I hated school. In fact, I hated everything.
I felt as if I had never fitted in anywhere. I just don’t think I was born with the enthusiasm or interest genes! ‘You’re just different’ My mother told me during one of my ‘woe is me; I’m good at nothing’ times.
‘Different, who wants to be different” I thought after she told me that. I didn’t really know what she meant by it and I wasn’t going to ask her to explain - her explanations or stories were so long winded that I usually fell asleep standing up!
The truth was that I knew I didn’t really try at school. Was I smart or not? Who would know because I didn’t put the effort in.
Every school report I brought home had the same words over and over again, from English to maths to history and geography …’Michael could be a good student if he just put some effort in to his work’! So I felt like the teachers had stopped putting any effort into me!
I never ever thought I was smart like most of the other kids in the class – they were clever, or seemed it to me. I was the only one who didn’t ‘get’ a lot of stuff. Well maybe excluding Joshua Pepper – he was actually worse than me, although I think there was actually a lot more wrong with him!
I have to be honest and say that the other kids in the class weren’t that bad towards me, but I wasn’t asked to join in with anything they did, like their soccer club for example. I actually hated soccer and when we had to play it for sport, I was always the last one picked for a team – so understandable why they didn’t include me really!
“We’re going this way Michael” the sport master would scream at me, shaking his head. Pull yourself together!”
“What is wrong with you?” one of the other boys would yell at me as I let the soccer ball go straight through my legs.
“Nothing, I’m just no good at soccer, that’s all”
As I walked away from the grey and gloomy building that was school, every afternoon, I would think about what I could be good at. There had to be something, surely!
When I arrived home the last thing on my mind was homework, but I knew if I didn’t get it done then I would be in trouble from both of my parents when they got home from work. I settled down to do it.
I raced through it with not much care. I knew I lacked motivation, or maybe I was just lazy?
My job to earn pocket money was mowing the lawn when it needed doing, washing the dishes after dinner and keeping my own bedroom tidy – epic fail there!
Mum would always tell me that one of the ladies she worked with had a son who vacuumed the whole house each week. “So, what do you think about that Michael?” she asked me, arms folded, and I replied “Not much”.
I was very good at laying on my bed for hours and reading comics. “You should be reading books Michael” my father would tell me, “Not that rubbish. You’ll never amount to much if you don’t read, that’s a fact”.
I didn’t like reading books, it bored me. Comics made me laugh. ‘I wonder if the writers ever have people to read their comics to see if they are funny? I could do that job’ I thought to myself.
I thought I had found a new interest when our neighbour asked me if I would be interested in painting the outside of his shed at the weekend- he would pay me. So, I told him I loved painting and would see him early on Saturday morning.
Well, my alarm didn’t go off and mum and dad were at work so they couldn’t wake me. I got up and wandered next too to Fred’s place where he was already set up for the activity. “Sleep in did we?” he asked sounding a bit cross.
“Sorry Fred, I didn’t feel well in the night” I lied “But I willed myself to get up because I know you need me”.
“Oh well, in that case, thankyou Michael” he said “and if at any time you don’t feel too good, just say so”.
Fred took a look at my bare feet and told me that as I would be up the ladder for a bit, it might be a good idea to put some shoes on.
I slowly made my way home and put shoes on, stopping in the kitchen to drink some milk from the carton and eat a couple of biscuits.
Fred directed me to the ladder and the area I would be painting, and I started. I’d hardly painted anything when Fred yelled up “Wipe your brush! Michael, you’re dripping it from up there”.
“Oh yeah, sorry”.
I couldn’t stretch that far so had to keep moving the ladder and then climbing back up. After about ten minutes, I realised that painting wasn’t for me and got down from the top rung. “What’s up now?” Fred asked sounding exasperated with me.
“I’m going to be sick. Sorry Fred but I’ve gotta go”.
He looked up to the little bit of painting I’d managed to do.
I don’t know if it was the terribly streaky job or the thought of me vomiting down onto him beneath me, but Fred quickly replied “No worries Michael. Get better soon”.
Once inside my own house I did a very good job of eating crisps and reading comics on my bed!
I knew I had to wash the dinner dishes (they had been left from last night to teach me a lesson!) and tidy my room before my parents got home so I slowly made my way into the kitchen and started to run the hot tap. I finished washing them all and meandered back into my bedroom to tidy it – so all the rubbish on my floor got scooped up and put into my wardrobe, my cover got pulled up on the bed, on top of socks, pj’s and whatever else was there! And my pile of dirty clothes thrown into the laundry basked in the bathroom.
“There we are, all done” I proudly said aloud!
The parents arrived home from the markets and were most impressed with my diligence at doing my jobs!
“How did the painting go with Fred, get it all done?” my mum asked me in anticipation of a positive answer.
“I got quite a bit done for him” I lied “and then, I think because of the fumes, I felt quite ill and had to come home for a lie down”.
“Mm” Said my dad “it would have been water-based paint Michael” he said, looking at me and waiting to see what I had to say
“Strong smell though” I said and left it at that.
The next week at school we had to choose our electives for the coming semester. There were always the ‘fun’ options in there too, although to me most of them didn’t seem like they would be that entertaining.
I couldn’t think of anything worse than metal work. My uncle was a sheet metal worker and took me to his place of work one weekend. My mum and dad had gone away for a couple of days and I was staying with Uncle Jim. He was measuring up and assembling some sheets of metal for a frame and he thought I might enjoy helping him.
I didn’t. The first mistake I made was measuring wrongly…” I thought you would know how to use a tape measure by now” Uncle Jim yelled at me as he took out screws that he had drilled into the wrong place!
Then when it came to lifting the sheets to hold them in place, I couldn’t.
“What are you, man or mouse? He yelled again. “Look Michael, just go into the kitchen over there and make us some lunch. I presume you know how to butter bread!”
I was glad to get home and for my parents to get home at the end of Sunday. At least they knew how useless I was and nothing came as a shock to them anymore.
I asked my mum’s opinion on the electives and she was of the same opinion as me. Nothing that required too much thinking or organising! “But Michael” she said to me “Why don’t you try cooking?”
“Cooking” exploded “Are you kidding?”
“Or dance then?” she added tentatively
“I’ll do cooking” I said, knowing it didn’t really matter how the food turned out because it would be a laugh!
“Oh, that sounds good love” she said “You’ll be making the family dinner in no time!” she joked, with what sounded like relief in her voice that I had finally decided on something.
It was two weeks until the first cooking lesson and the class. On the first day there were a couple of boys sitting near me who I did not expect to see there.
“How come you’re doing this class?” I asked Richard Merryfield, who to me was one smart kid, even looking the part with a short back and sides and thick black glasses. “I thought you’d be doing something different to the cooking class?”
“I’m doing enough tough subjects and I figure this will be easy with no pressure, and you get to eat the food”. Richard had a reputation of not only being clever but loving to eat too.
The teacher was new to the school this year and seemed alright. ‘At least he has no preconceived ideas about me’ I thought looking at him.
We were making an egg and bacon quiche for the first lesson. “That’s a challenge’ I thought but when we were all handed out the recipe sheet, after looking at it, I didn’t feel that overwhelmed.
The bit I didn’t like was wearing an apron! But everyone one had to, so I put it on self-consciously.
I actually felt quite at ease making the pastry case. I looked around once mine was in the oven ‘baking blind’ and was shocked to see that some of the others hadn’t even finished the first step. Richard’ workbench reminded me of my bedroom floor - but white, from the flour!
I was on to the next step of beating the eggs when Mr Gilbert the teacher walked up to my bench “You seem to know what you’re doing” he remarked with a smile.
“I’ve never cooked anything” I told him honestly “Mum always said she wasn’t letting me loose in the kitchen!”
Twenty minutes later the quiche was ready to go back in the oven, so in it went.
I looked around the room and realised that I was the first student to have put the finishing touches to the dish and have a neat and tidy work bench! What was happening to me?
I took the quiche home, very carefully! And put it on the kitchen bench top to wait the arrival of my mother from work. I knew what she would say…
“Hello son” were her first words as she walked into the kitchen. Then she stopped in front of the quiche, looked at it, then me and said “You didn’t make this…. did you?... really?”
“I did” I answered proudly.
“Michael, I can’t believe it. I could buy one that looked exactly the same at the patisserie down the road”.
“And mother dear, I have to add that I enjoyed cooking it”.
It tasted as good as it looked and after my dad telling me that he knew I hadn’t made it…. he tucked in and ate a few good slices.
I was really looking forward to the cooking class the following week. I kind of felt excited going to school on that day.
We all sat at our work stations after washing our hands and were handed our recipes by Mr Gilbert. As he gane me the pieces of typed paper he said “Let’s see if you can do as good a job as last week with the quiche – that was an amazing effort for someone who has never cooked before. Were you happy with the result?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Me, getting a compliment, a pat on the back for something I did. And being asked if I was happy with the good result!
“Well, we all ate it for tea that night and no one died!” I replied and everyone in the class laughed.
“Today, as you can see, it’s a recipe for cupcakes” he told the class. Now you might think that it’s a very simple cook but let me assure you that if you don’t sift the flour before you add the other ingredients or beat it for long enough, or cook them for too long, you’ll be in trouble. Now let’s see what you can all do”.
As I followed each step diligently, I realised that I was enjoying myself – and that I hadn’t felt quite like this about anything to do with school for a very long time.
I looked around the room, I could see some of the boys were struggling, Tom Finch kept running over to his mate and asking what he’d done wrong! Even Richard Merrifield looked a little stressed as he tried to get what looked like cream coloured cement off the beaters!
The teacher walked around the room, checking to see if anyone needed help and when he got to me all he said was “Another good cook for you Michael, but the proof will be in the eating of course”.
At last everyone had their cupcakes out of the oven and were told that if we wanted to ice them we could, but it wasn’t going to give us any more towards our mark.
I let mine cool and then iced them - thinking they looked ok. As I bit into one of them it was light and soft – just like Mum’s. I couldn’t wait to take them home.
Outside at the school gate one of the boys in my class came up to me. I had never really liked him, and sure as hell he didn’t like me. This was one of the smart boys, clever, good looking and rich….I actually hated him!
“How come someone as dumb as you can cook?” he asked spitefully.
“Dunno” I said “but how come someone as smart as you can’t even read a recipe properly?”
“When I looked over at you, I thought I saw you scraping all the cake mixture out of the tray because you’d forgotten to put the egg in?”
“Cooking is for girls anyway” was his reply as he walked off.
Meanwhile after tea at our house my father asked me if I had bought the ‘fairy cakes’ from the bakery down the road.
“Of course he didn’t Charles, he had cooking today at school”.
“They’re nice” my dad added as he bit into his second one.
The term was half way through when at one cooking lesson Mr. Gilbert asked me if I would stay behind for a few minutes after school for a chat. I had no idea what it was about but couldn’t remember doing anything to get punished for during the week.
“Michael” he began “I’ve noticed that you really do have a flair for cooking. Your methodology is spot on, you read the recipe thoroughly, get to work and effortlessly give a finished product each week that is flawless”.
I was speechless but before I could even think of any reply he continued with “I’ve been looking through all of your records from when you first started at this school, and as far as I can see, you really do excel at this subject, compared to every other subject”.
I thought that was a nice way of saying, you’re not very clever at anything but this.
“Have you ever thought of an apprenticeship Michael?’
“I have some friends in the hospitality and restaurant industry and they are often looking for a hardworking and diligent apprentice, one who is passionate about their craft, and I definitely see that in you Michael”.
This time I spoke “I can’t believe I’m good at something” was all I managed.
“I would like you to go home, discuss it with your parents and think seriously about what I’ve said. I’ll talk to you next week. Ok?”
It was definitely ok with me. To be told that I was good at something and to have seriously impressed a teacher….
I packed the spaghetti and meatballs in the Tupperware container, carefully into my school bag and almost floated home.
Now as I am six months into my apprenticeship as a chef, I am happy, confident, a much nicer person, but mostly very grateful to Mr. Gilbert for seeing something in me that no one else ever had.
I love my job and I love everything about life.