I’ve reached the midpoint of my degree as a second year Classics and English student, and I love my work. But there’s a little part in the back of my mind which snags every now and then, leaving me in the lurch.
Until I got to Oxford, it had been my only major goal. Certainly, there had been little things: auditions or competitions and the like. But there was nothing in my future that I really, truly wanted – except those dreaming spires and flowing gowns. That’s not to say that I wasn’t ambitious; but nothing else was concrete. I knew that I wanted to be successful (whatever that means) and I knew, or thought I knew, that it started at Oxford. My grades had always been very good, and whilst I didn’t really go to private school, my grammar school was excellent and had a large Oxbridge output. I’m sure you’re wondering about that “really”. I’ll get to that later.
Despite my educational privilege, Oxford still held a far-off magic. My mother was a first-gen university student, and nobody in my family had been to Oxbridge when I received an offer. Come open days, which happened in a glorious pre-Covid time, my fairy tale had a few cracks. Quite literally, as I had an untreated stress fracture. I hobbled around the city in the only pair of shoes which I could still get onto my foot – not so Cinderella. Magdalen was the last college which I saw, and it took my breath away. Or maybe that was the pain… Nevertheless, Magdalen was where I applied, and where I now happily am.
I ought to explain what I meant by not really going to private school. My school, which thought that Latin began and ended at extra-curricular GCSE, did not have an A-level option. However, they were kind enough to secure me and my best friend spots in a nearby private school’s classes, so that we could continue to develop our passion. And clearly, something went right because everybody in that class made their Oxbridge offers. But it was not a good class. At least, it wasn’t for me. There are many ways for me to explain it, but there is one clear incident which sums it up.
One day, my mother got an email from my teacher, who I had already begun to hate, asking her to come in and speak to her. It was framed simply: as we didn’t have a parents’ evening because we didn’t technically attend the school, she wanted to touch base. But a usual parents’ evening it was not. To be brief, the teacher in question was incredibly angry from the moment my mother arrived. She shook, she shouted, and she told my mother that I did not deserve to go to Oxford. It might be worth mentioning that at this point, I had 12 A*s and an A at GCSE.
That was the first time I had really, truly been told I did not deserve something. It really hurt. But it was also the first time that I had come face to face with an incredibly restrictive, toxic view; that there were people who deserved to go to Oxford, and people who didn’t. It affected me. Clearly, in no way was I unique in having an intense drive to get to Oxford. Nor was I unique in facing toxic opinions about what I should look like as an Oxbridge applicant. But for me, that drive was now tainted, and some of it came from a very negative place. I had to prove to her that I could do it. I also had to make the pain of those remaining lessons worth it, because I continued to have lessons with that same teacher until I took my exams.
I should say that I had two other Latin teachers throughout the course of my A level study, and they were wonderful. Frankly, I don’t know that I would have gotten through it without them, because every lesson with the aforementioned teacher was hell. At first, walking with my friends across the city to class was a real pleasure, but with every week my dread grew, because I had to sit through another hour and a half in front of a woman who refused to look at me and pretended not to hear when I spoke.
Needless to say, such an experience messes you up. As a child, I had incredible confidence in my abilities. Perhaps that’s just because I was a child, but I think something in my school years caused a major shift in my self-perception, because my grandparents still tease me for a comment I made when moving into year one. Which is understandable, since I’ve been told that I said, “I wonder how they will cope with me because I know so much.”
Au contraire, little Lottie, how little you know. At least, that’s how I often feel now. Whether it’s considering a masters, or applying for internships, I find myself struck, seemingly at random, by a sinking feeling that I am not good enough. It may sound ridiculous, but it doesn’t feel it.
This is something that I am really trying to come to terms with, and hopefully, to resolve. I can do confident; I can present it very well, but that does not mean I don’t spend hours pre-planning conversations I might have, or nights berating myself for what I could have done better. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel a little wave of sadness every time I achieve something, as it reminds me that I need to do more, to be better, to be more securely excellent.
Imposter syndrome can eat you up. It’s something we can work on, in ourselves, as we try to be kinder, more forgiving. But no one should be told that they don’t deserve to go to Oxford.
Photo by Theodor Vasile on Unsplash