I lost my way in academia when my perfection-conditioned brain couldn’t cope with a string of A’s instead of A*’s in my GCSEs.

The following piece was ‘highly commended’ in the OU Students Association Freshers writing competition. The author, Bethany, is from Greater Manchester and is working towards a BA (Hons) Arts and Humanities (Open).

I lost my way in academia when my perfection-conditioned brain couldn’t cope with a string of A’s instead of A*’s in my GCSEs. This might not be something others can feel sympathetic to, but for me it was a kick in the gut. I wasn’t perfect. My best friends did better than me and that only made me despise myself more. My mum was, understandably, bewildered by her daughter crying miserably in the car after finding out she passed all her GCSEs.

I wasn’t allowed to take the A-levels I wanted and the ones I did take terrified me—I was sure I would be even less ‘perfect’ in my execution of them. So I quit my local private school and took up a vocational Complimentary Therapies course in a college ridiculously far from home, taking a bus, tram, and train twice a day. This perhaps allowed me to heal a little from whatever had gotten me so worked up about the academic world, but when I passed the course I realized the last thing I wanted to was to work in the industry. I tried to start a perfume business. I worked in a pub kitchen. I worked as an accounts assistant. Eventually I moved in with my boyfriend, unemployed, ostensibly fulfilling a domestic role but unable or unwilling to keep a spotless house. At this point, I tried to seem happy where I was, being that person. But I was so, so lost.

I love to research, to the point where I get lost in the opportunities I find and never follow up on my ideas. But when I found the Open University and realised there was no barrier to entry for me, I actually clicked that button to join. My heart was racing. I still proud of myself for how much that moment meant to me.

This explosion of excitement and possibility was not reflected in the people around me when I told them. I’m sure every single OU student has heard something similar: ‘Why don’t you just go to a real university?’ ‘Oh, she isn’t a real student like us.’ ‘What’s the point? It won’t be useful in the “real world.”’ Or the very worst response: ‘Oh.’ I didn’t know why I was doing it, in all honesty. I only knew that I desperately wanted to immerse myself in a degree, and that it made me happy, and that it gave a purpose to my days.

The dream consistent throughout my life was to be a writer. At times I have been sure of this, uncertain of it, driven to it, or embarrassed of it. I dance around the conviction. During the first years of my degree, I started a fruitless online education platform, tried my hand at freelance content writing, wrote the first draft of a novel, and became a ‘director’ in my boyfriend’s family business as a content manager. Always very part-time, always without conviction; always embarrassed.

When he summarily dumped me and my possessions outside my mum’s flat after a five-year relationship, I would say my adult life actually began. The job I got washing pots in a café gave me an absurd and wonderful sense of freedom and independence. I built up my savings from scratch. I fell in love and moved in with a wonderful man, made friends, and reconnected with my family. I began to find again the person who, before her GCSEs, effortlessly had faith in herself and was honest about her interests and feelings. My compulsive research brought me to my beloved current job as a transcriber for an American company, for which I write all day—even if the words are not strictly my own.

All through these transitions, I had the common thread of the Open University: the hours of studying, the often painful essay-writing weeks, the online community, and the ideas and identity it provided me. I’m in my final year and my final module as I write this. No, I don’t know what I’ll do afterward, but I have a long, long list of ideas, all of them my own and all of them powerful, even if some of my dreams may look small to others. The OU hasn’t been a place to mechanically make my way through a degree to get to the other side. It has been a rock to tie myself to through storms, a voice insisting, ‘Yes, you can,’ and a confirmation that, though not perfect, I am capable, clever, driven, and optimistic.

If as you read this a voice is whispering within you to make that leap and hit the button to become a student, I encourage you to listen. And if you are reading as a student … Let’s both knuckle down again together and hit those books.

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