Mrs Blethers and I were having a discussion about upbringing as we tramped round the Bishop's Glen, trying to keep ahead of the rain, and yet again it brought home to me how different her home-life was from mine. She had two extremely academic parents and an ethic of study in the house where homework was given precedence over chores (she didn't have chores to do!) and her parents were able and willing to help with the likes of Latin and chemistry.
My parents, on the other hand, were not academic - although my father could well have been had he not been forced through poverty to leave school at fourteen and enter the civil service on the bottom rung. Because, by the time I reached secondary school I had a baby brother as well as a younger brother, there was no quiet, academic atmosphere in our house and I had my share of chores - laying the table and helping with dishes, and later, when said baby was of an age to attend nursery school and my mother returned to work, I was also responsible for peeling potatoes and generally helping with the cooking. Homework was done after teatime, either in my bedroom or in the dining room, away from the family. There was no supervision and I was left to my own devices. I don't remember asking for, or receiving help very often and on the odd occasion I asked my father, who was a whizz with numbers, for help with maths, he would give me the answer but no indication of the means - and that wouldn't fool my maths teacher for a moment. My marks were fairly dismal and I only made an effort in things that interested me. My A-level results were barely sufficient to get me into teaching college, despite having been a promising pupil at primary school and being a keen reader and prolific writer of 'books'. I sometimes wonder why I wasn't more motivated at school, but to be honest, I think I was simply more interested in when I could get out to play.
But here's the thing: I don't regret being an academic failure. I learned enough to get me through college and allow me to follow a career, I've continued with my education informally and used the skills I gained from my parents and grandparents to lead a useful life, I think. I wouldn't have thought for a minute back then that in my sixtieth year I'd be studying theology and enjoying it, or learning to sing properly. And despite being so hopeless at maths all those years ago, I'm a whizz at sudoku. My parents rarely pushed me to do anything I didn't want to do - except tidy my room - but they did encourage me to take an interest in other people and their welfare, to talk about anything and everything, to make myself useful and be content with what I have. I'm not sure if those are fashionable qualities any more but they've helped me keep my head above water.
Most of my friends are far greater academic achievers than I ever was but I feel as if I hold my own with them. Only my younger brother attained anything like academic success in our family and he assures us that it wasn't his fault. My youngest brother was even more hopeless than I was academically but it hasn't stopped him being pretty darn successful.
I wonder how Mrs B and I would have fared if we'd been born into each other's families.