A whole new chapter in the story of my life

7th March 2003 at 00:00
"I read my first book when I was 19 years old," I confessed. The hall became strangely quiet. Dozens of heads turned in my direction. "I'mI erI a teacher of English now," I added.

A ripple of laughter spread around the room. The moment passed and other aspiring writers made their comments at the one-day university conference for would-be wordsmiths.

The first session over, we broke for coffee. A lady came over to talk to me about what I had said. There was a slightly patronising tone to her words, a kind of "Haven't you done well, then?" My early lack of education was viewed as a disability I had managed to overcome. She wasn't too far wrong, I suppose.

Having failed the selection process at the first hurdle in school, I had been expected to remove myself from education as soon as possible and find manual work. I left school at 15 without a single qualification. But I wasn't happy. The catalyst for change came when I was invited to an "arty" weekend in south Manchester.

In the company of a curious group of lecturers and students in the sunlit sitting room of a Didsbury detached, a literary discussion began. Four hours of slow death by embarrassment followed, interrupted only by tea and biscuits. I had neither heard of nor read the books of the authors mentioned. The worst thing was, noticing how quiet I was, everyone was trying to be kind and involve me in the discussion. Humiliated, I was determined to find out what was so wonderful about these books.

Monday morning came. Recalling the authors, I walked into my local bookshop and bought a novel by a gentleman called Dostoevsky. Tuesday and three pages into my first book, I was lost. I decided I needed a map to guide me through the tricky bits. I bought a dictionary. Every new word I encountered I looked up and learned. The days passed, and so did the pages in my first book. I can't remember how long it took, but eventually I did it. I read my first book.

An activity so natural and normal to the average person was, for me, an achievement so significant that it was going to change my life. I became a prolific reader and found my mind being shaped and stretched in a way I would never have believed possible. The once distant and unfathomable world out there grew smaller as my personal world grew larger. It was wonderful and liberating.

Then I discovered poetry. I had always liked Bob Dylan, even if I hadn't got a clue what he was singing about. I never thought of it as poetry. Now I knew better. A friend suggested I go to college and take O-levels. I took English language and literature and loved it. In my early 20s, I entered academia, and four years later I emerged from college with my first degree (in English, of course) and a qualification to teach.

Soon afterwards I met one of my old teachers in town, who impressed me by remembering my name - "Charlton, isn't it?" Now retired, he slipped smoothly back into teacher mode. "A bright lad, I always thought, but never really fulfilled your potential. What are you doing with yourself now?"

I told him I was a teacher. He studied me for a moment. "Hmm, not as bright as I thought you were," and with that, he left.

I also started teaching GCSE English to adults. During our first session, one said - I'll never forget it - "You'll have to go slow with me, mate.

It's all right for you lecturers, you've been reading books all your life and studying."

Funny, that's exactly what I thought about people like me a few years earlier.

Ernest Charlton works as a consultant, examiner and adult education tutor in Cheshire

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