When I Grew Up

By Sandy Burgham

One of the biggest questions people pose at midlife is, “what do I really want to be doing with my life?” On a recent trip to the UK I did a short course on career development, which explored the idea that a fulfilling career should be a grown-up version of who you were, and what you loved doing, as a child. For instance, David Attenborough was a deep and thoughtful little boy who was in awe of the natural world around him. Despite feeling perfectly fulfilled in my work and life, I played along to test out the theory. But what was I like as a child? My memory is biased and sketchy; I just remember liking being silly and making my friends laugh.

So I leant on the memory of one of my oldest and dearest friends, whom I was staying with. We met when we were both 11. As we reflected on our naïve, tween selves, she shared a memory that I had long forgotten, but must have been very formative as it all came back in clear detail. I was, as per usual, acting the goat in class, but this time it really triggered the teacher, an alpha male who had taught both of my well-behaved older sisters. My friend and I both remembered that he exploded at me over something, which shocked me, her and the whole class into silence. She remembers praying that I would apologise, as he kept demanding. But I didn’t. I was frozen and she, he and the rest of the class misread my silence as defiance and courage, when in fact it was shock. I was made to pack up my desk and “leave the class permanently”. I did so silently, in deep shame and horror. I didn’t cry; not because I was stoic, but because I was so traumatised.

I remember leaving the classroom and wandering around the school sensing that I didn’t belong anywhere, and everyone else did. He found me later and brought me to the cloakroom to talk it over. But he did all the talking. He told me he knew I was sorry. But I wasn’t sorry; I hadn’t got that far in my thinking, I was still processing what it felt like being publicly belittled by someone who had all the power. This was before the days of “I don’t feel this is a safe environment,” when as children we toughed it out and built resilience. He had a large foreboding stature, and was very overweight. After not getting any response from me, by way of reconciliation he embraced me and pushed my face into his belly. I remember thinking two things, aside from sensing the rough texture of his polyester shirt. Firstly, “He is so squishy I could disappear into his stomach” and then the 1970s, 11-year-old version of “I think this is probably highly inappropriate”. I was reinstated into the class and never bothered mentioning it to my parents because we didn’t do that sort of thing back then.

A recidivist prankster, a similar episode occurred five years later, in a French class with another intimidating male teacher. Once again, he had taught my brilliant all-rounder sister before being landed with me, irreverent and immature.

In my defence, it wasn’t that I was interested in challenging authority; I was just deeply invested in entertaining my friends.  So it was unfortunate that when I wrote in a calligraphic way ‘Quelle un grand wanker’ on my folder, he saw it and took it  very personally. Once again, public humiliation and banishment followed. As I was wondering why these old guys kept losing it with someone so much younger, when clearly they should be above all that, he found me, did all the talking, and I was reinstated, none the wiser. If this happened today, a parent would complain that their child’s right to an education was not being honoured, but back then, parents were largely disinterested in such minutiae.

So what has this got to do with my career today? Interestingly, a lot of my work looks at system dynamics, including gender, diversity and power differentials in the workplace. We uncover why people are triggered by particular behaviour in others, and look at better ways to communicate in conflict. So after all, there was a link to my current career and who I was as a youngster.

If you are pondering the age-old question of career fulfillment,  I encourage you to spend time thinking not about your adult years but your childhood and adolescence — what  were the things you loved doing, and what would the adult version of that look like? What are those random memories that stick for some reason? What were the repeated patterns? How might they show up today? How we work with that knowledge is a topic I’ll address another time.


This article first appeared in the July-August 2019 issue of The Hobson Magazine.