As my daughter Emiko reached the age of one, I made the decision to go back to college. The first time I went to college I made bad course choices; Archaeology (not as interesting as Tony Robinson makes it out to be), Psychology (not as helpful as you’d think when suffering from mental health issues), Photography (waste of time, spent most of it in a friend’s Graphics class) and English Lit (lost interest when I found out we were studying exactly the same books I had just done for GCSE, which might not have been so bad if I hadn’t thrown out all my GCSE coursework over the summer holidays). At the end of the year I sat in my exams feeling depressed and not really caring if I failed. Success would only mean another year of it. Needless to say, I failed. My final grades were U,U,U and E (in Photography, I actually did some of the coursework for that one).
This time, I was planning to study Business, on the basis that I could then run my own business from home. I didn’t know what exactly (in fact, I’ve only just figured it out this year) but I thought it would be a good place to start. Having a one-year old child turned out not to be the setback one might imagine, in fact, it was rather a boon. It meant I qualified for funding from Sussex Coast College Hastings for not only the course costs and materials but childcare as well.
Although I was excited at returning to education, things didn’t begin well. Somewhat foolishly, I had overloaded myself. In the run up to the start of term, I was co-hosting a charity Burlesque show with my friend Severine at which I was to debut my first (and only) Burlesque routine, in addition to modeling two outfits. Added to that, I was also moving to a new house with a friend of mine, on the basis that having someone to pay half the bills and do half the housework would make life easier while I was studying. Plus, she had a car, so shopping would be easier. Sadly, it was too much to take on. The strain of coping with all this and a small child burst like a dam one day when Sev phoned to tell me she thought it would be best if I backed out and allowed her to run the show by herself. I was devastated. I felt abandoned. I had a bit of a mental breakdown.
Thankfully, despite the initial destructive impact on our friendship, Sev and I repaired our differences, apologised for various hurts inflicted and are still good friends to this day, despite her relocation to Australia. Our charity show was successful (and led to Sev running immensly popular Burlesque nights for over two years) and my routine went very well, although I had such severe stagefright I have never repeated the experience. Possibly the nervous breakdown had something to do with it.
When I started at college I was not in a good place. I felt very much like I had the first time I was at college, with the depression and the panic attacks. The only difference was this time I didn’t hate the work I was doing, I loved it! To be honest, I don’t think my classmates liked me very much to begin with and I don’t really blame them. Eventually, however, I pulled myself out of my slump enough to focus and make a couple of friends. I decided I would aim for the highest marks possible, Distinction, Distinction, Distinction. I had to complete 144 pieces of coursework, over the course of the next two years, sometimes as many as 6 or 7 a week.
So, college was going great, if a little exhausting. Each evening, I would work on my assignments, getting up early each morning to get my daughter ready for nursery before I walked the mile to college. At the same time I was juggling housework, motherhood and …my flatmate. As it turned out, moving in with my flatmate was a disaster. A month after we moved in, she told me she didn’t think she could actually afford to live in our new house. She revealed to me the extent of her credit card debts and I agreed to take sole responsibility for the water and TV licence in order to help her out. Two months later, our landlord rang me to ask me why I hadn’t paid my rent. I was very surprised by this as I had paid it. I informed him that it must be my flatmate who hadn’t paid. He informed me I had joint liability and if she couldn’t pay it, I would have to. It turned out she hadn’t paid any rent at all since we moved in – all the money I’d saved up for driving lessons, gone. The arrival of a court summons clued me in to the fact that she hadn’t paid her share of the council tax bill either. That is the main reason I didn’t do most of the things I had planned during those two years; every time I saved up to do something on my list I had to bail her out.
I couldn’t help thinking I would be better off without her. The only problem was I couldn’t afford to move again so soon. On top of this, my daughter Emiko had, after a long process, been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, which has a tendency to make the Terrible Two’s and Three’s even worse. Suddenly I was also having to deal with speech therapists, home assessments, hospital visits, a new vocabulary and getting a Statement of Special Educational Needs. Obviously I wasn’t in it alone, her dad Barrie helped, nevertheless, it was hard. In the meantime, I continued my efforts to achieve highly and enjoy the college experience. I had some really good times with my college friends especially on our class trip to Windsor Castle to learn how it is run as a business. I came to greatly respect one tutor in particular, a little Scottish lady, with whom I still occasionally meet up when she is over from Canada. And before I knew, it was the end of the year and all my hard work had paid off. I had earned my Triple Distinction.
To celebrate, a friend and I put our new found business skills together, got the college to give us some money and threw a graduation event for our classmates. We sent out invitations, had a whip around for money to get gifts for the teachers, sourced and decorated a venue, put together a buffet and since we wouldn’t be getting our actual certificates until some months later in the mail, we printed up certificates commemorating the completion of two years of college. On the day, we seated our fellow students, and each said a few words before inviting others to come and speak. Several people made small speeches about missing the camaraderie in our class and about our success in the future, as many of us had gained places in good universities. One of our classmates sang us all a song in her native Mandarin, called ‘the Moon Represents my Heart’. It was very affectionate and touching. Our Scottish tutor presented our certificates and we presented her with a gift, two champagne flutes engraved with her name and then ” With Thanks, Class of 2010″. We had similarly personalised embossed wallets for our two male tutors. Then we tucked into the buffet, before taking pictures of our friends, together for the last time.
Going back to college to gain my National Diploma in Business was worth every bit of effort and every rough situation I had to go through to get it. I got a second chance to do something I really screwed up once and I proved I could do it. And I surprised even myself by genuinely enjoying the subject matter, when I’d enrolled on the course simply because it seemed like a useful qualification to have. I still had no idea what I would use it for but I didn’t care. It was enough to have it.