Every year I realise I’ve not written this down so I can point to it, and then forget after. So today, since I’m already too busy, I’ll do it. My A Level results. This is the story of how the results do not need to define the rest of your life.
My A Level results were:
There tend to be two categories of people. Those who got an N, and those who didn’t know you could get an N. While I believe it no longer exists, it once fell between E and U, seemingly serving to reward those who took a stab at spelling their name correctly on the front page, or at least drew some nice doodles for the examiner to enjoy. At the time I assumed it simply stood for “No.” “Not you, matey.”
I took biology, chemistry and maths, which of course makes perfect sense for a writer… I was convinced I wanted to be a scientist, and despite my dad’s confusion as to why I wasn’t pursuing subjects in which I more obviously showed talent, I defiantly went on to attempt to get a place studying microbiology at Edinburgh university. That was the goal. Why microbiology? It’s horrible to realise now I can’t even remember having a particular passion for it – I guess I liked learning about it at school, and I had already realised I wasn’t good enough at sciences to be a vet.
I wasn’t exactly expecting good grades. When you spend the two hours of a chemistry exam plotting a graph on your graphics calculator that makes it draw a train with smoke coming out of the tunnel, you can be pretty well assured that you didn’t ace it. Convincing my parents of this was tougher, trying to explain that, “You always think you did worse than you did!” doesn’t tend to apply when you hadn’t written anything in the little boxes.
It was a combination of things. The wrong subjects, not really doing any work for two years, and being absolutely atrocious at exams. I had managed to get through GCSEs on blagging along, and then discovered that didn’t work for the next stage up. But I also wasn’t stupid – I picked up an awful lot of it, and can still recite the anatomy of kidney or make my way around a Krebs Cycle, seventeen years later. I just had no ability in exam conditions, rather worsened by having done far too little revision after far too little effort for two years. So yes, not the best approach.
Results day sucked. Obviously. I was helping out at a holiday club that week, so couldn’t get down to collect my results first thing with my chums. But when I went down later in the morning, some friends turned up to meet me there. I wished they hadn’t. My friends at school were smart (they’re still smart, as it happens). At a time before AS/A2, when you took three A levels as standard, friends of mine took five or six, and got As in all of them (this was before A*s, too). Most my friends got straight As. A couple dipped into Bs. I got grades that none of us even knew were available. It didn’t feel good sharing that moment.
For reasons I still cannot explain, beyond sheer miserable panic, I decided to retake the same subjects. There was no time for thinking about it – to get a place at the local six form college, I’d have to apply on results day itself, and I just went for the same ones. I still had those ambitions of studying biology at such a good university. And so it was that I had the most miserable year of my life, as all my friends went off to university or gap years, and I stayed in the same town, studying the same subjects, in a grotty hole of a college with few friends. My routine became a depressed trudge. I distinctly remember that the highlights of my weeks were: Chris Evans’ (genuinely great) Radio 1 breakfast show, especially the handovers to Simon Mayo; Monday, Wednesday and Friday night on BBC 2 when they’d show Seinfeld followed by Larry Sanders; and Sunday and Wednesday nights when the just-launched Channel 5 would show baseball from midnight. I used those as the stepping stones between the rubbishness of the days, studying subjects I knew I was no good at, in a place I didn’t want to be, while hearing of my friends’ amazing times. Woo! This time I got:
But here’s the thing: turns out, life has been brilliant. I screwed up my A Levels twice, and tried to do a completely ridiculous degree in a made up subject at a tin-pot university, which was a colossal waste of time. But after that, and after a brief, peculiar stint working at a national radio station under the control of the utterly repugnant Kelvin MacKenzie, I found my passions. I’ve been very fortunate, but I’ve also worked incredibly hard. I discovered youth work, and I re-discovered that I can write. I went on to do a degree in youth work and applied theology, and came out of it with a first class degree, while at the same time writing my arms off for PC Gamer, Eurogamer and others. Six years ago I co-started RPS, and now is now, and I’ve a wonderful job, amazing wife, and my NNE means absolutely nothing whatsoever.
I recognise that I’m extremely fortunate. I understand that not everyone gets away with such a screw-up. But I feel it’s important to say on results day that the grades you get do not define you, and do not need to define the rest of your life. You are bigger than them.
It sucks to do badly. I had a really crappy year because of failing. It’s not something you breeze past. But it’s something you certainly do get past. Life is enormous, and if you work your butt off, and acknowledge your passions, opportunities can come up.
And if you did well: fistbump!