Do you ever feel like an imposter? I spent three years at Cambridge wandering along King’s Parade feeling like a bit of a fraud. Perhaps there had been some mistake in the admissions office. Perhaps they had meant to offer a place to Jeremiah Quince, a straight ‘A’ student from Eton. It was obvious that our letters had become muddled and my poor college had ended up with me; an awkward and shy state grammar boy from Essex. I imagined a hushed conversation in the Director of Studies office, something along the lines of, ‘Well it would be too embarrassing to back out now. We will have to grit our teeth, and go through with it. Imagine the adverse publicity if we withdrew his place!’.
Naturally, I presumed that my peers were intellectually brilliant and it never occurred to me that they too might have been plagued by crippling self-doubt. Years later, it was comforting to read that Stephen Fry also suffered from imposter syndrome whilst studying down the road at Queen’s College. Mind you, he arrived at Cambridge having completed a short stretch at Her Majesty’s pleasure after getting himself into a pickle with someone else’s credit card.. These days, returning to Cambridge feels a little strange because, on one level, I struggle to believe that I was ever there. It feels like a dream sequence that is now lost in the mists of time.
When it comes to being an adult, I still feel like a bit of an imposter. As I hurtle towards middle age (and ignore those who unkindly point out that I have already arrived), I still feel childlike in many regards. I laugh at puerile humour and enjoy losing myself in activities that might best be described as trivial. I have not embraced the adult colouring book craze as we all have to draw a line somewhere, but I do delight in completing puzzles and building complex Lego kits. If I possessed a Playstation then I would probably develop an unhealthy addiction. The older I become, the more I value the ability to laugh and be lost in the moment. Achieving ‘flow’ is the perfect antidote to the stresses, strains and mundanities of everyday life. Dealing with mortgages, life insurance, school fees, tax returns and domestic chores is boring. By contrast, playing with Lego, singing Karaoke or arguing over Monopoly is fun. Fretting about one’s health, professional development and the growing pile of admin sitting on the desk is miserable – there has to be more to life than tasks to be completed.
Retaining our sense of childlike fun is essential for our well being. I do not want to grow up – not entirely at least. I would rather play at adulting – busk it and fake it. It is the case that much of our lives are given over to serious issues and our responsibilities to others only multiply with age.
Those foolish enough to tell you that ‘it is time for you to grow up’ should be resolutely ignored. It is never time to grow up and I applaud my father-in-law for still acting like a bit of a lad despite being well into his eighties. I do not think of him as old and the fact that he still farms and enjoys a bit of a session (in the Irish sense) makes him something of a legend in my eyes. The subversive twinkle in his eye has not diminished with age. We can safely presume that he is never going to ‘grow up’.
It is almost forty years since my father died with a suddenness that is still difficult to contemplate. On Monday, Teigan will be precisely the same age as I was when I bid goodbye to my father at the school gates for the very last time. In an instance, our lives were blown apart and I have spent the last 14,448 days adjusting to that loss. Once the initial shock of grief has subsided, one learns to live alongside loss. My father continues to be a fundamental cornerstone of my existence and I do not resist the sadness that accompanies thoughts of what could or should have been. However, as I look at Teigan now, I am reminded that being six years and eleven days old (as I was on 23rd May 1983) is really very little.
I try to resist the superstitious impulses that tend to accompany dates that seem significant to me. Of course, on one level, Monday is just another day. It would be tempting to tell you that I will hug Teigan just that little tighter and perhaps I will do just that but I hug her pretty tightly anyway. For sure, I will breathe a sigh of relief when the day has passed. The day matters to me but I think that when you lose a parent at the age of six, you never take anything for granted – the uncertainty of life is impressed upon you with a force that is inescapable. Not a day goes by that I do not reflect upon the privilege of parenthood and the suddenness with which our lives can be turned upside down. I am not paralysed by such thoughts but it is always there – hardwired into my psyche. If anything, my intrinsic drive comes from a realisation that life is finite. I am energised by the frailty of our existence.
So on Monday, I will make sure that I am the one to pick Teigan up from School. We will laugh, play and enjoy spending time together. For once, I will turn off my phone, ignore work pressures and focus upon a little girl who is six years and eleven days old. That is all.
Of course, like me, Teigan will one day have to learn how to ‘adult’ Perhaps she too will just pretend. On reflection, I deserved to go to university but I will never feel that I deserve to be taken entirely seriously as a bona fide adult. That is not necessarily a problem…the older I get, the more I realise that immaturity is something to be cherished but shush…don’t tell the children!
Headmaster of Rossall School