When I was maybe 13, an educational psychologist visited the EBD (emotional and behavioural difficulties) boarding school I attended to assess me. It was not clear to me then, and is not now, what the purpose of this assessment was, what role it was intended to play in my life or life chances. A box was ticked, a report was written, a copy was sent to my father and he left it on a sideboard — so I read it.
I only recall one line of it: “John states he would like to be a journalist, he needs to be encouraged to have more realistic aspirations”. Now, this isn’t one of those stories about how I decided that very day to prove the insensitive and judgemental ed psych wrong. None of the very limited achievements of my life can be traced back to her comment. I did not ‘turn a negative into a positive’ or any of that bullshit. Quite the opposite — I was devastated.
A few years ago, writing under a pen name, I was paid, for the first time, for an article I had written — the money was, symbolically at least, important. The quality of my writing was good enough, the content interesting enough, that someone was willing to give me cash in exchange for it. As you might imagine, I remembered the psychologist and her report then. And I indulged myself in some thoughts of the ‘fuck you’ variety. Unfortunately, the confidence this gave me was ephemeral — it did not stick.
In fact, this was not really the first time I had received money for the content of my mind, in my early twenties I intermittently flirted with the idea of being a stand-up comedian and would attend various open mic nights and try outs in London clubs — one of these gave twenty quid to the act the audience decided was the funniest. So, I guess that was the first time. Not long after this career high I gave up stand-up comedy. Ultimately I was not very good at it.
I was not sure exactly what I wanted to discuss when I set about writing this post, but perhaps this is getting near the crux of it — I always needed/wanted there to be something I was ‘good’ at.
Eventually, I guess, some things collided in a helpful way: my knowledge, born out of personal/professional experience, being fairly widely read and, more recently, my training as a child therapist, of the needs and issues facing children in care combined with some ability with oral and written English (although that is not obvious from this clunky paragraph). Perhaps this combination meant there was something I could finally be good at — something I could offer, something of value, however limited.
I have been lucky enough that people have often been very generous in their praise of articles and blogs that I have written. And, even prior to this, when I used to deliver workshops to foster carers and residential children’s home staff with a colleague, we received very positive feedback. My colleague would always take this at face value, I, on the other hand, would dismiss it: “they’re just being polite”. Even when an adoptive parent, who had been finding things hard going when she attended a workshop I delivered, wrote to me personally a year later to thank me for something I had said which had helped her, I did not take it seriously — what I had said to her was trite and banal.
Nevertheless, in time, I gradually allowed myself to believe that this might be the thing I was good at — I could communicate, sometimes complex, ideas in an accessible and authentic way, especially on the topic I know most about, which could perhaps broadly be defined as: how to help children and young people who have had difficult starts in life.
It is pretty dispiriting therefore to realise that this was a vain delusion, that I no longer have anything interesting or new to say, if I ever did, and that what I do say won’t and can’t make, to use the most nauseating of cliches, a difference. Because that is important isn't it, no? If I deliver a workshop on, say, self-harm, that only has value if someone attending responds differently the next time a young person they are involved with self-harms. If I write an article on the importance of, say, ongoing relationships for children in care and care leavers, this only has value if one of the people reading it thinks differently about the issue in future (and by extension makes different decisions).
And what do I really think about these complex and murky issues anyway? What do I have to say that isn’t just the rehashed and reconstituted ideas of others? And who the hell am I to feign the adolescent certainty required to write an article or speak to a group of people? To set myself up as some kind of expert?
Perhaps the educational psychologist was right all along, I should have more realistic aspirations.