Monday, 17 August 2020

A Letter to My Son

I’m writing this to you ahead of Thursday, when you’ll receive your GCSE results. I know you’re feeling anxious about this but I wanted to share a few words of reassurance with you because I know those feelings of uncertainty and worry very well. But now I’m a “proper grown up” I have some experience of life to share with you; things I’ve learnt about failure and disappointment, and how to cope with things when life feels very out of control.

The first thing I want you to remember is that you have been living through an extraordinary time recently – nothing could have prepared you to cope with a global pandemic. I’m proud that you’ve managed to live through the uncertainty, fear and boredom of many long months spent at home, dislocated from your normal routines and friends, and the everyday things that you enjoy. It’s very hard for a teenager to see their horizons shrink so suddenly, especially in a year that was meant to be filled with memory-making and milestones.

I know you’ve missed out on some special experiences and this makes me sad but I want you to know that so many other wonderful moments await you in the coming years – there will be time to make up for those lost opportunities. I’m proud that you’ve managed to, if not always smile through the experience, accept it and make the best of a difficult situation.

Secondly, be proud of the fact that you were making such great progress in your exam preparation – all your teachers had great expectations for you fulfilling your potential and I really think you would have shone in the exams. As one wrote to me: “It was such a pleasure teaching your son and seeing him grow more confident each week. He is such a brilliant young man and he has an incredibly bright future ahead.”

Now, a few words about exams, assessments and tests. It’s important to remember that exams don’t tell the full story of what makes you you, or what makes you special and unique. They are – like many things in life (driving tests, job interviews, for example) - a ‘necessary evil’ but they do teach us some important things; they help you learn how to manage your time, give something your full concentration and be resilient even when you feel utterly terrified by the prospect of sitting in an exam room.

But they can’t measure everything about a person – they’re really only an ‘indicator’ of your abilities and so I want to make sure you know that you are so much more than the grades written on the letter you’ll receive on Thursday. Exams can’t measure where your imagination goes to when you’re drawing something amazing on Sketch Up, or how your brain pulses with ideas and enjoyment when you’re DJing or making a new music track. They don’t test the emotional intelligence that you have by the bucket-load (and there are plenty of hugely successful people out there who don’t have an ounce of your empathy, kindness and deep engagement with the world around you) Exams are just part of the puzzle that makes up the journey through life, and there will be many more tests you’ll encounter on that journey.

So, here’s the important bit: exams are just one of the many tests that make up a life, and we can’t pass them all. There will be many times in life you’ll feel disappointed or experience feelings of failure. Even the most “successful” people have encountered many failures along the way; learning to accept failure is essential in accepting the reality of life, which is full of joys but sometimes disappointments. 

All we can strive for is giving things our best shot and accepting that sometimes the outcomes might, at first, not be what we want. But I’ve learned that life has an interesting way of reframing what we think of as failures (not getting the grade we expected in an exam, or not getting a job) to actually be of benefit to us in the long run…it can just sometimes take a bit of time for us to see that benefit.

Ahead of Thursday, please remember that 2020 has been an unprecedented year and there’s every chance you won’t have been assessed as fairly as you could have been. This is not a reflection on you and your abilities – we all know you’re a bright, interested, thoughtful and hardworking young man. And going forward, as you embark on the next stage of life, remember that all we ever want is for you to try your best; don’t let fear of failure hold you back or think “I can’t”; instead, how about thinking “I can try”…

I found a letter written by a writer to his son as he was about to leave for university – I think this excerpt is great advice that will serve you well in life, and encapsulates my hopes for you as you sit on the cusp of adulthood:

“If you can’t win the scholarship, fight it out to the end of the examination.

If you can’t win your race, at least finish—somewhere.

If your boat can’t win, at least keep pulling on your oar, even if your eye glazes and the taste of blood comes into your throat with every heave.

If you cannot make your five yards in football, keep bucking the line—never let up—if you can’t see, or hear, keep plugging ahead! Never quit! If you forget all else I have said, remember these two words, through all your life, and come success or failure, I shall proudly think of you as my own dear son.”

Lots of love now and forever,


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