“No, no Mr Gove. Put me down! Please! I’ll confess!”…
‘…Derek, Derek, What on earth are you on about?’, complained Mrs O’Keefe, nearly knocking her husband off the sofa.
Derek’s sleeping had not been good for a while. Since he left his role at Thirlmere Academy, he just hadn’t been able to settle, increasingly worried about what to do next. He had a good reference from the school, despite being overlooked for the permanent job. But he just couldn’t see himself going back into school leadership, not just yet anyway.
Meanwhile, a distant uncle had passed away in Eastbourne (a particularly popular place for passing away, he was told) and from out of nowhere, he’d been bequeathed in excess of £50,000. Following several laborious discussions about what to do, Derek and his wife came up with the solution.
Derek would go back to university.
So it was that on sunny September morning, Derek set off for his first official day as an undergraduate to study American History, one of his lifelong passions. He was ecstatic.
The induction period had been nothing like his first degree back in 1990. Back then, it was turn up, register, and then head off down the pub. Now he felt he was being welcomed onto a first-class flight to Hawaii, all toothy smiles, soft music and comfort. The university’s website reminded him of a glitzy, American entertainment company, celebrating its state-of-the-art buildings, modern facilities, wellness support and leisure activities.
Blimey, he was exhausted just reading it all.
The first lecture was to be delivered to all the students in the faculty, but before that he had a personal ‘catch-up’ with his designated mentor, Polly. (He wasn’t quite sure why it was a ‘catch-up’ when he hadn’t actually met her yet, but he would ignore that for the time being).
‘Derek, it’s so good to have a mature student with us!’ she greeted him.
Thanks for mentioning that, Polly.
‘And firstly, would you like me to refer to you in a gender-specific way?’
‘Well, you’re a he, or a she, or do you prefer gender-neutral?’
‘Oh, he’s fine. Well, I’m fine. Is I’m ok?’
‘Hah! Derek, we’re going to get along awesomely. Now, do you require a safe space?’
Safe space? From what? Terrorists? Jeremy Clarkson? Michael Gove?
‘Err, I’m not sure what you mean?’ This was getting weird.
‘Well, Derek, our campus will not tolerate any form of bullying and intolerance. We have many students who are from minority groupings, and they need to have a safe space from that bullying’. Polly was becoming very assertive.
‘Ah, no, Polly, I’m fine. No minority groups for me. Unless you count the fact I’m a Chesterfield FC fan!!’
Bad move. Polly did not find that funny and his first personal mentor session ended abruptly.
Derek really was desperate to get started on the American History. He was particularly looking forward to debating the issues with his fellow students, most of whom were from a different generation to him. He wanted to hear their thoughts on Custer’s Last Stand, the rights of the Sioux population, or what really caused the humiliation in Vietnam. At home, his sleep failed to improve, but this time it was over-excitement and anticipation of the lectures, seminars and tutor groups that lay ahead.
Two weeks later, he found himself sitting with a group of undergraduates in the campus’ Starbucks. The choice of location itself represented another great change since his first days as an undergraduate; back then, he and his friends visited the local corner shop each day for a sausage sandwich and a carton of milk. Now it was like being in a shopping mall.
He felt awkward, such was the age gap, but was confident enough to begin the conversation.
‘So, guys… (ooh, trying a bit too hard there, Derek)…why American History?’
‘No idea, really. Just sounded cool, and I’ve always liked American music’, replied a heavily tattooed lad sitting to his left.
Then a brief silence whilst they all checked their phones. Next, the girl opposite him spoke, at the same time as devouring a frappuccino.
‘Was nothing to do with me; my parents told me to do it. In fact, I didn’t really want to go to university, but they’re paying my fees so whatever really.’
This was evidently amusing because they all chuckled along with her. Derek did the same (but just that little bit too late).
There was one more response to Derek’s question, from a young woman of Asian, or maybe Arab appearance. She introduced herself as Amina.
‘Because I wanted to be the first person in my family to go to university, and I’ve always loved history.’
Derek felt a tear forming, and suddenly remembered what Polly had told him.
‘And has your ‘safe space’ helped you, Amina?’
Amina chuckled (there was quite a lot of chuckling going on).
‘Derek, I don’t need a safe space, I’ve already got one, It’s called my family.’
The tattooed lad sighed. ‘God, last thing I’d want to do at uni is live with my family. That’s the whole point of it, isn’t it? Getting away from them.’
Derek thought he’d leave before he got outed.
And so life at university continued. With the exception of Amina, he found his coursemates distant and strangely passive. He’d expected lively debates and frank exchanges of views, but it rarely happened. Even the debating society had gone on strike, demanding that the government announce a ‘climate catastrophe’ before it met again.
One day, he received an invitation to see the Vice-Chancellor.
‘Dear Mr O’Keefe, you are invited to attend a feedback session with the V-C on 3rd November in his office at 3pm. You have been selected so that all types of undergraduates are represented. We do hope that you are able to join him for this important chance for our undergraduates to make their views heard.’
All types of undergraduates? A euphemism maybe, for ‘old, and living at home’, Derek thought. Amina had been invited too, probably because she was ‘Asian, and happily living at home.’
But Derek was keen to listen to the Vice-Chancellor and so he arrived promptly just before 3pm.
A group of around twelve undergraduates were waiting, all quite notably different to each other. Really, really different. No-one was even looking at each other, never mind talking. Not to worry, as in bounced the VC, hair flopping to one side, open-necked shirt and jacket. He reminded Derek of Don Johnson out of Miami Vice.
Don began to speak.
‘Firstly, I will address you in a gender-neutral way. All happy with that?’
Derek correctly assumed that this was a rhetorical question, but couldn’t help himself anyway.
‘Erm, I’d quite like to be called ‘he’ if that’s OK?’
Eleven sets of eyes lasered angrily into his reddening face. He felt like Judas Iscariot at the Last Supper.
Don ignored him and carried on.
‘So I am literally wanting to find out how things are going at the chalkface.’
A fellow student shot back immediately. ‘Sorry, Justin, but I object to the word chalkface being used; it has racist overtones and I object to its use strongly.’
Don, who Derek now knew to be Justin, looked flustered and apologised immediately, offered the student counselling, and changed the subject.
‘So what do you think of our buildings. I’m literally so proud of them.’
‘They’re good for sitting around chilling with a coffee, man,’ replied another student rather sardonically.
‘Great, that’s what we want. Plenty of chill-out spaces, and open-plan spaces, and, of course, safe spaces. Awesome.’
Yes, but what about learning? Derek thought. He needed to pipe up, if only to banish the memory of his previous, unfortunate intervention.
‘Don..sorry, Justin…I’d just like to say that the standard of teaching is really good. It’s…awesome.’ And then for good measure and extra emphasis. ‘Literally.’
‘Oh thanks Derek, that’s really interesting. But learning is only a part of what we do at the university. We’re about buildings, and business, and growth and…more buildings. Anything else you want to ask?’
‘Well, I’d love more chance to debate and exchange robust opinions about things. It all seems a bit…chilled?’
One of the other students jumped up and starting wagging her finger as she remonstrated with Derek.
‘That’s because we’re sick of fascists and imperial apologists telling us what they think. It’s outrageous, and we will not be lectured to by criminals. Plus they’re racist, sexist and…fascist.’
Justin tried to calm things down. ‘She’s right, Derek. University is no place to be exchanging hostile views. Maybe if that’s what you want, you should be going back into employment?’
Justin finished this sentence with one of those antipodean inflections where the voice goes back up again. To be honest, Derek rather hoped he were in Australia now; this was not going well.
Later that evening, he recounted to Mrs O’Keefe the content of his meeting with Don/Justin. He was glad he stuck up for himself, but was rather dispirited with the whole university experience. His wife listened patiently.
‘You know, love, we thought this might happen. You’re from a different generation – it was always going to be tough. You don’t have to do it, by the way. The University of the Third Age on Washway Lane is doing a series of lectures on the Wall Street Crash next month – that might be just what you’re looking for.’
‘Yeh, and it doesn’t cost fifty grand,’ Derek muttered sarcastically.
By Christmas, Derek’s enjoyment of the undoubtedly good teaching was being erased by the loneliness he felt around the campus. Amina always engaged him in conversation, but everyone else was too busy retreating to their safe spaces and specific groups. He knew it was futile to continue.
He handed his lanyard back to Polly, settled up his fees for the term (bloody hell, how much?) and walked back to his very safe space, called home.