I look over the form photograph, taken in the classroom of our gowned teacher.
We are clustered around him, the girls seated on the low cupboards and the boys standing. My eyes march along the lines trying to put names to faces, adding brief biographies as I go, surprised at how much recall I have of that mid-seventies day. Either side of me are my then best friends, Alison and Louise, one now a wine writer married for the third time and one a dedicated nurse widowed almost before the signatures on the certificate had dried. Kevin, whom I saw last year, his features hardly changed since we sat side by side in infants’ together. John, whom I loved so much that I gave my tin railway set to and who, as a man, left the family home one morning, opened the garage door as usual but instead of putting the key in the ignition and driving to work, flung a rope over the cross beam and hung his weak Cystic Fibrosis body. Michael, bricklayer; Clare, went to Oxford but no idea what next; Julie, still working in the family shop; Vicky who went to prison, had two of her babies there and who collapsed in my arms at the sorrow of it all when I last saw her; David, Andrew and Chris working on their dads’ farms to this day; Graham, killed on his motorbike when he was twenty-one. The roll call goes on and on; a vet, an MP, emigrated to Australia, a picture framer, a mum, the dad who married the mum, the one who was good at sports and the one who swam the Channel.
The boy on the end of the front row stares back at my gaze. Peter. A quiet person with a fragile, pale face. His hands sunk low in the green blazer pockets, there is a definable distance between him and the rest of the group. I didn’t know him very well. I’d known most of the others since I started school but Peter travelled in from the next hamlet and kept himself to himself. I know that he wanted to study medicine, that he was in the chess club and, like me, the art club, and that he once patiently and kindly helped me to prepare a display for Open Evening.
By the time they all sat exams my life had taken a different turn. I was no longer part of the photograph. I was living away from home and that August results’ day meant nothing to me.
I would never have heard about Peter if I hadn’t been on milk buying duty that day. Londons’ was a cluttered little shop carrying cheap toys, basic groceries and an assortment of newspapers and magazines. The headline on the ‘York Evening Press’ sidled up to me as I queued behind a stream of youngsters eager to buy their fistfuls of sweets, Peter’s serious, intense features set there in monochrome newsprint. He had been worried for several days, his family said; concerned that his results would not yield the promised place at University College though absolutely no one else had any doubts that he would succeed.
I try to imagine the dark place that Peter was in that day. The tensions and fears that must have been binding his introverted mind.
All the farming families had a shotgun hanging on the back door and the boys were usually taught how to use them as soon as they could handle the weight.
I think of him taking down the firearm and hooking the bent barrel over his elbow, stuffing cartridges into the pockets of his parka and setting across the fields in the very early hours of results day. It was a good couple of hours walk into the village. Did he stumble in the darkness or have any second thoughts about what he was intent on doing?
He must have silently planned every part, choosing the place of his death with the tenacular precision of someone who had the makings of a good doctor. He marked the area with a piece of chalk, writing a neat ‘Sorry’ for his mum, dad and sister on the limestone step of the war memorial cross and leaning with his back against the chiselled out name of his great grandfather he lifted the rifle and blew his brains out.
The form gathered in the school hall that day, receiving the pieces of paper that held their results. Peter’s sister collected his for him. He had four straight A’s.
The pressure was intense then to get the right grades and there was little support for those who fell short.
As the years have progressed, that pressure has become even greater. League tables, social media, the fight for university finance and the press have all contributed to making the exams and all that surrounds them a time of great stress for young people. If the results are higher than average, then they are made to feel that standards must have been lower and if the results are lower, then surely the youngsters must not have worked hard! They can’t win whatever they do. The photographers are keen to capture both the delight and the pain and those who fail are given no opportunity to carry their bewilderment and disappointment in private.
As results come through today, be sensitive that these are young souls at a time of their development when things cut deep. If you encounter those whose journey has been harder than that of some of their peers, encourage them, give them privacy and space to assimilate their let downs and then be there for them as they think through their options. Don’t use discouraging words that may stick with them forever but build them up and assure them that this is not the end. Success comes through many, many routes and often the most delightful life stories are from those who never achieved academic success.
There are still Peters in our system almost annually. Tragedies that should never happen. The nation needs to re-evaluate the emphasis it puts on results, to stop pressuring our children to do more and more and to focus on what people can do instead of what they can’t, but until that day comes, it is the responsibility of us all to be alert for warning signs of depression, anxiety and stress in the tender young people we encounter and have charge for. Build them big, encourage them, show them that they are of deep worth and value, no matter what their academic success. All the academic endeavour in the world is of no virtue unless we give them confidence in themselves, the self esteem to empower whatever they do in life and the authenticity to be amazing, incredible gifted people living lives with the potential and purpose that is in each individual.