Paul Catmur: I was young and stupid. I’m not young anymore


When you’re young, you’re worse than mediocre, you’re dumb. Nature gleefully prepares us for the travails of life by insisting on a number of incredibly important decisions when we can barely change a duvet. Like most teenagers, I struggled.

One summer I decided I’d had enough of learning stuff. I couldn’t see any point in staying in the hateful, grey world of British schooling any longer than necessary. I had a motorbike and mates but was in desperate need of money to buy the petrol and beer on which they run.

Career opportunities

A number of friends were already out of school and working at schemes to make cash money. Some were flying to the United States to deliver (probably legal) packages and return with duty-free cigars, which they then sold. Others started hawking time-share apartments in Greece. Particularly attractive were trips to Germany to be live-in guinea pigs testing new drugs. These intriguing career options needed no qualifications other than a passport yet produced a decent supply of beer vouchers which made them considerably more appealing than another 12 months of Geography, Economics and British Government.

A year is a spectacularly long time at 17. What’s the point of being a penniless schoolboy when you could be living in a medical facility in Germany taking experimental drugs and being paid for it for a change? Only a fool would pass up on such an opportunity, so the rational decision was obviously to leave school a year early.

I expected a bit of a fight from my parents, but for some reason, probably because they were over teenagers by then, very few objections were made. I announced this decision to my mates at the pub, who grunted in support then went back to their lager and roll-ups. I then told my co-workers at a summer job working in a hardware store. One of them, Brian, was a student from university during his summer break. We hadn’t talked much; he was a bit of a hippy and I was a punk.

“Oh, ok,” he said. “You want to leave school early because you can’t see the point of university and you want to get some cash now so you can afford to impress the girls?”

“Pretty much,” I said, impressed at how easily he’d seen the science behind my plan.

“Then you’re a f***ing idiot,” said Brian.

It's OK to change your mind

That was not what I wanted to hear. He had long hair and a beard, what the hell did he know about anything? But I couldn’t shake off the nagging possibility that maybe, just maybe, he was right. After all, he was at least 18 months older than me and had probably already had sex.

After a couple of days of stewing, it occurred to me that maybe my plan wasn’t quite as clever as I’d first believed. I decided to ditch it and go back to school. But how to reverse my decision without losing face? There was also another issue, as in the interim my mum had booked me in a meeting with the school principal to let him know of my plan. He was as stern as I was stupid, which made me nervous. I decided my plan should be to allow him to talk me out of leaving so I wouldn’t actually have to back down and my mum would be impressed that I’d listened to sensible advice.

As we sat in his office, I explained to the principal my clearly idiotic plan to leave, then waited for him to explain the errors of my ways which I would accept and then we could move on.

“Well, if you really want to leave, there’s not much I can do,” he said, not seeming to understand his role.

“I’m actually a little undecided …” I said.

“I thought you definitely wanted to go?” said my mum, unhelpfully.

“It was just a thought,” I said, willing her to be quiet.

The principal shuffled his papers. “Anything else?” He had some really promising students to try and ease into Oxbridge and wasn’t really bothered about this rather unimpressive individual who’d come last at General Studies out of the entire school.

“Well, having talked it through with you, I think maybe I should stay,” I announced.

“I can’t force you …”

“Yes, I’ll definitely stay.”

Thanks, Brian

So, I finished school and passed the exams that eventually got me into university. Once there, I had a great three years where I learned a huge amount about the world and myself while making friends for life and managing a mediocre degree in politics. Without that education to back me up, I don’t know where I would have got to, but it probably wouldn’t be living on a beach in New Zealand.

So I really should thank Brian, who I haven’t seen since, for the few words which made such a difference to my life. Such worldly advice may have limited traction when coming from a parent, but maybe as an outsider, you’ll come across situations where a few well-chosen words might get through. Who knows, maybe 30 years from now, you might even be thanked.

• After recovering from being an idiotic teenager Paul went on to work in advertising at a quite good level across New Zealand, the UK and Australia. This is a series of articles about how to make the best out of maybe not being the best.

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