Precedent and learning Martian

I received my BSc(Hons) from the Open University today.

This was possible for me because of precedent in my family.

I’m the youngest of five children. I have two older sisters. One of them turned down a scholarship to Princeton to get married. She worked as an accountant to support her husband through his MBA, then when her younger son was a toddler she went for a gruelling five-year degree in Pharmacy, full-time. I watched this unfold with my jaw on the floor. My other sister put herself through her BSc (magna cum laude) and then a Masters, a nurse practitioner-ship, and eventually a PhD while working crazy hours in urban ER departments and bringing up three children. Her ability to outwork the toughest person while keeping a smile on her face is something I will always admire.

So when my application for QTS was turned down in 2010 and the efforts I’d made to earn money through writing had come to bupkus, I thought: I got this. I’ll go back to school like my sisters and I’ll grab enough credits to get on a PGCE for physics and then I’ll be able to get some work because STEM. I was 42. I had no idea how hard it would really be, but I’d seen them both do it and I knew it was possible. I jumped in with both feet.

When I started my kids were 4, 6, and 8 with all the attendant noise and mess. I was haphazardly running Steve’s business, and though I was writing I had virtually no money coming in for my work. My mathematical background consisted of Cs and Ds in high school math and no pre-calculus or trig whatsoever. I thought I had enough raw brains to see me through, but for the first couple of years even when the house was quiet I struggled to control my mind. Mathematics takes a very narrow, sustained focus, and I had to learn that. At first it was like Martian.

You know what? Even Martian is learnable. It’s possible to learn to do things you never thought you could. I’m telling you: you are not too old and you are not too stupid or weak or whatever. You just have to be willing to fall flat on your face a few times. Or a few hundred times. After the first few hundred times you fail at something, it’s not that big of a deal anymore. Take it from me.

The other thing it’s important to know is that sometimes it’s just about taking that first step. One step leads to another step. I ended up going well beyond the credits I needed to teach secondary school physics and I’ve stretched to the honours degree. Now I have the QTS I set out for, and I may use it, or I may set my sights a bit higher—at the moment I’m on a part-time MSc that I was allowed to begin last year because I had the chutzpah to blag my way in the door. I won’t lie: it’s pretty hard. I don’t know where it will lead. I’m putting one foot in front of the other, and that is how you do this stuff. You take the first step and build your courage as you go.

But it helps a lot to have precedent. So I’m here saying, I did this. These things can be done. People will help you—the generosity of support and kindness I’ve received from friends, family, colleagues, tutors, and sometimes even strangers has been amazing and humbling. My partner Steve has been a fucking rock. More tears have been shed on his shoulder than I care to admit.

The inspiration and example set by my sisters gave me the nerve to set out on this journey. It’s a big mountain. I’m standing on this little ledge of an honours degree and it seems like a good time to pause and thank both of my sisters for showing me how it’s done. Kathy, Chris: thank you.

And I’m saying to anyone standing in their kitchen surrounded by a life that’s not going to plan, to the person with the responsibility of little people looking to them, to that person with maybe some regrets thinking, ‘WTF am I going to do? It’s too late to make a radical change’—it’s not too late.

There’s precedent. You can do it—whatever it is you are scared to begin. It won’t be easy but it will be worth it. I promise.