The son of an acquaintance of mine has recently landed a good job on a national newspaper. For the past few months I’ve been reading the articles written by this boy – let’s call him Derek – and thinking how delightfully original they were. Last week I ran into Derek’s mother and told her that her son was brilliant and that she must be proud of him. She rolled her eyes and said he hadn’t always been a star. He had been expelled from his state comprehensive school at 15, failed dismally academically and had spent his teenage years off the rails. So how, I asked, did he land this most sought after of jobs, one that Oxbridge graduates kill for?
She said that Derek had decided in his early 20s that he wanted to be a journalist and simply refused to take no for an answer. He more or less took up residence outside the newspaper of his choice, bombarding it with e-mails, until eventually he was allowed in as an unpaid intern. He financed his journalism by working night shifts as a hospital porter, until eventually he was offered a job.
We all love an underdog story, and this one vastly cheered me up. All the more so because it seems to belie the conviction of every pushy parent that if a child puts one foot wrong academically they have blown it for life. Both in London and New York there is this feverish notion that the journey to success starts at around three years old. It is vital to get a child into the right nursery school that will get them into Harvard or Cambridge or wherever. And if the child does not land up with straight A grades then clearly their chances of success in life are very low indeed.
This tiresome hysteria has got worse in one generation. When I was at school and at university there was a lot of opportunity for screwing up, and most of us availed ourselves of it at one point or another. In fact, if you cruised effortlessly from one academic triumph to another you were regarded as rather dull. As a schoolgirl, not only did I fail to get straight As, I didn’t get any As at all – though I did get an F and even a U (for unclassified).