Learning from the school of life is never a waste

A scientific career may be great for the few - but how many scientists would have made excellent mul

A scientific career may be great for the few - but how many scientists would have made excellent multi-taskers, like Sharon's friend Jan? - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sharon Griffiths says skills picked up in the school of life are just as valid as those gained in education

Maybe, after all, there's something to be said for the traditional way of doing things.

And that's something that as a 1970s banner-waving feminist I'd never thought I'd say…

It was a chance remark at a funeral that set me thinking. Jan was 80 years old, had been my mother's neighbour up on Teesside, in the days when girls of her background were lucky to do O-levels, rarely had the chance to do A-levels, and almost never went university.

Jan had left school at 15, started work washing test tubes at ICI but, a bright girl, soon rose to be a senior lab technician, until she left to have babies.

In the days before maternity leave, she never went back to full-time work but had part time jobs in shops, bars and as a lollipop lady, anything that would fit in with the family.

Now, of course, she'd have gone to university. Brilliant that it's absolutely routine. More girls than boys go on to further education. These days Jan would undoubtedly have a career and continue working at a professional level. Three quarters of mothers work, most full-time.

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Jan didn't. She looked after her children Money was tight but she grew vegetables, cooked, made clothes. She helped in the charity shop, helped run the playgroup, looked after her aged parents, aunt and in-laws. She kept an eye on my mother in her later years, which gave me peace of mind too. Then she started all over again looking after the grandchildren – so her daughters-in-law could go back to work.

It was Jan who organised the street parties for the Silver and Golden Jubilees – and brought neighbours together.

It was the sort of life that was common then but increasingly rare now, when most of us are busy juggling jobs, childcare and struggling to fit in all our other family commitments around the edges, let alone those to friends and neighbours and the community.

In between it all, Jan even had time to herself to do what she liked, including exquisite embroidery and lots of holidays when money was easier.

She was always busy but rarely stressed and always had time for other people. I wouldn't have got through the sad and awful job of clearing my mother's house if it hadn't been for Jan on hand with cups of tea, comfort and bin bags.

The vicar at Jan's funeral said how her unassuming life had touched so many people and made their lives a lot easier. The church was packed.

Then someone said 'Such a shame Jan never went to university. Such a waste.'

But was it? Was it really when it gave her the chance to do so much else?

It's certainly a shame she didn't get the choice but her other talents were far from wasted.

How many career scientists never get the chance to use their talents as home-makers, cooks, gardeners, good neighbours and unofficial community workers?

And surely that's a waste too.

As it's only a week into the new year, may I encourage you, please, to keep a diary? Not a great Samuel Pepys type volume, but the little diary you got in your Christmas stocking or from the car salesroom or wherever.

I've just started a Grand Tidy Up and have thrown out 20 years' worth of big old work diaries, made redundant by technology and dumped without a second thought.

But the small personal dairies in which most days I scrawled no more than a line or two ('Bathroom ceiling leak.' 'J. arrives with GIN.' 'Road flooded. M wades home.' 'All at the beach. Sunburnt!') proved incredibly evocative, as well as reminding me of stuff I'd completely forgotten.

It just takes a few words to spark off a host of memories.

Twenty years of those diaries barely fill a shoebox, yet they can bring great chunks of my past vividly alive again. Well worth a minute's effort a day.

Time to dig out that diary and start scrawling.

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