proving I daresay the truth of the common supposition about the mind blotting out memories of unpleasant things.  Be that as it may, the next thing I recollect is the morning when I was upstairs at home, in the last week of the Easter vacation, helping my mother make the beds.  I was absolutely bricking it - in the knowledge that we were due to have exams just a week or two into the new term, and I had never been less prepared for anything in my life.  The phrase "preoccupied with failure" doesn't do my confused feelings justice, but then at that moment my mother suddenly looked me straight in the eye and said: "Why don't you tell me what's wrong?"

I sat down on the bed, tears welling up in my eyes, and blurted it all out: it was as if a dam had burst.  I wish I could say I felt better afterwards but I didn't.  I felt an abject failure: I'd let my parents down, dashed their hopes and denied them the pride of getting their only son through University successfully.  If there's been a lower point in my life - before or since - then I can't think of what it might be.  But my mother simply sat down on the bed beside me and said gently: "Well, if you don't like it, don't go back."  My sense of relief was indescribable.

I don't remember what my father said at the news, from which I deduce that I must've left it to my mother to tell both him and my sister - quite probably something along the lines of "This is what we've decided...!"  She was on the other hand insistent that I had to go back down to collect my things in person a couple of days before the new term started - a sort of object lesson in cleaning up your own mess after you.  While I was dreading it, the process of de-registering or dis-enrolling or whatever the proper word is for it turned out to be pretty painless.  In fact the general reaction from all the tutors was: "But why didn't you say anything??"  I didn't know how to answer that then and I don't really know now.  The closest I can get is to say that there were so many things wrong that I just honestly didn't know where to start.

My father gave me the news that one of our neighbours, who was a college lecturer, had offered to talk me through the idea of enrolling on a local language course as a day student instead.  But, with all my hopes dashed, what little self-confidence I had in tatters, and my plans for the future in ruins, I said no.  I'd fallen at the first hurdle and I didn't want the consolation prize: I just wanted to draw a line under it all and move on to something completely different.  My father was a bit disappointed and I can now see why.  I'd be lying if I said that I hadn't occasionally wondered idly over the years whether I shouldn't perhaps have swallowed my pride and tried to salvage something more from the wreckage.

In the emotional aftermath which followed, the whole episode rapidly became something of a taboo subject at home, and those few friends and acquaintances who were 'in the know' soon picked up on the vibes that I didn't want to talk about it.  On one of the rare occasions when it was mentioned, my mother confided in me that she believed the problem stemmed from the time I was put up a year in Junior School, becoming thereafter always the youngest in the class, and thus going off to University a year before my time - and she said she wished that hadn't happened.  Perhaps she was right: my emotional immaturity certainly added to my problems although I have considerable doubt as to whether an extra year on its own would've made that much real difference, taking into account all the other factors at play.  Whatever the answer, as time wore on, there was less and less need for anyone to even know it had ever happened and thus my 'secret' had lain hidden for some four decades before I plucked up the courage to "confess" and write about it.

Re-reading what I've written so far, I'm glad I opened up about it all five years ago.  The catharsis then has served to put it all into some sort of proper perspective and I think that on the whole I can take a more benign view of the experience.  I do still feel sad, thinking back: I was after all desperately miserable and what should've been one of the happiest periods of my life ended up seeming like an unmitigated disaster.  I feel tinges of regret, as I have done from time to time over the years when something would suddenly or unexpectedly remind me, for something which was simply not destined to happen - and I don't think those will ever entirely leave me.

But it's been the wistfulness which was the legacy of my abandoning my study of Italian 45 years ago, with nothing to show for it, that acted as the catalyst behind my decision to enrol for weekly classes, taking up in 2010 from where I'd left off.  On the whole both enjoyable and productive, it nevertheless hasn't been all totally plain sailing. I'm no longer as sharp as I was back in 1966, my memory isn't as retentive and I don't spend enough time in between classes immersing myself in the language anywhere near enough to being halfway fluent.  This year, my fifth, will be my last (on this course, at least - the current Advanced 2 being the top level).  I was a little in two minds about carrying on to the end, in fact, the price tag of £320 for the course fees being one deterrent.  But it seemed a shame not to finally finish what I'd started, particularly as the Advanced levels are only run in alternate years.  

I'm finding it hard going: in fact after the first or second week, for the very first time I gave serious thought to dropping out, almost regretting my decision to re-enrol.  I struggle rather haltingly to contribute to oral discussions, I still cannot decipher recorded dialogue except by lucky guesswork, and the level of some of the reading texts we've been practising with has had some quite advanced vocabulary.  The interest level has varied and I daresay that's inevitable.  On the plus side, my reading is usually OK and I generally put the stress and intonation in the right places.  My grammatical work is on the whole spot-on, but I've yet to start either the first written assignment or prepare the presentation I have to do: I can't work up any real enthusiasm for either.  Somewhat unexpectedly, I was heartened to find at the end of this week's class, when we were talking amongst ourselves, that I'm by no means alone - I detected a noticeable feeling that this year's level is a big jump up from last year's and we wonder if the real problem is that we've just reached the natural ceiling of our ability?  Maybe I should confide discreetly in Laura, our tutor, who has always been both friendly and approachable?

But then as I sit here pondering upon the implications of that last paragraph I can suddenly hear echoing in the distant corners of my mind the plaintive, rather haunting cry of that poor lonely 17-year old from my past.  He's calling out to me :"Hey, Donny, you can do it!  Believe in yourself!  Don't give up on me now, you can do it, you know you can!"   I can't let him down a second time.