I don’t know what it is about people who say ‘Oh, you’re so lucky’. It presses a little button right inside of me. I have to say, these people are invariably women too, which makes me even more angry.
Those of you who know me would actually say I’ve had plenty of disadvantage. It’s a little bit more than some of you, and a little bit less than others. I feel lucky. I was born in a G8 country in a time of relative calm and quiet and whilst I might joke to say ‘I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth’, in reality, being born into the world I was – that was luck. Everything that’s happened since then has been sheer determination.
Yes, that’s what I have in spades. Sheer, bloody-minded, cheeky determination. Anyone who knew me from a child would know that is my one defining characteristic above all others. Dogged persistence. Dedication.
For those of you who only know me in a virtual world, you’ll probably not know something about me. I don’t talk about it much. That’s because I think about it about ten times every year, and usually because someone else brings it up. I have a congenital deformity of my hands. I have a few shortened fingers and a couple of little stumps.
I think it’s bothered me as much in life as having a big nose might. Some people might find it bothers them all of their life and have surgery to make it ‘normal’. Others might turn it into a charming part of their personality. Some people would let themselves get weighed down by it and be bullied by it; others are just going to do stuff and never ever think about it.
And although I don’t think about it, it’s a large part of my determination, I think.
Funnily, two events have brought this back into my mind. One was a particularly bleugh-evoking Criminal Minds yesterday. A woman was born with a congenital deformity in it. Her husband was obsessed with ‘fixing her’. Another was the fact that someone said to me (a grown-up, no less!) ‘oh, how AWFUL for you…’ when she saw my hands and asked what had happened.
As awful as having brown hair and hazel eyes, I guess.
Anyway, it taught me a lot about accepting your lot and it made me quick to fight off bullies. I can’t think of a single person who ever said a thing to me at school, except one. A boy called Jamie (who went on to become a heroin addict in Blackpool – that’s what kind of boy he grew up to be…) called me a name. I punched him in the stomach and tied his scarf too tight around his neck then ran away. He never did it again. I guess that’s humiliating for a boy. And I’ve taught all kinds of rough children, none of whom have ever mentioned anything about it beyond occasional curiosity. I would think that most people who know me think about my hands precisely as much as I do. Not often at all.
I have vague memories of going to doctors, maybe in Sheffield, who wanted to make it easier for me to do things and operate in various ways. I might have been less than five, so whether those things are true or not, I don’t even know. After that, my only memory is a riding school who wanted to put me in the disabled class because I might not be able to hold the reins. As a still-keen horsewoman, you can see how little THAT bothered me. We went to another riding school and it was never a problem. In fact, the only thing I’d be upset about is that I’d like to have played the guitar or the violin or even the flute and those things were just out of my reach. I put them to one side and never got bothered because it’s kind of like wanting to be invisible or be able to fly. It’s just not something possible for me. And that’s fine. I can’t say I care much about it. I can play the piano and that in itself is probably a great stride further than early doctors would have thought I would be.
Anyway, my determination has a bigger, more influential factor (besides my stubborn Gramps who was determined beyond determined on my behalf) which was my school and the position of women in the world.
I’m of an age where I still had huge concerns about wearing trousers to my first ‘grown-up’ job interview. I was told not to. That was 1995. That’s only 17 years ago! I wore trousers anyway. On purpose I think. I wanted to be clear on what type of person I was. Or, more importantly, what kind of woman I was. I was a woman who wore trousers if she felt like it.
Ironically, for working-class women, being a woman counted for little. You worked. You worked as hard as a man and you got paid less. You had children and you still worked. That’s some of my ancestors. For middle-class women, like several other ancestors, you could work until you got married. Then you became a house-wife. So I have two teachers way back there in the annals of my history, and both had to quit work when they got married. It was only ever middle-class women that needed to burn a bra.
But precisely those women are the ones who should have had access to the same things men did too. Colleges, Universities, jobs. We should have been able to do what they did. There’s still a huge problem with girls taking up physics, chemistry, electronics, engineering.
In my secondary-school world, women were the school. Top to bottom. There were about six male teachers, but they were about as efficient as the proverbial fish without water. Women rocked. In a girls-only school, Chemistry A level was as well populated as French A level. It’s why I count so many engineers and scientists among my friends now.
So being a girl was just about my biggest disadvantage of all. You only have to look at the typical senior management structure in the schools I worked in prior to 2000 to see the picture. The head was a man. The Chair of Governors was a man. The deputy in charge of time-tables and classes and learning was a man. The deputy in charge of pastoral care was a woman. Heads of department were generally men, unless it was food technology. The only way women got to power was by being larger than life, like Sheila Teasdale, the head of Modern Languages at my first school, or behaving like a man. The second school I taught at was a little different. The usual patterns still applied, but the head was a woman.
Or she had breasts.
That’s about as female as she got.
She’d risen to the top by behaving like a man.
I wanted to be a little different. In fact, one woman showed me it was possible to rise to the top without being a complete bully. She was the female deputy at my first school. Sure, she was head of pastoral care, a traditionally female role, but she had not given up her gentle side. She was also about as determined as you can get, but quietly so.
Anyway, she gave me a book. The title of the book sounds really cheesy. It’s ‘The Nine Secrets of Women Who Get What They Want’ by Kate White. It sounds like a book about bitchy, manly, bullying women, or women trying to find a husband. It’s neither. Sadly, it’s out of print now, but yesterday, I had a right good tidy-up and I unpacked it. It got me thinking about all that determination and ‘luck’. It’s funny how much that book shaped me. I think it gave words to qualities and beliefs I already had, and it justified my behaviour in other ways.
Her advice was simple. Covet what other women have that you want. Admire successful women who have qualities you like. Copy them. Learn from them. In fact, go and ask them if they’ll mentor you (long before mentoring even existed) Be a glutton for all the advice any woman can ever offer you. Don’t be a pit bull or a prima donna. People will hate you. Be the best of what you already are.
Those are all fairly cheesy, hackneyed tenets. But her other advice is just me all over. Bite off more than you can chew. Don’t wait for the right moment. Be too big for your breeches. Don’t sit tight. Don’t rest on your laurels.
So I did. I plugged away. I wrote. I improved. I read books. I copied other women’s style. I sold myself. I am the biggest marketer of ‘Brand Me’ ever. I put my name on everything. Nothing was too small a task and everything could lead to something bigger. I started sharing my resources on a prepubescent internet. Then someone asked me to take part in a national project. Then I wrote articles for magazines. Then I got a phone call to ask me if I could step in and write a chapter of a book as someone had dropped out. The rest, as they say, is history.
I think this is very true of many, many things in life. You make your own luck. You do the work, and THEN the results come in, in ways you can’t even imagine. Writers, particularly, think that the most talented will find a book publisher and that publisher will see their innate talent and they’ll get published. Actors are the same, I guess. Nope. I’m out there finding ways to write myself, getting myself published. And the best thing is that then people ask you for stuff, not the other way around. From having shared all my resources on the internet in 1998, I now get asked to write stuff. I gave a little and got a lot in return.
There’s a tenet in that, too, though.
It’s got to be good. In fact, it has to be so much better than everything else out there that it blows their stuff away and makes it look crap. And I do that by working harder, by working smarter, by being endlessly self-critical and by being endlessly analytical. I think that’s my piece of advice. Don’t be afraid of making other people look crap and making yourself look like a swotty boffin. Beat deadlines, do more, be there earlier, stay there later and do it all with a smile. Put fingers in lots of pies and then when one pie turns out to be rotten and filled with dog turds, you have got other pies to choose from. To be a woman, even now, you have to be so much better than the men in order to get half the attention they get. It’s still a man’s world. That doesn’t bother me any more. It’s not a secret that I KNOW I’m better than most men out there writing textbooks. And that’s why I keep getting asked to do it, in spite of myself.
Wow. A long blog covering all my entire life. And all to explain why I hate it when women say ‘Oh, you’re so lucky. You’ve got xx and xxx and xxxx’. It hasn’t come without cost, and it hasn’t come by luck. So to those women who think I’m ‘lucky’ to be able to survive in La France Profonde, I’ll say this:
Funny that, isn’t it?
p.s. though… the harder I worked, the more jealousy I attracted. You’ve got to be teflon these days, to make it through the Mean Girls.