I was recently returning from teaching one of my classes when I noticed a group of young students gathering to see how they had done in their GCSE exams. It reminded me of being 16 in the late 1980s, when I nervously waited to find out how I had done in my recent exams and how the impending results would have an effect on my future desire to go to study art and design at Hereford Art College. I had not found life at school an easy experience, what with being subjected to periods of bullying, and I think it would fair to say I had not been a academic high achiever. This situation had been added to by being regularly told by other children at school (and a number of teachers) that I was “thick” and “stupid”. However, I was fortunate to have a very supportive mother, who took some initiative, as she thought I may be dyslexic. So I was taken to a dyslexic institute where I was tested and found that this was the case.
Finding out that I am dyslexic proved very helpful and allowed me make to sense of why I had found academic learning so difficult. I was given some extra help at school with my studies, particularly from my English teacher who was very supportive. When the big day came to collect my exam results I tried to think positively, but also felt that expectations for me were low. I remember on the day the results were published that for some reason my grandfather had got hold of mine and he rang me up to tell me the news. My grandfather was a strong domineering figure, a Glaswegian by birth and not a man to mince his words! His first words down the phone to me were “You’re not going to like this!”. Hearing these words did not fill me with a sense of hope, and he then went on to inform me that I had failed all my GCSE exams apart from Art. I recall that when the news finally sank in I felt a sense of despair and heaviness. It was as if all the taunts on the playground of being called “think” and “stupid” were now being confirmed on paper. I was also dreading the public embarrassment of having to face other people at school and my local town, and go through the ritual of being asked how I had got on in my exams. However, with regards to my future studies at Art college, I was very fortunate that I attended an interview at the college and, due to the high standard of my portfolio, I was accepted on the course.
If you have ever failed an exam or test, or have not done as you would have hoped, it is important to remember you are much more than a result; this moment does not define you as a person or your life. Human beings cannot be reduced to a number or a grade on a piece of paper. They are like the open sky, without limit, beautiful and unfathomable. I will leave you with the words of the poet Jalaluddin Rumi:
Two Kinds of Intelligence
There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired,
as a child in school memorises facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.
With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information. You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.
There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox. A freshness
in the centre of the chest. This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid,
and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
through conduits of plumbing-learning.
This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.