My Experience of Education Part 3 by Kirsten McCrossan, 32

In one of my costumes for the pantomime Aladdin

In one of my costumes for the pantomime Aladdin aged 15/16

Tears just streamed down my face. I felt like a complete failure. Nothing else mattered in that moment – not the part in a professional panto; the work experience at a professional theatre company; being cast as the lead role in the school show or being selected to attend the renowned Scottish Youth Theatre Festival and raising nearly £1000 by myself. None of that mattered. Just these three letters: CCD.

Fourth year passed by in a haze. I was now 15 and had been desperate to get a job so was working at a local hotel part-time. I didn’t really study for any exams. I wasn’t too fussed. This was making my dad irate and he resorted to drastic measures and locked me in the dining room with my chemistry folder. I found this both ridiculous and quite funny. I had put a copy of ‘Just 17’ magazine in my chemistry folder so once I heard the key in the lock I would smirk as I took the magazine out and read it. The biology teacher had by now told Alana and I that we had better not try and take Higher Biology and if she ever found out that we had taken it as a subject she would make sure we were removed from the class. I had still not worked out by this stage after four years of French that ‘levez la main’ meant raise your hand. To me these were just sounds that the french teacher made all the time. Modern Studies was still quite fun but me and my friend Vicky spent most lessons laughing about things like Boutros Boutros-Ghali having two names. I quite liked Office & Information Studies as there was a point to what you were doing. However, me and my friends spent most of the time laughing and calling our teacher ‘Wee Ken’ instead of Mr Hutchison. We were annoying pupils. Really annoying. One supply teacher burst into the library after our English class and screamed “THAT KIRSTEN McCROSSAN!!!!” in a rather unpleasant tone. Our class were horrific to our maths teacher, poor Mr Girvan. I would actually like to write to him to apologise on everyone’s behalf. In fact I think I most certainly will. I am pretty sure he swiftly stopped teaching after being harassed by my class every single day for two years. When I was at school, in the moment, the teachers were people who were annoying me and telling me to do things I did not want to do. Now of course I realise they were human beings trying their hardest to do a job. I do however think that some of them were certainly not cut out for teaching. Others were excellent teachers but were faced with a class of pupils, all of whom did not want to be there.

So I did my Standard Grades and got a grade 2 for everything except from Modern Studies and French for which I got a grade 3. It was slightly above average and I did think to myself it was quite ridiculous that you could get decent marks without doing much work. Of course that wasn’t the case – I was naturally bright and was getting grades that others were working hard for.

I also picked the subjects I was going to do at Higher level. I chose English, Maths, Biology, Secretarial Studies and Modern Studies. I quite liked Maths, I thought it was common sense. I have no idea why on earth I chose Biology. I think I chose Secretarial Studies because my dad told me not to because it was not worth any UCAS points. Modern Studies I was happy taking as it was always enjoyable.

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Me at school balancing a can of Safeway Select Diet Coke on my head.

So – here is where I VERY SWIFTLY learned why it was important to study. To me Standard Grades were pretty easy. Not easy enough for me to get the best grades – but easy enough to scrape by with decent enough marks. I sat down in Higher Maths and the teacher could have been talking Chinese for all I knew. What on earth was he talking about? I had no idea. The worst part was that everyone else seemed to be following him fine. I went home that night and told my dad I had no clue what was going on in Higher Maths and that it was impossible. The annoying thing was that the teacher seemed really good. He had complete discipline of the entire class and he was engaging. But I had no idea what he was talking about as I hadn’t bothered to learn the stuff in Standard Grade. My dad sat with me for about three hours helping me to work out the homework. Somehow he could even remember how to work the questions out (yes because he studied when he was at school). I thought to myself that if I had any chance of even scraping a pass that I would have to be studying for hours a night. I knew that wouldn’t happen so I dropped maths. Biology was exactly the same. The teacher was asking ‘basic’ questions. I did not know the answers to any of them. She said – you learned this at Standard Grade. I was thinking – no I did not! Again the teacher seemed really good. I was annoyed that now as I was getting older, calmer and more willing to learn that I was unable to cope with the work because I had been so lazy in third and fourth year. I had to drop Higher Biology too.

I was now starting to feel pretty crap about myself. I felt like a failure. I contemplated leaving school but eventually decided against it. If I didn’t get good exam results then I would not get a good job. That’s what people said.

I lost interest in fifth year pretty quickly although I did enjoy English – and somehow I had manged to end up in a drama class instead of Higher Biology which I was delighted by.

I had seen an advert in the local paper The Ayrshire Post for dancers to audition for the pantomime ‘Aladdin’ at The Gaiety Theatre in Ayr. I had given up dancing to concentrate on youth theatre and I was a bit out of practice. I didn’t tell anyone I was going – I just got on the bus and went to the audition by myself. I can’t remember too much except from learning a routine and then improvising to ‘Wannabe’ by The Spice Girls. This was now 1997. I just threw myself into it. I had been a disco dancer – I had all the faces to pull – and now that I had done so much drama that I was fearless on  a stage. I got picked to dance in the final round then waited for a letter. A few weeks later I WAS IN! I was so excited and was screaming around the house. I was elated!

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Panto dressing room 1997/8

There was a two week intense rehearsal period and as we were still at school we just had to turn up for a couple of hours an afternoon after school. On one of the early rehearsals I was forced to go to Glasgow with Modern Studies to hear some experts bleat on about Modern Studies. The talks were terrible. I couldn’t even hear what the people were saying and me and my friend Vicky spent the day drawing cartoons of the lecturers complete with captions. I had begged my teacher to let me stay at school as I had a panto rehearsal that afternoon in town. She had told me that I needed to go to ‘help’ me with the subject. The panto director was not happy that I was going to be late. I felt terrible. I knew that you had to be at every rehearsal and that I was lucky to be in the cast. This was going to be the longest run of a pantomime that season in the whole of Scotland. Nine weeks. The panto starred Dean Park and various actors from ‘High Road’ (the River City of the time). I ran all the way to the rehearsal room from the station when we got back from the pointless trip. When I got there I was stressed out and all over the place. I had forgot to spit my chewing gum out and I was scrambling around trying to find my fan that I needed for the dance. I was really angry as I was late and didn’t know what was going on. I was furious that I had been made to go on the ridiculous trip and be late for an important rehearsal. I forgot my moves and the director Dougie Squires gave me a very theatrical dressing down in front of the entire cast. I was absolutely mortified. I had a lump in my throat and I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I did not want to mess up in these rehearsals one bit. I had not meant to do anything wrong. I held back the tears and got on with it but there was no way I was going to put a foot wrong again.

Those nine weeks of doing the panto were some of the best of my young life. I was in my element. I took my job completely seriously and relished every second. I loved everything about it. I did let it go to my head a bit though. I used to go back into school after a matinee performance with my full face of theatrical make-up on (cringe). Now that I was a semi-professional performer, school was taking  back seat. My priorities lay within theatre and drama.

Panto was sadly over but I was straight into my next Youth Theatre production which was the musical ‘Return to the Forbidden Planet’. I didn’t enjoy this as much as I could have. I did not have the part that I wanted and did sulk about a bit. However I got on with the job in hand and enjoyed the experience. I had also managed to get myself some extra work experience at Benchtours Theatre Company in Edinburgh for two weeks in the Easter holidays. That was amazing. I stayed at my uncle’s outside Inverkeithing and every morning I would cycle to Inverkeithing station, get the train to Waverley then get the bus to Bonnington Business Centre where the small theatre office was. I answered the phones, got to go shopping for props with the stage manager, I wrote a press release for their upcoming show and even got to sit in a rehearsal. I was having a ball and was still only 16 but had to go back to school. In the eyes of my parents and my teachers I should have been studying for my Highers in those Easter holidays. Looking back; that work experience was priceless.

So fifth year at school had consisted of me dancing in a panto for nine weeks, being in a youth theatre production and doing work experience at a theatre company in Edinburgh for the Easter holidays. When I wasn’t doing drama related activities I was working in the hotel cleaning rooms, waitressing and ironing pillow cases. Fifth year was supposed to be about Highers…

The Highers came and I realised I had done nothing. Well nothing much. It did bother me. In fact it really bothered me. I panicked so much in the English exam that my mind took a complete blank. I could see the words on the pink paper but I couldn’t read them. I answered about 5% of the questions and left the rest blank. In the essay section I misread the question and wrote about a short story when the question had clearly asked me to write about a novel. At the end of the exam I sat in my chair at the front of the games hall and tears streamed down my face. Was this what the last twelve years of school were going to amount to? Failing my exams? I blotted my face with the pink paper and I couldn’t stop crying. The paper had mascara eye-lash prints all over it and as the time ran out I slunk out of the hall. I really cared about English and I was good at it. I couldn’t believe what had happened.

I can’t remember much about the other Higher exams. I just wanted them to be over. I had left it too late to learn anything. I really did not like school. But just then there was the chance to make something of myself within school- a school show! The school had announced that they were doing ‘South Pacific’ in June 1999. This was around May 1998. I remember having a surge of confidence and thinking that I could be successful within school – it was a good feeling. I didn’t want to be known as the chatty teacher agitator anymore. I knew I was more than that. So I belted out ‘I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair’ with confidence and the teachers involved were over the moon. They were smiling and getting excited about my singing. They showered me with praise and I left knowing the lead role was in the bag – and yes I got the part! Time to shine!

I was contemplating leaving school to go to college to study acting. I knew it was difficult to get into but I thought it was worth a try. I had applied to study an NC in Acting & Performance at Langside College in Glasgow. That seemed to be where most people went before getting into the RSAMD (now the RCS). I was well aware that I may not get in. I was still just 16. I mentioned to the history teacher and director of South Pacific Mr Dunlop that I had an audition for college. He scoffed and made some comments about colleges which weren’t very enthusiastic. I told him I probably would not get in. He laughed heartily at this and told me of course I would get on to a college course. He told me that NC courses were the equivalent to a Standard Grade and that anyone could get on a course like that. I tried to explain to him that it was extremely competitive to get on any acting courses and he just laughed. He then said that if I was going to college then how could I be in South Pacific. I told him yet again that I didn’t think I would get in as I was so young. He was having none of it. I told him that if I got in I would definitely go. I also told him I thought he was being ridiculous as the show was in a year’s time. He did not like my attitude and I certainly did not like his attitude and so I withdrew from the musical. I hoped and prayed I would get into Langside College. I didn’t. They said that I should try and focus on my Highers for the last year of school. I was devastated. I went into school and was fighting back the tears. I saw Mr Dunlop and told him I hadn’t got in. He laughed and asked me if I was joking. I was utterly furious at him and told him how insensitive he was and went home in floods of tears. I didn’t get my part back in the school show – it had already been re-cast.

Scottish Youth Theatre 1998

Scottish Youth Theatre 1998

Meanwhile I had auditioned for a place on the five week Scottish Youth Theatre Summer Festival course 1998. I had got a space and had managed to raise the £850 course and accommodation fees through writing to local companies for sponsorship, performing, applying for funding and even having a car boot sale. A few weeks into the course it was exam results day. Everyone was phoning home from the payphones and finding out their results. I didn’t really want to know. One girl was hysterically crying because she got four A’s and a B. She was devastated about the B. On the phone my dad told me I had got a C for English, a C for Secretarial Studies and a D for Modern Studies. I didn’t say anything. Tears just streamed down my face. I felt like a complete failure. Nothing else mattered in that moment – not the part in a professional panto; the work experience at a professional theatre company; being cast as the lead role in the school show or being selected to attend the renowned Scottish Youth Theatre Festival and raising nearly £1000 by myself. None of that mattered. Just these three letters: CCD. I just kept thinking about how disappointed my dad was and what a let down I was. I was dreading anyone asking me what I got, so I slunk away to my room in the Baird Halls of Residence and went to bed feeling like a loser.

To be continued…