Courage was mine, and I had mystery
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery
From Wilfred Owen, Strange Meeting (1918)
I thought of these words this morning as I cycled past the University of Melbourne campus – something about the open bay windows of the well-appointed Victorian buildings of whatever Faculty it was reminded me very strongly of Glasgow and my first year there as an undergraduate (shown above, the School of Law). The poem is about war and the pity of war, but those lines are about the power of youth, if you can only grasp it.
I didn’t get the most out of university by any stretch – I lacked the confidence which age, or background, or a certain type of school can give you – and I didn’t do any of the things that were open to me and that I actually longed to do: write for the university newspaper, join the History Society, take up fencing and rowing, because I didn't dare. I clearly remember the sense of being an outsider staring through a window at something I had no right to be part of – a feeling that returned to me for a moment, in distilled form, this morning.
What is very clear to me is that background and schooling play an essential role in equipping children with confidence to go out into the world. Many of my classmates were from families of lawyers. They’d gone to certain Glasgow schools (out of 120, 15 from the same private school). While, after a couple of years, they may have begun to see this as a disadvantage of sorts, as those of us who came alone had to make friends and probably had a more interesting time of it in the end, at first it was a clear clique and another way for those of us with no connection to the law and to each other to feel excluded. I didn’t have any connections to follow up for internships in my first summer break; I didn’t have the money to go away to Europe on holiday as many did; I didn’t even know how to write a CV (I cringe to remember that my very first CV was handwritten). I spent time with a tiny group of friends and my boyfriend. I moved in small circles.
My memories of this time are one reason why I’ve endowed a scholarship at the law school for a student from a disadvantaged background. A really important part of this is the offer of mentoring: on the assumption that without the patrician background, someone like me would be starting out with absolutely no knowledge of how to operate in the university environment. A wealthy background and an education that is paid for gift the recipient with much more than just education – there’s also a much better awareness of how to work the system. When people attack the idea of quotas for disadvantaged students they seem to be unaware of this: the real impact of “disadvantage” is not just measured in wealth but in confidence.
It took me at least 10 years from the day I started university to grow into confidence in myself. While that is what has made me who I am, and I don’t regret it, I do sometimes think of what I might have done then if I’d only had the courage.