The Real Lesson
I was always working hard to keep up appearances with family, friends and anyone who I thought I needed to impress. In high school, I experienced fear. It was a fear of being caught-out for not understanding what was being taught in the classroom. In no time at all, I became good at acting. I possessed all the skills necessary to give a convincing performance and I was very believable. I was a model student who displayed exemplary behaviour. Teacher instruction time was a mighty effort on my part to gain an understanding of the expected work requirement. I knew what needed to be done during the delivered lesson but somewhere along the way, I would become lost in the fog and struggled to find my way out. I would describe this experience as sleeping with your eyes wide open or listening but not hearing. I told my thirteen year old self that I had a defect in my brain and was faulty in learning.
I was an expert in maintaining a pretence of confidence. I did it by keeping quiet, paying attention by appearing to be listening, keeping eye focus for the entire time and hoping to god I was not called upon to speak. Oh, how I envied the other students who could and would willingly participate in class discussions. I watched their faces as they spoke and gave their opinions and viewpoints on a subject that had gained their interest. I could see their energy and clear thinking and,I didn’t know it then,but I believe I recognised the moment when the teacher would engage them in high-order thinking. I recall feeling excited when such a level of learning was reached by the other students but, I could not experience that feeling for myself, or so I thought.
Keeping up appearances worked well for the duration of my high school years. I was able to survive and avoid the feeling of embarrassment and shame—until the end when all my hard work to keep up the façade was revealed. It was exhausting and I began having meltdowns as a form of releasing the built-up tension in my day. I felt like a fraud. School was fast becoming the enemy and I had to keep up with the charade for as long as I was legally required to be there.
At seventeen, year eleven happened. For me, it was a coming of age and for the first time I felt that I was good at something, at school. I was understanding, not only the teacher’s instructions, but the actual course subject. The subject was Secretarial Studies and the teacher was Miss C. My fingers were resting on typewriter keys and a flashback of my younger self came flooding in. I loved my childhood typewriter, given to me by my mother. It all fell into place for me and it made sense to be in that class. I began to smile at school, without pretending and it made me so happy to know I was a highly-able student in this subject. Along with typewriting skills came the learning of shorthand. This new language blew my mind, expanded it to a whole new level of learning. I felt like I was given an opportunity to start over and this was my chance to get it right, where acquiring a new skill was concerned anyway. It came naturally to me and I felt important knowing I mastered this “language” that was full of mystery and code. My brain was not a defect after all and it certainly was not faulty in learning, Miss C assured me of that with my excellent end-of-year results.
My cue to leave high school was at the end of year eleven where my overall results required me to repeat the year, in other words, I failed. Such a stab-in-the-heart word (failed). It took me many years to shake that stigma. I knew I had shown excellent results in Secretarial Studies so, that was where my path was to be. I was not going to repeat the year because I had a plan and mum always said, “You can’t drop out of school unless you have a plan.” So, I enrolled into a secretarial course in the city and that was the beginning of my lifelong, learning-journey.
It was 1980 and Swanston Business College accepted my enrolment application to study with them. They accepted me (ME) and that was a powerful and profound moment in my life. Why wouldn’t they accept me,I told myself.I came with wonderful high school results in this area of study. I remembered Miss C’s words of encouragement. “Don’t just do what you are good at, do what you love also.” I loved the way those words sounded in a sentence and it was another clue for me of how I found the structure and meaning of words interesting.
My second chance to achieve success in study arrived and I was so very ready to start. It was a school setting with the only difference being that there weren’t a high number of students - perfect! I matured that very first day and by that, I mean in my ability to sustain focus and concentration. I sensed it and I was ecstatic for myself, I teared up a little from being overjoyed but never shared that proud moment because in my mind, it was silly.
I finished the course with good results and attained the necessary qualifications to gain employment in the area of office and business administration. This achievement became my rite of passage into believing in myself and in my ability to reach for what I wanted. It seemed a simple thing to want at the time but it really was a huge mind shift. And one that was going to stay with me and continue to provide me with courage when I needed it the most, like in the doubtful moments of academic learning.
My first “grown-up” job was as a receptionist for a small arts and crafts organisation. I was responsible for the obvious duties that I was trained to do.Although I was nervous and lacked confidence in a new place, I quickly shook that feeling and took on my role with mastery and of course, it was my attained knowledge that saw me through. How wonderfulofa feeling it was to be in a place where I was in total control of my acquired knowledge—knowledge thatI continued to gain and, more importantly, maintain.
Knowledge is power—this is what I kept hearing. It made sense that only I could be responsible for my own knowledge. So, I took it on.
It was 2013 and I was going to have a kick-arse, chin-up, pull your socks up, soldier on, push through it, kind of year.
I was working as an education support aide and it was a very rewarding job. I didn’t have the formal qualifications for this role,as it wasn’t a requirement. But it didn’t sit well with me. So, with the support of the school principal, I found myself, once again enrolling in further study, this time as a mature-age student. Oh, god, all the doubts came flooding back. Could I sustain and grasp the relevant information in a class room setting? Could I deliver and submit quality work assignments? It had been over thirty years since I last studied. Although this was a big ask of myself, I felt compelled to strive for it as it was important to me to fulfil my choice to further my knowledge in the field of work in which I was employed. I loved my job and I felt strongly about being recognised with the credentials that went along with the work that I was doingso, that was it;off to school I went again.
It took all I could muster to walk into that class room on the first day. I was so happy, so excited to be in a learning environment again but I found myself needing to tap into the self-taught acting skills I had acquired in high school to boost my confidence levels. I had to resurrect them once more to see me through as I was needing courage just to be there and they didn’t let me down. The course was wonderful in every way, the small class of women, the steady pace of information being delivered, the comradery and a very supportive educational facilitator, my teacher, Mrs B.
Medical situations occurred, unexpectedly, as they do. One at the beginning of the course which led to time off for the care I needed to have and a second one six months later. I had to have more time away from class and I was behind in my work which meant a delay in attaining my desired qualification. If I can successfully complete a course while undergoing radiation therapy and continuing to work throughout it then I can bloody well achieve whatever I want or at least have a go at anything I want. I am relieved that my old brain could recall these events, allowing me to retell them and share them. I so desperately wanted to be in the company of my other school friends and learn with them and get through it all. As it was, I was able to attend class, get through the missed work assignments and provide my teacher with the completed units of work. I presented parts of my electives orally and demonstrated full knowledge of the content-YEAH, me! I will never doubt my ability to take on study again.
Although my teacher was unaware of the medical situation I was faced with, she knew I was under extreme fatigue. Without special consideration, just a wink and a hug at the end of each class was all the special consideration I needed to get me over the line and to pass with flying colours. Once again, I proved to myself that education is lifelong. It didn’t matter what my circumstances were, if I wanted it I had to go and get it. I became an advocate for myself and sought assistance when difficulties in attaining information arose and this gave me such a strong sense of who I am. With courage, I used my voice to gain, not only the extra help that I needed, but the help that others needed too.
The “real” lesson for me was the realisation that schooling within a traditional educational setting, or institution was not the only means to gaining the knowledge I required to help me get to where I wanted to go to. I must have missed the subject of ‘EXPERIENCE’ during my school years. I didn’t see that class listed on the curriculum - turns out it wasn’t offered. Lucky for me, I found it;right outside the school grounds, beyond the gate. So, my inquiring mind and I, travelled the real world.
Fotoula Reynolds is an author of poetry. She lives in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria, Australia with her family. She began writing poetry in 2016 and has published her first book of poems titled: The sanctuary of my garden (2018).
Her work appears internationally in:
The Dan Poets Anthology Australia
The Hillscene Magazine Australia
Bonsai Journal Bangladesh
Spillwords Press USA
The Pangolin Review Mauritius
The Galway Review Ireland
Frances Poetry Anthology Australia
The Conclusion Magazine Bangladesh