During the 1940s schools had the equivalent of what I suppose today would be called “careers” officers. Three people (it was usually three) would visit a school and pupils of fourteen and fifteen would be called in, one-by-one, for an interview about their job prospects. The interview took place with a head teacher present and was, at least in my own experience, a scanty and one-sided affair. It should be borne in mind that this was 1949 just four years after the end of the second world war and there was a serious shortage of labour. The resultant devastation wreaked by the Blitz called for massive re-building, but the thousands slaughtered both at home and abroad meant that jobs were plentiful but at very low wages in most cases.
In those days (and I suspect the situation is still prevalent today despite mass unemployment) poor families viewed their offspring’s school-leaving as a time when perhaps a little more money would be brought into the house to help alleviate hardship. The word “career” did not come into the thinking of people who spent a major part of their existence wondering where the next meal was coming from. And as far as I know not one child went from my school to either Grammar school or to a university. As for me, I was aware that, like my brothers before me, I would one day quit school and be expected to do something to contribute to household funds, but what that “something” was going to be was a thought I had never entertained. I think I fondly imagined that once freed from dreary old school I would spend joyous hours reading and writing or tearing round streets on the clapped-out old bike a neighbour had passed on to me. And I was encouraged in this self-deception simply because no-one at home had thought to discuss with me how I was going to earn a living, though once my father had remarked that he would not want to see me end up at Tate & Lyle’s, the sugar factory on the other side of the Thames.
I remember my career interview with as much clarity as though it was yesterday. Hauled in from the playground where I had been taking part in a game of net-ball, sweaty and dishevelled, I entered a room where four people, one woman, two men and the headmaster, sat round a table and eyed me suspiciously. But without looking at me the woman asked “What are you going to do when you leave school?” Without a moment’s hesitation I told her “I am going to write, Miss”. There was a stunned silence. I knew by the smiles of disbelief on the faces of those present that I had voiced a preposterous idea. The headmaster cleared his throat. “Heather writes very competent essays and poetry and edits the school magazine, but her other subjects are weak, particularly her maths. She could never earn her living as a writer.” I keenly felt the injustice of this statement. I had never said that I wished to earn my living as a writer. I had been asked what I was going to do when I left school and had answered in all honesty that I was going to write.
The woman said, still avoiding looking at me directly (I noticed that nobody looked at me or even addressed their remarks to me; they spoke only to each other) “What about an office job?” The headmaster stroked his chin. “Yes,” he said, “we had given that some consideration.” I wondered who had given that “some consideration” because it certainly wasn’t me. Then one of the men consulted his notes. “You could get a job in a shop,” he told me. Well, he didn’t actually tell me, he told the others. The second man ventured another splendid proposal. “What about a factory?” I was beginning to feel that eventually someone would come up with the bright idea of suggesting sending me up chimneys like poor Tom in The Water Babies.
I was gazing out of the window as they talked among themselves. I heard murmurs of “Pleasing appearance” and “Nicely spoken”. How could they tell? I had spoken only six words since I had entered the room.
The rest of that interview has always remained rather hazy for me. When I left that room depression descended heavily upon me. I saw, in my mind’s eye, years and years of office, shop and factory work stretching out before me. The attitude of those people, helpful though they may have thought they were being, had instilled in me the notion that I really wasn’t up to much, that I was in some way deficient. Now I know what is meant by a self-fulfilling prophecy. If children are told they cannot do this or that, then the chances are that they never will. To me education means always starting with the premise that kids are unique and social little beings, that they can do anything. But if they are treated as I was, only as fodder for a capitalist system, then in all probability they will become unhappy adults doing work that in their hearts they despise. That is what happened to me.