The last year has seen me taking my first steps into academia. I began a Masters with London School of Theology (LST) in September 2016 and next week I embark on the second year of what has now become a three-year project. I have really struggled with the year and I thought perhaps writing a blog reflecting on my experiences might help me gain some clarity and who knows, someone else might benefit from my ponderings!
My route into academia has hardly been conventional. In 2016 I won the Sermon of the Year competition and the prize was free study at LST. In looking at the options, I concluded a Masters would both be the best value I could gain from the prize and also would be an exciting opportunity to gain an academic perspective.
I don’t have a first degree. Whilst others my age were going off to university at 18, I had a small being growing in my uterus. Even before that, the idea of university hadn’t appealed to me. I am from a northern working class family with middle class aspirations (my parents liked Gilbert and Sullivan and were professional musicians), but no one in my family had ever been to university. When I left secondary school I wanted to do performing arts but my parents insisted I needed to be able to get a proper job, and so as a female, who quite liked children, clearly the right option for me was a childcare qualification. Though I didn’t dislike children, it turned out that working with them fulltime was VERY BORING. My parents promised me that when I had the ability to get a Proper Job, then I could choose to do a performing arts course.
However, nobody foresaw that I would begin a relationship with a young man who would abuse me (let’s call him Alan). They didn’t see that he would coerce me into sexual activity, damage me immeasurably and refuse to use contraception. Nobody predicted I would be pregnant at 17 (at school I would have been voted Least Likely To Get Pregnant). I found out my status would (according to the Daily Mail) become Scrounging Teen Mum the same week I finished the childcare course.
As a Scrounging Teen Mum it turned out I wanted to do everything I could to reject the stereotypes that I was sure were actually a true characterisation of every other teenage mother other than myself. I didn’t go to the teen mum pre-natal courses because I knew that all the rest of them would be Scrounging Teen Mums and they would intimidate me with their blatantly low morals. I wasn’t like them, I thought. I was moral and good. My moral goodness was evidenced by my engagement to Alan, the young man who was abusing me (an engagement heavily motivated by a desire to please God and become pure again).
I was due to get married two weeks before my due date. Except two days before the wedding, I went into labour and the wedding was postponed, with me becoming a married woman two months before I turned 19.
At 21 my son was born 3 months prematurely after I was assaulted by Alan. It was the practical implications of my son’s birth that enabled me to successfully separate from Alan, as he was treated in a hospital over an hour from where we lived. There was a deep, abiding fear whilst we lived in hospital (my two and a half year old daughter lived in hospital with us). This fear was that I had actually become a Scrounging Teen Mum, and worse still a Scrounging SINGLE Teenage Mum. I no longer had a husband and stable relationship to point to which proved I wasn’t immoral and bad. It didn’t matter that my husband had raped me, lied to me, cheated on me, became a registered sex offender for abusing teenage girls or that he pushed me to attempt suicide. The social capital I thought my marital status gave me made me feel able to counter the judgement I felt at being a teenage mother. And as it turned out, maintaining that social capital resulted in my living in a hospital with a toddler and a tiny baby that kept nearly dying.
At first, when speaking to doctors who asked me where my baby’s father was, I would feel compelled to tell them he was currently my husband and that he was also a registered sex offender. It felt this information would show them that I wasn’t a Scrounging Teenage Single Mum, but rather a person who had tried to make her marriage work, and that my husband was so awful that all my efforts weren’t enough.
However, I gradually discovered how much easier it is to live in a hospital with a toddler and a potentially dying baby, than to live with an abusive man. It took over a year to become practically free from him (becoming emotionally and psychologically free is a much longer process). In that year I reported him to the police for assaulting me and went through a full trial in which he was found not guilty.
I began to embrace being a single parent. I began to see that other people’s views of me mattered a lot less than I had thought. Rejecting the stereotypes and refusing to care if people judged me was hugely liberating. By the time I remarried my son was two years old I became proud of my status as having been a teenage mother. Proud of being married twice. Because every time I refused to feel shame or judgement for being a Scrounging Teenage Single Mum, I was rejecting the social constructs that had kept me in a relationship with an abuser. Over the years I’ve connected with loads of teenage mothers and unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail stereotype that took hold in the early noughties is not true.
You may be wondering how my experiences link with my Maters challenges. My time as a single mother, rejecting the shame and judgement of society in relation to my status was hugely formative. My identity is deeply rooted in being a working class, teenage single mother who defies anyone telling her she is not good enough. And even though I remarried (unintentionally) and gradually fell into consultancy work (also unintentional) both of which moved me away from that status, I have been able to hold onto my roots and reject ideas that I needed to have an academic status or more than a childcare qualification to enable me to change the world (or the small bit of it that God has called me to).
When I deliver training or key note presentations, I will often finish by telling my story. And the audience will be challenged by the seeming incongruity of a competent women who has a history of having been subjected to abuse. This choice of vulnerability and a rejection of the professional veneer that we are often taught to have enables me to reveal people’s prejudices to them. Their surprise that I have been subjected to abuse reveals that they have a category of people they imagine are victims, and competent professional is not within that category.
And yet, as I have been working on the Masters I have felt a constant resistance to the system, to the process and to the material. Some of that is the dominance of white men who concluded ridiculous things (which my course tutor is open to addressing) and some of it is not having a background in theology. Whilst it is also that I haven’t done a first degree and so feel like I am only hearing the second half of a conversation all the time. But mostly, it is because I feel I am betraying a mindset that opened up liberation to me. Every time I have to value an academic’s words over the words of someone uneducated I feel I am betraying the version of me that rejected societal prejudice. And every male theologian I have to read leaves me feeling angry for all the women who had better ideas that nobody every listened to, and that my having to value him colludes with that system of ignoring women. And every essay I write feels like stepping away from who I really am.
This week I spent 24 hours at a colloquium. I applied to speak at it without knowing what a colloquium actually was, and then upon being accepted to speak I had to google it. It’s basically an academic conference that’s not overly specialist. It was great to be amongst people who had thought deeply about stuff and the discussions and content was really thought provoking. However, it seemed that the difference between those attending who would define themselves as “academic” and me was that they all loved their subject, they loved learning, they loved thinking. My experience of the Masters is more of endurance than love.
I love making a difference and challenging people and bringing about change. I utilise any tools that will enable that to happen. I have concluded that this Masters is likely to be a tool in what I do. But I have yet work out how to love that tool. Especially when it feels like a requirement of that tool is to betray myself and the way I assess something or someone as valuable.
It would be nice if this blog concluded in me working out how to love the tool, or how to move beyond a feeling of betraying myself, but I’m not there yet. Perhaps I’ll write a follow up blog when I finally work out a way through! But as for now, I hope my ponderings are thought provoking for others.