Sign me up! I want to be a ballerina

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Last year there was outrage when the Fatima cyber ad did the rounds. The full story can be found on dazeddigital.com. Fatima’s ad was one of a series produced in 2019 but surfaced during lockdown as many creative industries struggled to keep going given than no one could gather together to support what they create.

The first question that came to my mind when looking at the ad was: Cyber what? As the word cyber just means computing and computer networks, it is not necessarily shorthand for cyber security. I looked at the GOV.uk website to see how they use it and saw that it is indeed used as a catch-all term. So, if Fatima was to tool up she wouldn’t necessarily be part of a crack international cyber security team of badasses like they are on the telly. She is more likely to be stepping through badly created software systems which no one has documented properly trying to apply a security patch to calculate pensions or something. I wouldn’t want to do that and I already have the skills.

Whilst figuring out what cyber meant to GOV.uk, I found a cyber school programme initiative launched in 2017 to specially selected 5,700 school children to work in cyber. Why don’t they just give all the money they have to schools to decide how to spend it instead of creating special ones? Don’t give it to the government to create more pointless campaigns and flat refurbishments for Boris.

As a young girl, I wanted to be a ballerina. I remember my mum taking me to the class to enquire. I saw all the little girls in their pink tutus and I yearned to be one of them. I don’t know why I couldn’t go, perhaps it was that we didn’t have any money, or that there weren’t any spaces, but I took away the lesson that day that ballet wasn’t for people like me. It was for special ones. In the same way that I didn’t go to the closest primary school as it wasn’t for council estate kids like me.

Years later, when I told a mum on the playground at the very self-selecting primary school my girls went to, her only question was: How did they manage to do that? This was the same woman who was furious that my girls actually went to that school because I hadn’t specifically attended church for two years to get them in.

A couple of years ago, my youngest had to write the biography of someone’s life and she chose me.

I dug out some old photos including one of me as a baby in the bowl. When she asked me why I was getting washed in a bowl and not in the bath, I explained that we didn’t have a bathroom. We only had an outside toilet at the end of the yard.

By the time we moved to the council estate where I grew up on an estate we called Cardboard City, because the walls were thin, I thought were were well posh as we had a bathroom with a toilet and an indoor toilet downstairs. I was only disabused of this notion when a boy at secondary school told me that I was poor and less than because I lived on a council estate. He was probably taught this by his parents, the ones with social climbing aspirations of wanting to better themselves, to be special ones, as they lived on the estate with the school I could see from my bedroom window but wasn’t allowed to attend.

A couple of years ago, I went to a friend’s birthday party and met some Scouse fella whose accent I couldn’t quite place until he told me he was Oxbridge educated and a refined northerner. I still can’t believe it to this day that is what came out of his mouth. I thought I’d heard him wrong, as he impressed upon me his special one status northerner to northerner. Though really why should I be surprised? The UK is still completely prejudiced against accents, which to most people are a short hand for class and money and ultimately someone’s worth. I haven’t watched this series yet, a friend shared it on Facebook, but I do know from personal experience that it is true. It is so inherent people don’t think they are doing it. In many professional work situations and indeed on the playground at my girls’ school over the years, people have made inappropriate and sniggering comments about my accent, imitating me, etc., and when I have pointed it out as offensive, as they are somehow implying that I am not very intelligent, I invariably get the response: I was only joking, my best friend/mother/dog is from [insert somewhere northern].

It was actually a northern accent that made me want to go to university, as up until that point university on television was all about Oxbridge people faffing about in a punt drinking champagne though never in a refined northern accent, not even a whiff of one. I think there would have been the token northerner who was less than as he (always a he, never a she) tried to better himself and become a special one.

And so it was one night, Educating Rita was on the telly and I was riveted. I sat up straight when hairdresser Julie Walters who is studying Macbeth has to put down the scissors partway through a haircut to run across town to say to lecturer Michael Caine: Oh Lady Macbeth, what a cow. I decided there and then that I wanted to do English Literature at university. I wanted to feel that excited as Julie made me feel that English Lit was for everyone.

So, I tootled off to my local Sixth Form College, hilariously called South Park, where even then I had to have a conversations about where I lived. One day a girl said asked me as we were sitting in English Literature: What do you call people, Ruth, who live on a council estate like the one over there? She pointed at my estate with a slight distaste so I said: My Neighbours! Course then we got to the usual: My granny’s neighbours uncle’s dog grew up on a council estate ya-de-ya. Course they did.

I applied to university and went to interview at Durham where the man interviewing me was a real arse telling me that the government had put a squeeze on arts places (sound familiar?) and that a girl like me shouldn’t get my hopes up. Alas, I wasn’t a special one. Later, when I didn’t get the grades I needed (A, A, A), I rang up my first choice Leeds University and when the admissions woman asked me what I got (B,D,E,E), she laughed out loud and said something like: You’ll never get into any university with grades like that. Stop wasting everyone’s time.

As an adult myself dealing with students, I think back to these people and wonder why would they be so mean and careless with a young person’s hopes and dreams – did they too teach their kids to look upon other kids as less than? I would not presume to tell anyone young or old what they can and can’t do. How could I possibly know what someone’s potential is? I don’t even know my own and I have spent a long time getting to know me.

Undefeated, and following some fabulous but random advice, I swapped over to computing and went through the university clearing system as I wanted to leave home immediately. I was ready to set off on my great adventure of life. In a lovely ironic way, I ended up in Liverpool, just like Educating Rita (though in real life, it was filmed in Dublin), to do Computer Studies instead of English.

It was there, that I discovered that all the things I love about the stories of English literature are there in Computer Studies. Of course there was networked computing too. I never quite got excited about networked computing – not even when I was responsible for a cluster of Silicon Graphics machines a few years later – and GOV.uk, rebranding it cyber is not going to change that for me.

However, what I do know is that for me, computing is about people, it is about the stories we create around things we don’t understand and the stories we tell about the things we do, based on the experiences that we have. That said, a lot of computing is a solitary experience, even when you are in a room with other people, staring at screens of code which needs fixing as it is too often written by people without the necessary skills and experience, who have taken the job to earn money and not because they have a love or aptitude for it.

Personally, I am a great believer in the universal living wage. If we all had a basic wage, which gave everyone enough money to live on, then the government could spend less time and money on campaigns telling people what and what they shouldn’t be doing, and means testing everyone to allow them basic rights. Having a job doesn’t make us worthy, no more than the way we speak, or where we live. We are all worthy. And we are all different and we would all do our part in society, as we see it, not the government. Being educated, speaking a certain way, and/or having some money doesn’t make you a special one and not having these things doesn’t make you less than. We are all special ones.

And, if this time in lockdown has taught us anything, life is short and we need to spend it doing things and with people which/who fill us up. Artist Clare Beloved says: Expression is the opposite of depression, when we create, we express ourselves and what we create resonate with others. In this way we connect and empathise with others and empathy is the antidote to shame. The shame that the refined northerner must have felt somewhere along the line when he showed up as himself and someone told him that he wasn’t enough because of the way he spoke – the way in which he expressed himself and his poor tender heart.

So, when I look once more at the posters above encouraging Fatima to swap her ballerina career for one in Cyber, apart from the fact that the graphic designer who created this poster is being paid to hopefully do what they love, I wonder why this poster came into being. What’s its why? Unlike dazeddigital, I don’t think Fatima swapping from being a ballerina to working in cyber is dystopian at all, if that is what she wants to do. There is nothing dystopian about being a computer scientist, thank you very much, it takes great skill to do it well, which gets forgotten about as many people think because they use a computer that it makes them a computer scientist. Insane really, I can drive a car but I am not a mechanic.

This poster seems to raise that age-old question how is art useful? Since Tony Blair introduced university fees back in 1998 which was the start of students buying their education, well in my lifetime anyway, universities have turned into businesses. Now they sell utility rather than enrichment which makes liberal arts degrees feel that they have to justify their utility and their practical application. This is not a new debate, it exactly what James Joyce thought about in Finnegan’s Wake, as Tim Conley talks about in Useless Joyce. Blair also decided to measure everything and set targets as a way of measuring progress and penalise, fine anyone who didn’t meet the targets. In this way, he shifted responsibility from the government to the people. Whoever you vote for the government still gets in.

We all have different talents and skills to offer the world that come from who we are and what we have given our time and energy to.

For me, I still find my great joy in and around the phenomena of computing. That said though, I still have to get on my yoga mat most days to bend out the feelings and stresses I get from the solitary activity of sitting at my computer. Yoga is a dance but it doesn’t make me a ballerina.

However, if the government is encouraging the idea that everyone can swap one job for another, willy-nilly, regardless of desire or aptitude then sign me up please for the one year ballerina conversion course, but I don’t want to do it online, I want to do it in real life. I need the skills of a human being to show me what do. My next career is as a ballerina, I just don’t know it yet. It is never to late to live your dream.

Alternatively, I may just buy myself a tutu to wear in front of my computer and do the odd pirouette on my way to get a coffee because living your dream can come in many many ways. Now that I know for sure.

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