Thursday, August 07, 2014

...and I want to be a mechanical engineer

Steve Wheeler's 'I want to be an astronaut' post today describes his encounter with an overstretched, unsympathetic school guidance/careers counsellor. Inevitably, that put me in mind of my own experience. My title is a continuation of his.

Steve and I are roughly of an age, and, although we were educated in two very different countries, it seems our school careers advisers were cut from much the same cloth. Perhaps it was more to do with the way they were equipped for the job than with the sort of people they were, but I'm not entirely sure.

First came the IQ test woes. Ordinarily, we'd be tested once in primary school and once in secondary school and that would be it. Like everyone else, I was tested in primary school, and presumably the results showed nothing alarming or surprising.

When it came time for the high school test, however, it seemed my first assessment was so far at odds with the primary school test, that I was called for a retest the following year. I guess the results of that test were equally surprising, because I was tested yet again the year thereafter.

Oddly enough, the results of these tests were never revealed to us. Apparently, our IQ was none of our business. But, during one of my many run-ins with the head teacher, mine was made known to me. She declared that I was more intelligent than either of my two closest friends, and both of them were A students, while I was a solid C. Of course, the fact that I played just about every sport going, participated in every school play, was a member of several clubs and societies, while they did/were not, was clearly beside the point.

What a dismal underachiever I was.

Then came the dreaded aptitude tests. On a scale of 1-9 I scored a solid 7 across the board. During my 1:1 with the school guidance counsellor, I discovered that I could do whatever I wanted and - as long as I applied myself - I'd be good at it. This didn't help me, because I didn't know what career options even existed out there. How could I want to do something if I didn't know about it?

I thought about what I enjoyed doing and what I was good at, and decided I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. I wanted to design machinery that did stuff. Maybe cars, maybe production line equipment. The mechanics part of the physics syllabus was far and away my favourite bit, so I thought I might enjoy a career in which I got to do that all day.

Not so fast, kiddo!

My Mom couldn't afford university fees on her own, so I was going to need a student loan. Only it turned out banks in the late 70s were no way no how going to give a study loan to a girl who wanted to study such a manly subject as mechanical engineering. I'd never make it. The attrition rate was too high. Yadda yadda yadda. To give them their due, newspaper advertisements for mechanical engineering posts in South Africa at the time called for someone who was 'white, male, 25-35, with experience'. Through no achievement of my own, I was indeed white, but I was not and was never going to be male. At some point, I would presumably be 25-35, but how was I going to acquire experience if I was unemployable up to that age? No-one seemed to have the answers.

And thus began a round of the most interminable testing and visiting to student counsellors at universities and and and.

One such visit is indelibly imprinted on my memory. By now, I had figured out how to manipulate the tests to get the results I wanted. The student counsellor at the University of Port Elizabeth was perplexed by them: how could I test so high for teaching and so low for working with children? It simply didn't make sense!

This from a university staff member, mind you. A place where a fair amount of teaching took place day to day, and none of it to children. He failed to put two and two together, and instead advised me to get a PhD in psychology and take over from him when he retired. How I was supposed to reach the PhD level, he never quite explained. Perhaps he assumed it was obvious. It wasn't.

What he also failed to consider was workplace learning. I had never heard of it. I thought people went to school, then to university, then to work. I had no idea that the learning journey continued thereafter. In fact, loathing school as I did, I'd have been horrified to discover that companies had training rooms and people went to 'school' in them (which is how it was done back then).

So, of course, I did the obvious thing. If I couldn't do mechanical engineering, I'd go to drama school and be discovered by Hollywood.

How I did actually wind up in a job which involved teaching-but-not-to-children is perhaps a story for another day. I'm truly glad I stumbled across the field of workplace learning, but it was certainly no thanks to any of the hordes of guidance counsellors I saw during my high school years.

I sincerely hope that today's schoolkids are better served by theirs!

No comments: