Being loved and living in a stable family environment where potential can be fulfilled is never something to take for granted. Looking around the world today the percentage of children who can say this describes their world is still depressingly small.
When I was a teenage boy I never took my parents’ love for granted, but I didn’t think too much about feeling secure, or being supported and encouraged. Nor did I have a sense of my potential. This wasn’t complacency; it was simply a benign ignorance. I didn’t think about it.
My background was not difficult, clearly. I didn’t want for love, food or warmth. Our town was not war torn or without amenity. My parents had work. However we were typically without any significant disposable income and life was not straightforward for them. I say this not to elicit any response, it is just a fact. I didn’t ever feel poor, but I also knew for example that when I needed new shoes it was a stressful time.
I was reasonably bright at school and mum and dad were always very proud, but I also knew that from about 13 years on their support was less and less proactive. I remember thinking that staying on at school after 16 was going to be quite an adventure and not the norm. My father took this decision very seriously; it certainly wasn’t assumed that I would stay on. I don’t think he would have worried at all had I left at 16 (as long as I found work).
Then at 18 I decided I wanted to do a degree. In part this was because I had a circle of friends by now who wanted to do this too and in part because I did not have the first idea what I would do if I left at 18 and had to find work. Now however was a testing time at home. I remember feeling I was almost letting my father down that I was not going to work. He never said “get a job”, but he was clear that I had to do something “useful”. I chose law.
So one sunny September day in 1980, age 18 and a bit I left my small town in the country, got the three trains I had to catch to get to my University and left home. I had a rucksack, a small suitcase, a body wracked with nerves. I was absolutely terrified.
This visceral anxiety is something I can recall more than any other emotion at the time. I must have been excited too, I must have wanted to go, but standing on the platform waiting for the train to take me away, I felt alone, confused, uncertain and I felt terror.
This was not just “going to Uni”; this was leaving one life behind and taking on a new life. It would mean seeing everything through a new lens. Looking back I now know that I was not fearful of what was to come, but what I might lose. There could be no going back.
In the decades since then, I qualified as a lawyer, I became General Counsel, I set up my own business, I have written several books and travelled the world. However I still consider myself an imposter in this world. I still wonder if someone is going to knock on the door and tell me that I don’t belong in this world, but in a small town doing a hard day’s graft for a few pounds. It still feels temporary.
Last year my now elderly, but impossibly lovely parents came to the Houses of Parliament for a reception we were hosting to mark 15 years in business. They were overwhelmed with pride and they have shared my journey too; but we could all agree that none of it would have been possible had I not stood on that station platform in 1980 with their blessing.
Today I am now a parent with children who have been to university. For them the adventure was just as important, but their expectation was different. In one generation this is now their right, their normal, their obvious, and their path.
I do not want to sound like an old man with a grudge against those in the foothills of their life’s adventures. I am not at the summit looking down, I am on the descent, but I am greatly saddened when I see and hear how some students are approaching their time at University.
University should always be a time to protest, to march, to challenge, to assert and to cause offence. It is the time to feel and to act, but it has to be more than this too.
It is the best time of anyone’s life to have space to think, to find values that resonate and to become someone with the potential to make a difference.
For many, like me, it is the single most significant event in our whole life, when one way of being is left softly behind and a new uncertain, but amazing way of being comes blurrily into view.
Education transforms, learning transforms, listening transforms; being at University transforms. Sure protest, sure be angry, sure be indignant, sure be drunk as well, but seize the moment too. Opportunity is not sticky, it slips through our fingers before we know it.
So, my sincere respect to those who want to challenge old thinking, but please also then offer new thinking that we can all discuss. Perhaps build a new bridge before burning an old one.
Above all, in our behaviours, actions and decisions let us not lose sight of the need to respect the opportunity for any 18 year olds now standing terrified on their platforms, waiting for the train to their new life.