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Resolving the Right Route?

Resolving the Right Route?

I mentioned in my Sunday sermon today [20 June 2021] that 1966 was a stellar year for Britain. Though on reflection perhaps “notable” would be a better word. Despite significant social turbulence and unrest, compared with today there was greater optimism around. The economy was strong, prosperity was growing, school leavers didn’t worry whether they would get a job but what job to choose. We were the cultural centre of the world: Beatlemania was at its height and Merseybeat music ruled the world. Carnaby Street was the fashion centre of the universe with designers like Mary Quant and models like Twiggy becoming international celebrities. London and Liverpool were the cities to visit and millions of tourists poured in from every corner of the globe. England hosted the football World Cup that year, and actually won it, beating Germany 4-2 in the final. It felt good to be British, living in a country of consequence.

Whether all this was a good thing is debatable, and sadly the shine of the golden year was tarnished in October with the Aberfan disaster in South Wales—a completely avoidable tragedy where through corporate greed, ineptitude and cost cutting, 116 children and 28 adults were killed when a colliery waste heap slid and engulfed the village primary school in a devastating avalanche. Beyond our shores the Vietnam War still raged, American student protests echoed in Britain, and many other troubles, major and minor. So it was far from a Zion society. The cultural revolution of the 1960s began the unravelling of moral standards that has led to the appalling sexual norms and social attitudes of today.

Nevertheless, it was an exciting time to be a young adult, with a world of possibilities. There is one notable event that historians seem to have missed (though no doubt records will be rectified eventually): in 1966 a young man by the name of Craig Marshall went to college to train as a teacher. There’s much worth sharing from my student days and I’ve shared a little in previous posts, but in this post it’s the background surrounding it I want to explain, and a puzzling question that it raises. The explanation involves a degree of confession on my part, so please be kind and generous. It’s also a little long, so be patient and stay with me.

I’m sorry to say that I squandered my opportunities at school. I scraped a pass in the “eleven plus”, giving me a privileged place in a grammar school. For the first three years all was well. I worked hard, was top of the class and looked set for success. But in the 4th year (today year 10, age 15) my commitment began to wane. At the end of the year I lost the top spot and was 3rd in the class. School reports said things like “Craig has done reasonably well but could do much better”. The “could do better” theme continued with increasing urgency into the 5th, a crucial exam year. Astonishingly I managed to pass six O levels, though with modest grades. Crucially I failed French, and in those days a foreign language O level was required for university entrance. However, I did well enough to be accepted into the sixth form to study A levels. I had a vague idea of becoming an architect, so I took art, maths and physics. But the rot that began in the 4th year continued. I did a bare minimum, rushed off assignments in the lunch break to leave evenings free, and did little revision or serious work.

Despite this, the teachers seemed to like me and I think I got a decent report when I applied to university. My first choice was Manchester, at the time top in the UK for architecture. I was invited for an interview which went extremely well. I remember they were particularly impressed with my aeromodelling hobby (ironically a big distraction from schoolwork) since model building is important in architecture. They offered me a place requiring three A levels at E grade – the lowest possible, equivalent to an open door. They were saying “we really, really want you, come on in” . . . but they also required me to pass French O level. Come the exams though, I got what I deserved: I passed art with a B, but failed maths, physics and French (I failed French three times with a worse grade each time) so . . . I didn’t go to Manchester.

It’s what happened next that raises an intriguing question.

Manchester was willing to hold a place open for me, so after leaving the 6th form I enrolled in night school to resit maths, physics and French. I needed to earn money during the day though, and while job hunting saw an advert for “unqualified teachers”. I’ve since learned there was a major crisis with understaffed schools, and this was a desperate effort to stick a finger in the dyke. Incredibly, after a brief interview they hired people without any training whatsoever to work in primary schools. I think the intention was to assist teachers rather than actually teach. However, I was taken on at St. John’s CofE Junior School in Bright Street, Middlesbrough as a teacher and in just a few weeks I was given my own class! (I think, more than anything else, this illustrates what a different world 1966 was from 2021.) It turned out I was quite good at it—at least, I could control the class—whether the children actually learned anything is another matter. I quite liked it and the idea of becoming an art teacher took root. Art was always my first love, I had some natural talent and thought it would be more enjoyable and less arduous than architecture. Then there was the prospect of those very long school holidays! Also, I already had the qualifications for Teacher Training College—it was a lesser standard than university. I could ditch night school, which was becoming a real drag. Decision a no-brainer in fact.

I was accepted by Madeley College of Education. Icing on the cake came when halfway through the course for a basic teacher certificate, regulations changed and by studying an extra 4th year I got a B.Ed.—a university degree by the back door (which later unlocked the route to an M.A. then a Ph.D.) So I became an art teacher, which, after five years, led to one of the greatest blessings of my life: an offer of employment in CES (now S&I). I cannot overstate what an incredible, glorious benefit this was for me and my family. It changed our lives for good on a scale beyond words to express. Yet . . . if I had worked hard at school and passed my A levels, gone to Manchester and qualified as an architect, I would not have become a teacher and would not have been employed in CES.

So, here is the challenging question: was I guided by the Lord to be a slacker at school, in order to fail my exams, need a temporary job and be led into teaching? Are we ever led to fail so that a more desirable outcome can be achieved? Are we ever inspired to take a wrong fork in the road (remember Elder Holland’s talk?) in order to back up and take the right direction?

I’ve pondered this question many times, without arriving at any definite answer. Perhaps because the Lord knows what we will do in any situation, he arranges the right opportunities at the right time along our path.

Or, perhaps the architecture course was the right one after all and would have led to even better opportunities for me than CES. I can’t imagine anything better, but it’s a possibility. In that case, I fall back on a different explanation: the Lord always makes the best out of whatever mess we get ourselves into.

I believe in two things definitely. First, the Lord can see the future, he’s not bound by time, he can see our whole life. He won’t interfere with our agency. The route we follow will always be entirely our own choice. However the second thing is that, without removing our agency or using any degree of force, he guides us if we allow him to. The details of it, the who, where, how or why of it are unknown, although we often recognise it looking back. But I know for certain that the Lord is present in our lives to a far greater extent than we imagine.

But I’m still left wondering if my failure at school was a good thing or a bad thing. Perhaps it was both, and perhaps it doesn’t matter now anyway. In the Narnia story “Prince Caspian” after Lucy makes a mistake with serious consequences, she asks Aslan how things would have turned out if she had done the right thing: “To know what would have happened, child? said Aslan. No. Nobody is ever told that.” Mmm . . . we stand where we are, put the past behind us and do the best we can, realising that we are not perfect and may fall a little short at times.

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