Making the Best of It

(This article originally appeared in the Telegraph’s Stella magazine)

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Making the Best of it

William Speak, my granddad, was born to be an academic. His mathematics was so far in advance of his classmates that he’d often be sent home for finishing his work early. And when, in 1916, he turned eleven, the teachers at his village school assumed he would be trying for Rivington Grammar. They said he was the brightest boy they’d ever taught.

But William’s father was having none of it. ‘We need him to bring in a wage,’ he told the headmaster bluntly.  ‘He’ll leave school next year.’

So my granddad was sent first to a bleachworks, did a four year stint down the mines, and finally fetched up at Cooke and Nuttall’s paper mill where he stayed almost four decades until he retired.

What happens to a man with real intellectual ability denied the chance to exercise that muscle? Rather than become bitter and frustrated, he turned his disappointment into a passion for education, and a determination to make sure his daughter and granddaughter had the opportunities he missed out on.

I grew up hearing about the way he was able to absorb instantly and then explain my mother’s grammar school homework to her as she struggled over algebra, physics, even calculus – none of which he’d ever come across before. How he kept himself busy by learning accounting; how he constructed a working radio from scratch. And always he gave his daughter every encouragement. She remembers, during the run up to her A levels, setting the alarm for 5 am to get in an extra hour’s study, and my granddad coming in from the night shift and bringing her up a hot drink. She also recalls the way he argued with his workmates when she dared to apply for teacher training college. ‘There’s no point in educating a girl,’ they scoffed, ‘she should have left at sixteen, and  be earning.’ He must have seen red.

Sometime in the mid Seventies he was interviewed by a group of local kids doing a history project. We still have the scratchy old tape of him reminiscing about village buildings long gone, and living conditions between the wars. But at one point he breaks off and addresses the interviewers sternly. ‘A house has to have good foundations,’ he says. ‘If it doesn’t, it falls down. Education is your foundation for the rest of your life. You’ve to work very very hard and take every opportunity. .. I wish I could go back and learn some more.’

What do I remember of my granddad? I’m aged about five, sitting at a little folding table and drawing ballet dancers. When they go wrong, I reach for a stripy rainbow rubber to undo my mistakes.  Granddad appears beside me, picks up the rubber and brings it close to my face. ‘What colour’s this?’ he asks. I start rhyming them off confidently: red, yellow… He stops me. ‘It’s multicoloured,’ he says. I’m delighted with this new word. Multicoloured, multicoloured.  Fantastic or what?

Another day he brings me a football he’s found in a hedge and cleaned up. ‘Have you ever wondered,’ he says, appraising the pattern of pentangles on the ball, ‘why we always say “black-and-white”? Why do we never say “white-and-black?”’ Then he leaves me to ponder. I don’t know! Why do we always say black and white? What’s wrong about the sound of the other? He’s made me think about language again.

When it came time for me to move to secondary school, it was without a doubt the impetus from my granddad which gave us the confidence to look at our nearest independent, and enquire about scholarships. He lived to see me win a place but died just into the autumn term. That sense, though, of the privilege of education which he instilled in my mother was passed onto me, and like my mother I always worked my socks off. Every exam I passed, every prize I won, Mum would be at my elbow: ‘Your granddad would have been proud.’

And still today, on receipt of the news that my son’s been put on the ‘gifted’ list for maths, I hear that same mantra. It’s nothing to do with genes; I’m adopted. It’s attitude, a line of aspiration that runs through our family like the lettering in a stick of rock.

My granddad was a clever man. But how much more impressive was his sheer bloody-mindedness to make good. What thanks can we give him but that we do our best?