Twenty years ago I probably thought that education was finally a pastime that I could let go of. I hated school and only had negative memories of my time there. Looking back I think I had other things distracting me from what was truly important and despite my mums desperate pleas for me to keep trying, I just didn’t care.
We all know how steadfast the decisions of a teenager are, because we’ve all been there. Well, that’s how I remember it.
I was 16 the last time I entered a classroom and I still remember the smell of bleach left behind by cleaners, the sound of chairs being dragged across the floor by angry kids and the memory of teachers who spent classes waiting to get to the caretakers office – a room with smoke bellowing under the door throughout the day (we later learned it was the only room where they were allowed to smoke…I found the student toilets perfectly agreeable when I needed a nicotine fix).
Fast forward 22 years and I’ve finally settled with the right man, given up cigarettes, become a parent myself and the most challenging change of all – I’ve gone back to learning. Why? I had no choice.
Learning at 40
I’ve just finished year 4 of my degree and with 2 years to go I’m regularly thinking about what I want to do next. It would be so easy for me to just kick back, relax and try to find a way of existing with minimal pain in my bones and my brain…but I struggle to rest.
My partner would probably tell you I do too much, but in my head I know I’d risk further impact to my mental illness if I gave up. It’s a struggle to balance it all at times, but my overriding fear of becoming ‘nothing’ can’t be ignored, so I keep pushing despite the advice of others.
If I look at my employment history I’ve been all over the place without any real dreams or ambition in my past. I’m still proud of the things I achieved, but I wish I’d had more direction and pushed myself to do the stuff I’m doing today – enjoying being creative, helping others and learning.
I’ve been self employed, worked in IT, worked for the NHS, worked in a million call centres and waitressed my way through most of my youth. They were good jobs and I did well at some of them, but nothing excited me or gave me any drive to ‘get up and get on’ every morning.
It’s ironic that now I’m unable to work, now I have permission to do nothing, that I’ve managed to find several important subjects that I’m truly passionate about. Rather than doing what my specialist, physio and support workers keep asking me to (rest, rest, rest), I’m finding myself excited about writing, drawing and making a teeny difference for others who are struggling in ways that I understand…and I can’t let it go.
Part of my refusal-to-rest journey has been education. I had real possibilities as a teenager – I was pretty clever and understood complex subjects, but I’d discovered drinking, smoking and men and I quickly stopped caring about school. After binning classes at 16, I had only a handful of GCSEs to my name. It didn’t stop me working, but it meant I spent my employed life trying to prove I was more able than my CV suggested…and it was an uphill battle.
I took the decision to start my degree at age 38. I was already agoraphobic (although not as extreme as today) and I was living with chronic pain and difficulty mobilising. Days started to melt into each other until one morning I couldn’t remember the previous 5 days at all. It was just a jumble of snapshots in my mind, none of which had any context or time attached. It became obvious my life was becoming facile and pointless, and I agreed internally that I shouldn’t just quit on myself because I have limitations. I was sure that somehow I could continue achieving something.
I needed to learn.
But finding the right subject for me was a difficult task in itself, with an overwhelming number of courses available online and all at great cost. But my mum would have been proud to see me complete a degree, she believed in me at a time when my priorities were in completely the wrong place. She passed away nearly a decade ago but I know she’d still be thrilled to see me do it, even if it is too late for her to watch it happen.
In the end I opted for a subject I already knew – a BSc in IT and Design. Perfect. I signed up and started year one by going through the process of designing my own branded products, including a t-shirt (used to assess my overall grade as part of my EMA). I got a distinction, and was surprisingly hooked. It was fun and I was capable. The tiredness and pain were a problem, but I still knew I couldn’t just do nothing.
I changed the direction of my degree to a BA Open Degree so I could focus on areas that are truly important to me – design, creative writing and mental health. Although it took me a while to get on the right path, I now really enjoy the challenge of learning. I think the only drawback is being isolated rather than surrounded by other students who I can talk to…but this is the way it has to be.
So the learning train seems to be chugging along at some pace now, and I’m comfortable that I’m along for the ride. It’s become a habit I enjoy, but I’ve had to tread the wrong path first, ensuring that I’m now truly learning about things that are engaging for me.
It’s June now and as a mature student I’m in the middle of my summer break. But I can’t spend it sitting in pub gardens with a lager and lime or holidaying in Malaga, although both sound incredibly appealing.
Instead, when these long breaks come around, I’ve chosen to keep learning rather than take time off and lose the muscle memory I’ve built up in my mind. Finding courses that fit into the summer isn’t easy, but I’ve found some great places to go that might be useful for someone else too, maybe someone like you!
Open Learn – this is a site run by the OU, and a great place to start, especially if you are considering returning to education. They have a library of courses available, some of which are parts of a full degree and offer students a window into the course they’d like to complete. Best of all, it’s FREE! This is where I started 4 years ago, and it convinced me I wouldn’t be out of my depth if I kept going.
Eventbrite – this is advertised as a ticketing service, but it actually offers so much more. There are events available around the world both virtually and in your local community and you can search in a variety of ways to find a course, event or talk that interests you. Some are free, some request a small payment and some have slightly higher prices, it all seems to depend on popularity and the speaker, but there are LOADS to choose from and, even better, you can do it all through their app on your smartphone!
Future learn – This is a new learning platform for me, but having looked at the website and social media posts about it, it seems to be growing as a provider of courses both long and short and starting at no cost at all. There are a variety of subjects and genres to choose from and it’s certainly worth a visit if you’re looking to dip your toe in the ‘learning pool’ for the first time in a while.
Specialist courses – at home we’ve also been looking at courses that are specific to our needs. I’ve joined a sign language course through BSL to help improve my makaton skills for communication with our daughter. She has ASD and language disorder so communicating with her this way has proved positive. My partner has completed several free courses with Microsoft in his spare time, so looking on their website is also worth a try. I’ve also signed up for 21 draw – an online platform filled with courses specific to illustration only costing a small monthly fee. I completed my first course within a couple of days and re-watched it because I loved it so much.
There are charities and businesses that offer many online courses in specific subjects, so it’s worth searching Google to see if there’s something free and short that you’d enjoy.
Late learning conclusions
I’ve noticed in the past that some of us seem pretty closed-off to learning. To be honest, I was arrogant enough to think I knew everything I needed to until my life started to get messy. Now I know there’s an infinite knowledge base out there and an abundance of things that interest me…so there’ll be courses and talks that will interest you too. If you’re looking to learn and on a budget there are still opportunities out there for you…many are free!
If you have the opportunity to socialise, then joining a community group or college course in your chosen subject could also unlock a new social circle with people who have joint interests and from a myriad of backgrounds. For me it’s been like an educational fresh start, and I really recommend it.
I posted recently on Instagram and Twitter with my first picture of a cartoon human. It was created after completing my first Procreate course run by 21 Draw and hosted by Erika Wiseman (known as Erika The Goober online). I created my own version of a picture Erika had posted on social media – my first DTIYS (draw this in your style).
It represented a huge step forward in my own digital illustration ability as I’ve always avoided drawing people (even as cartoons) in the past – I’m bloody terrible at it. Or at least, I was. It’s the first time I’ve done any training at all in digital illustration and I was instantly hooked…
I loved it!
So I created another drawing in the same way for this post – a DTIYS of an Erika Wiseman original of a beautiful mermaid. There are lots of changes and additions that are my own ‘style’, which is something I’m slowly starting to find.
I hope you like the progress I’m making and I hope it proves that anyone can find a subject they love with a bit of research!
Thanks for reading.