23 January 2013

Careers advice

Vivid's mention of careers advice in her latest post prompted me to post this … though it has little to do with Vivid's intent, nor her important message. It is just an aimless an anecdote about careers advice, 40+ years ago.
In my mid teens my parents were on a home posting in Britain, between two overseas ones, and I was doing time in an all boys grammar school in … let's call it Shirecester.
At some point the school was visited by Mr Tombs, external careers advisor. (I change his name to spare his blushes … but his real name did have an equally ominous and sepulchral sound.)
I went into my careers interview with high hopes.
“So” said Mr Tombs, jovially, “what do you want to be when you leave school?”
“A photographer!” I replied, with enthusiasm, and waited expectantly for advice on how to pursue this career ambition.
[As I have mentioned elsewhere, I was eight when my maternal grandfather gave me an ancient Brownie box camera. I was captivated by the endlessly subtle shades of grey, in both print and negative; I would sit and lose myself in them for hours at a time. Even the utter failures were a wonder to me. That such a rich tonal range could exist between white and pale grey in an overexposed frame! Then my father showed me how those tones grew before your eyes, under a red light in the smell of hypo. This was magic made flesh, and I was hooked. By the time of my interview with Mr tombs, I had a complete portable darkroom, understood metol and hydroquinone, the use of borax as a buffer, the effects of temperature and agitation. And the Brownie had been replaced by folding wartime Dalmeyer which was my pride and joy.]
“Don't be silly” replied Mr Tombs, with a dismissive laugh, “you can't make a living at that. You seem to be good at mathematics; that's the way to go.”
And my first ever career advice interview was over.
I thought carefully about Mr Tombs' advice. Was it really impossible to make a living as a photographer? What of my heroes such as Eve Arnold, Jane Bown, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Barbara Morgan, Yousof Karsh, W Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange; did they not make a living?
[I didn't bother my parents with this. I knew that they had no detailed knowledge to help directly, but they did give me something much more valuable: unfailing, unquestioning support for my passions and a belief that I could do anything at all if I wanted to. They also gave me, just after my my meeting with Mr Tombs, a concrete vote of confidence in the Russian-built Leica-copy camera which replaced the Dalmeyer.]
The editor of Shirecester's weekly local newspaper was as generous with advice as Mr Tombs had been brief. Naively, I just turned up at his office, one day on the way home from school, and he invited me in. He explained pay scales, apprenticeships, qualifications and the importance of a portfolio. He introduced me to the local technical college, and steered me through its complexities.
When I next saw Mr Tombs, a year later, I was older and wiser. I had completed an evening course at the college, going there twice a week straight from school and gaining a vocational qualification certificate. I could quote salary scales. I walked confidently into my second careers advice interview.
“So” said Mr Tombs, jovially, “what do you want to be when you leave school?”
“A photographer!” I replied with deliberate determination. On the desk between us, as evidence of seriousness and feasibility, I placed prospectuses for relevant degree-level courses in Bath, Hounslow, London, Rochester NY, and Vienna.
“Don't be silly” replied Mr Tombs, “you can't make a living at that.” With a magician's sleight of hand, my prospectuses disappeared. “You're good at mathematics; that's the way to go.”
From Shirecester we went eventually to a Mediterranean island, where we would stay until I took my A level exams at age eighteen. Though we were not an Army family I travelled, in a local bus with a motley mix of other expatriate children, to a British army school 80km away – a raucous bus journey over the Island's pitted roads. At this school, too, there was careers advice and I was looking forward to a fresh start after the disappointments in Shirecester.
At first, I had hopes of the permanent careers teacher, Mr King. He was available every day, but I soon learned that he had little or no idea of life outside the school. He was only the careers teacher because nobody wanted Latin any more and he could teach nothing else. I settled down to wait philosophically for the professional careers specialist, flown out from Britain by the army once a year, just after the Easter vacation.
[Meanwhile, I fell in love with the island and, being 16, heroically but unsuccessfully with every girl in sight. My camera went with me everywhere; my friends called it my ‘growth’, but without malice. All my friends and classmates were documented (especially the girls). When we staged A Winter's Tale and Waiting for Godot as part of the English Lit course, my photographic record took longer to view than the performances themselves. All my money went into film, chemicals, paper. The island's Ilford Photographic importers, a genial pair of Armenian brothers, maintained a shop between a brothel and a mosque, and encouraged me just as the Shirecester editor had done. I got my materials at a discount, and was sometimes given marginally outdated stock at no charge at all.]
The day came.
I had learned some lessons; this new start would be on my own terms.
First impressions count. I would give clear signals to this new careers advisor that I had done my homework; that I was not a romantic, glamour-seeking, head-in-the-clouds David Bailey wannabe. Under my arm I had a clean, brand new ring binder, carefully devoid of teenage graffiti. It contained three years worth of notes and questions about potential photographic career paths.
I went up to the first floor balcony, found the room, checked my watch, knocked on the door and entered with a spring in my step.
And stopped dead, horrified.
“So” said Mr Tombs, jovially, “what do you want to be when you leave school?”


Anonymous said...

You've heard my story...I can so relate to this.

Ray Girvan said...

I recall very similar: the dreaded careers room and career advice (my interview concluded with the idea that I should go into Food Science or teaching, both of which in hindsight completely missed any aptitudes I had). In that era, they were clinging to the paradigm of "a single career for life" when the concept was well on the way to becoming obsolete. They had no way of knowing, when I left school in 1974, that the computing boom was going to start in less than a decade; when I left, they were using hand-cranked calculators in math class; yet I bought my first electronic calculator at university, and was using a minicomputer when I started work.

Dr. C said...

Heck, in 8th grade I wanted to be a radio repair man. Go figure.