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'Take it from this not so bright spark: life does go on and when one door closes another opens'

School’s out: Joe Cushnan today
School’s out: Joe Cushnan today
School’s out: Joe Cushnan as a schoolboy
Family snap: Joe Cushnan as a three-year-old with his dad, who was 35
Sharp dresser: Joe modelling for BHS when he worked there in 1974

While he didn’t particularly shine during his schooldays in Northern Ireland, Joe Cushnan found that things worked out rather well in the end... and that education doesn't just come from the classroom.

It's the examination results season when students are anxious about the contents of their envelopes, teachers are nervous about league tables, politicians are limbering up for a verbal scrap about the state of things and media pundits are sharpening their analytical tools to explain it all to us.

Towards the end of this piece, I will offer some words of wisdom and comfort to students who experience disappointment and who may feel their worlds have come to an end, dreams shattered and all ambitions lost.

The results season got me thinking about my own educational journey from the perspective of this now 63-year-old retiree.

In recent research, I have managed to gather together my first primary school report, my first grammar school report and my O-level certificate, all combined for the official record to show that I was neither a genius nor a dunce, but somewhere in between in the crowded corral marked pretty average. It would be several years later when I achieved my Open University degree, thereby plugging a gap and finally feeling a bit more intelligent.

As a child I did not have much interest in books, so I didn't read much.

I don't recall anyone ever reading me a bedtime story or showing me how to draw things or anything that I could connect to pre-school education. Like a lot of under-fives in late Fifties Belfast, I was too busy outside playing with other kids and annoying the neighbours, particularly Mrs McAtackney who claimed as her own the wall we used to kick our ball against.

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It wasn't her wall (it belonged to the council) but she did give her window a fierce rat-a-tat-tat to chase us away. We scarpered but returned the next day and most days because we learned that her rat-a-tat-tat was not really that scary. Learning by experience, I suppose you could say.

My first school was St Teresa's Primary on the Glen Road. My first report was dated December 31, 1960, signed by FH McKenna, the head teacher, and Rita Cushnan, my mother.

It was not a bad report. Each subject carried 10 maximum marks. I achieved 7 for sums, 10 for spelling, 8 for reading, 6 for handwriting and 8 for composition. In the class (3b) of 45, I was eighth. Pretty good. The only comment was the word 'Pass', which for 8 out of 45 is a bit mean. I would have thought more praiseworthy puff about being in the top ten wouldn't have killed Mr McKenna but there you go. I think my mother was very pleased and so was I.

I also have my first report, summer 1966, from St Mary's Christian Brothers' Grammar School, situated further up the Glen Road. I was in Class 1b.

School’s out: Joe Cushnan as a schoolboy

This report is not so good, or let's be fair and say it is good in parts but a long way from distinguished.

The maximum marks attainable for each subject were 100. 70 was the distinction level, 55 was a credit and 40 was a pass. My marks: English 45; Latin 41; French 58; Irish 64; History 42; Geography 34; Arithmetic 47; Algebra 43; Geometry 25; Science 24; Drawing 42. Hmmm. A real mixed bag.

Teacher comments included "application to work satisfactory" and "progress - reasonably good but there is room for improvement". I suppose the summary is, in kindness to myself, that I was neither brilliant nor a numpty.

This was a disappointing set of marks by any stretch and after the triumph (no praise like self-praise) of the primary school report, it was an omen for what was to come four years later when I took my O-levels.

For reasons that we both can't fathom, recently my brother Kevin was sorting out some of his personal files and papers and he came across my Northern Ireland Certificate of Education from 1970.

Nearly 50 years after the exam, there it was, a miserable four passes. I left secondary school with four O-levels in English, Maths, French and Irish and carried my educational underachievement like a millstone for the next decade and a half.

Finally, however, I balanced the books, as it were, from 1987 to 1992, by studying and achieving a BA (Honours) degree in Social Sciences from the Open University. Over 20 years after leaving school, I really did feel a bit more intelligent. I salute the Open University for being there to help plug the gap in my educational CV and to politicians Harold Wilson, Michael Young and Jennie Lee who had vision, passion and determination in the 1960s to find a way to allow public access to higher education.

Family snap: Joe Cushnan as a three-year-old with his dad, who was 35

The OU is, I think, the biggest academic institution in the UK. Long may it continue, say I, a grateful graduate.

At the risk of guffaws, chuckles and cries of 'getouddahere', I will share this information and I'm not kidding. In tandem with my declining graph of educational under-achievement during formal schooling, I found other ways to learn about life, about the difference between right and wrong, about morals, decency and conscience.

And I learned it from westerns. Anyone who knows me knows I love westerns above and beyond any other screen genre and from a very early age, I absorbed television shows like Cheyenne, Bronco, Maverick, Laramie, Wagon Train, Rawhide and many, many more. On Sunday afternoons at home western films were shown starring John Wayne, James Stewart and a long list of other great stars.

I couldn't get enough of them and, on many occasions, for a horse substitute, I would straddle the arm of the settee. Yup.

Apart from the action on screen, over the years I picked up the Code of the West, a set of loose rules for cowpokes, drifters and gunslingers.

I knew the Ten Commandments because they had been drummed into us at St Teresa's but I supplemented them with lessons learned from the tales from the trail.

There are different versions of the Code but here's the gist: Live with humility and show respect; Keep your word; Do what you have to do and finish the job; Be firm but fair; Be loyal to your family and friends; Be loyal to whoever pays you; Believe in actions more than words; Be mindful that not everything has a price; Know when enough is enough; Stand tall, be brave but watch your language. See what I mean. Darn good common sense. I might have passed that O-level!

Sharp dresser: Joe modelling for BHS when he worked there in 1974

So, back to examination results and nervous fingers opening envelopes.

Some students will achieve their marks and jump for joy and huge congratulations to them. I never really experienced such educational elation but over the years I have enjoyed many shared successes amongst family and friends. Sheer joy and happiness.

But there will be some students who will be bitterly disappointed and they will cry and get depressed and think that life has just hit them with a big full stop. They may be embarrassed when they compare themselves to their friends' achievements and beat themselves up for not working harder and doing better in their studies.

For a while, they may be inconsolable. They may be confused as to what to do next, what career path they should follow. But, listen up, take it from this not so bright a spark. Life does go on and, as many a granny would say, when one door closes another one opens.

I took my measly four O-levels on the chin and, sans degree, I applied for as many jobs as I could. My first, in 1971, was as an office clerk for the Belfast Corporation Electricity Department at Power Station West. It was a mind-numbingly dull job but I was on the employment ladder. After a couple of years yawning over paperwork, I ended up with a pretty decent, near-40-year career in retail management.

A lot of things in my life have worked out well and while school reports and certificates may not have been distinguished enough to give me a leg up to the highest echelons of business, they have not stopped me achieving many things.

Even with a couple of redundancies in my career, when I was not in the happiest of places, I kept looking, grinding away and lo and behold new opportunities came my way.

Anyone whose shoulders sink as they read their exam results has to find a way to work through the disappointment and remember that life is not a long, dark corridor of slammed doors. There are always opportunities. There are always ways through the tough times.

Whatever the contents of the results envelope, nothing ends. It might not be obvious to some but it is a new starting point.

Belfast Telegraph


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