My journey from a council estate to a PhD

Growing up working class meant Michelle Deininger was more worried about money than academic aspirations, but after a second chance she managed to complete her PhD 

April 18, 2018

In the 1990s, I was a working-class kid from a council estate just outside Oxford, where no one went to sixth-form college, let alone university. I remember having a massive silver sports bag, a huge purple puffy coat and a perm. Around 1992, my parents stumbled on the Conservative government’s Assisted Places Scheme. I remember that I had an interview with the headmistress at a local independent school and we talked a lot about my reading, especially The Lord of the Rings.‏

Not long after, I took the entrance exam. For geography, I was given a map of Australia to label and I wrote Alice Springs on every arrow as I knew at some point it would have to be right. In maths, I wrote lots of question marks – it was the one subject where I never caught up.

In between exams, I was looked after by some current pupils. They did not have perms. Or purple coats. Or big silver sports bags. They were really nice, complimenting me on my stripy jumper (that I had borrowed from my mum) and they had beautiful hair. But that’s when I realised I was different.

In the spring of 1993, I was given a place at the school, funded by the Assisted Places Scheme. What it didn’t cover was extras, such as charges for books, trips and dinner money. There was a uniform grant at the beginning, but it didn’t cover everything, especially as the uniform could be bought only from a specific shop. I never had any replacements.

When I got to the school, it took me about a year to catch up. I was like a sponge. Before, I had been the kid who was bullied for being a “brainbox”. In the state school, a gang of girls hid my lunch bag behind a toilet cistern for fun. But at the independent school, learning was OK. In fact, doing well academically was what was expected.

But there were different things to contend with. Once, a girl told me that her father simply didn’t believe in council housing. How do you respond to someone’s inherited disdain for the very structure that keeps you safe at night?

Looking back, I can hardly believe how much time I spent worrying about money when the whole point was to raise my aspirations. And take me away from the perm, the puffy purple coat and the massive silver sports bag. If aspiration was the main point, then it worked. But at what cost? The cost of always feeling less than good enough? Always having a point to prove? Of never feeling like I truly belonged?

By late 1997, I held an offer to study English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. The interview was intense, but I was not fazed. I even enjoyed it, in a weird way. I did realise, however, that I had been pronouncing Coleridge wrong the whole time.

But kids from Blackbird Leys did not go to university and they certainly did not go to Oxford. When I went to pick up my grades, no one would look at me. I knew it was bad. I’d missed loads of the lower sixth, partly from illness and partly from just not showing up. The strain of feeling out of place took its toll. One day, I had got to school after a tortuously long bus ride and had walked out again because I couldn’t be in the same room as all the other girls. Looking back now, I can see that my self-worth and confidence were on the floor.

I came back to the car, clutching my two Bs and a C, and I don’t think that I’ll ever forget the look on my mum’s face. I’d missed Oxford by miles. The embarrassment of having to tell everyone that I hadn’t managed it was awful. I took up my insurance offer feeling like a failure.

I moved from a council estate to the middle of the Home Counties where everyone had attended good schools, still had nice hair and went home at weekends to places such as Virginia Water. I lasted one term. My personal tutor didn’t know my name when I turned up to withdraw. No one noticed me quietly slip away and give up.

A few years later, with two small children in tow, I started a part-time foundation certificate at the University of Oxford, in the continuing education department. This is the moment where everything changed for me. I still had very little confidence. I still felt like a failure, deep down. But I had the most amazing tutors and I started to believe in myself again.

Skip forward more than a decade and here I am with a PhD and a lecturing job, teaching adult learners and running a programme that’s very similar to the one that gave me a second chance. I still feel awkward, uncomfortable and out of place a lot. But what I’ve noticed, more than ever, is that these feelings fall away when a student comes to see me and says “I can’t do this – this is not for people like me” and I can say: I understand, I know, and it feels horrible, but education is for you. You can do this. And I will help you.

This is an abridged version of a longer article originally published by the Wales Arts Review

Michelle Deininger is coordinating lecturer in Humanities at Cardiff University.

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Reader's comments (2)

The gap between a Blackbird Leys upbringing and a university lectureship is considerably bridged by a private school education in this testimonial. While I don’t belittle the journey described, it’s a pity the author offers no real discussion of (or concern for?) the massive under-representation of state school pupils among academics in this piece.
Just to say that the journey from Blackbird Leys to university lectureship took 20 years, 2 kids, evening classes in a local college, a Cert HE in continuing education, plus the usual BA, MA, PhD business. It's easy to criticise what is essentially a memoir of growing up feeling different/out of place for not tackling a range of (also important but beyond the scope of a memoir) subjects. I would always advise reading the original piece (as the THE version was heavily edited) and punching up instead of down.