By Nimisha Patel, PhD Candidate
Classics was never a ‘natural’ option for me.
I’ve been brought up by first-generation Indian parents, who both had careers in science-based industries. They are both the ‘exceptional’ child in their respective families. You can find most of my father’s family working in retailers at Heathrow, and most of my mother’s bookkeeping for small businesses. I am the offspring of the brilliant minds of both families; I am pretty sure I was supposed to become a medical doctor if all the stars had aligned the way my grandparents had tirelessly prayed for!
I could not read a word of anything until I was 7 and got away with much in the classroom thanks to wonderful friends. They told me what the line said ahead of my turn in dictation class (my parents sent me to a twee private school thinking it might help my chances of excelling in whatever I hoped to achieve). I also got away with not reading because I had a great imagination and the teachers always thought my interpretation of the pictures presented in books was far more interesting than the actual adventure of Biff and Chip – a very popular classroom read when I was in Reception. This was eventually picked up by my parents, who one day put their foot down and demanded I read the first line of the book my sister was reading; I could not. My school-teachers were hounded by my parents, and I was sent to a tutor every Wednesday and Friday after school to get me back on track.
No one asked why I couldn’t read. My parents blamed the school and the school blamed my parents. It was not until I spectacularly flopped my year 9 SATs that my Grammar School – the one I had managed to blag my way into after just about passing the 11 plus – realised something was wrong. I was diagnosed as dyslexic with a huge handful of dyspraxia just to add to the excitement of trying to navigate through teenage life.
After being told that getting GCSEs was going to be a struggle and that I should look into taking an apprenticeship in make-up artistry once I completed my GCSEs, I gave up hope of ever getting those golden A-Levels my parents were desperate for me to have as a ‘minimum’. My grandparents’ dream of me studying Medicine had long diminished. But my parents knew I was smart;, they also knew that I wasn’t ‘lazy’ as many teachers tried to describe me. So they did everything they could to ensure I got my GCSEs. By this point I wasn’t sure I wanted to study anymore at all…
I muddled through my GCSEs with lots of coaching and made it to a top Grammar School to complete my A-levels. At this stage I had to pick subjects. All I knew was that I liked stories about people and the way they live their lives. I didn’t have much patience for simultaneous equations or the periodic table. So I picked subjects with lots of stories—History, Religious Studies, English Literature and this new one I had never seen before: Classical Civilisation.
During my A/S levels I had the pleasure of attending an event hosted by Edith Hall for the Reading area schools. Here she and her team gave presentations on different aspects of Classics. I can’t for the life of me remember what the topics were, but I remember my curiosity had been sparked and I was desperate to know the answers to the questions that my mind was reeling with. That same evening, I went home and declared to my parents that I wanted to read Classics at university. They were thrilled I wanted to attend university, though they were not sure what Classics entailed. They blindly and fully supported my new-found aspiration to study further. I struggled on through A-levels and secured a place to read Classics at Royal Holloway, where I excelled from day one! My dyslexia continued to impede my progress, since my exam papers were always at least a grade below my coursework. However, I achieved a First Class in my dissertation and left with a 2:1.
I was failing all the way through school and was being propped up by parents who had an unwavering belief their child was smart. I could have had a very different life and joined my cousins working in Heathrow not knowing what to do with myself. If Classical Civilisation had not been an option during my A-levels as a ‘fourth’ subject, I would have never had the opportunity to learn what my strengths are. I would not have gone on to university to complete a BA Hons. in Classics, or an MA in Anthropology, or excel in a career in Fashion. I am currently completing my PhD at King’s College London, on classical material in Indian education since Independence. I may yet become a doctor – just not the type my grandparents expected.