Morag Prunty is a former UK and Irish magazine editor who has written four books under her own name and ten novels under the name Kate Kerrigan. She is a mentor on the BA with Creative Writing at NUIG where she also mentors MA students on The Business of Writing. A regular contributor to RTE’s Sunday Miscellany, she has a weekly column in The Irish Mail.
Kate’s latest book, ‘It Was Only Ever You, is out now in paperback.
As each new term starts I am struck anew with the miracle of the fact that I am actually being employed to teach in a university. To put this in some kind of context, I left school at the age of 15. All my parents ever wanted from me was that I should go to university. Throughout my childhood my father, a headmaster, told me that if I did not study I would end up washing hair in Keith Fisher hair salon on Brent Street, Hendon, the Jewish suburb where we lived in north-west London. His threat came to pass when I left school after the equivalent of my Junior cert and found I was better at washing hair and talking to people than I was sitting in classrooms gazing out the window wishing I was somewhere else.
Looking back on my disastrous school career, I think I probably suffered from ADD. My youngest son has the condition and I really can feel his struggles as my own. Back in the day, there was no such thing as ADD or High Functioning Autism. We were just labelled thick, and put to the back of the class.
Until quite recently, despite quite a lot evidence to the contrary (several thousand magazine and newspaper articles and over a dozen published books), I assumed I simply wasn’t ‘academically’ clever and perhaps it was that assumption that irked me to trying harder than most, hence my levels of success.
In actual fact, not having an education worked out pretty well for me, career wise. I became an editor, journalist and novelist without the third level education my parents so wanted for me. My grounding in a hair salon gave me a strong work ethic and an ability to make small talk that I can argue have stood me in better stead than the four years of drinking and wasting time that would have surely been my university career.
However, not having been to university is a bit like not having been married. You imagine it’s more romantic and wonderful than it actually is. I am one of those people that says the word ‘University’ in hushed tones like the women of my mother’s generation who mouth the word ‘Doctor’ as if they are barely worthy of even saying the word out loud.
So, when John Kenny, (mouths ‘Doctor’), rang to ask if I would be interested in mentoring a group of students on-campus as part of the creative writing program at NUIG I was beside myself. I rang my mother and she wailed; ‘You’re a TEACHER! I am so PROUD of you!’ ‘ Well, ‘I said modestly, ‘not a teacher exactly, like I don’t have any qualifications, but YES! I am going to be TEACHING! In a UNIVERSITY!’
Honestly? I know its silly going mad with excitement over these things but the truth is, for some odd reason, that I can’t fully explain I absolutely love working with students and young people. A couple of years ago I applied for a writer’s residency at another university which I didn’t get. Writers residencies are not for commercial fiction writers. They are for writers of high literature and Arts Council pets. I knew I was totally outside the usual candidate type but I had felt very passionately that it was something I’d be good at, so I went for it. I left the interview on a high, but within an hour I got a rejection email. I was mortified: furious for having put myself through the humiliation of going for a job I was not qualified for. You’re a stupid middle-aged woman I told myself, get back in your box. Then another little voice came up in defense reminding me that I have a lot to offer and that going for something you want does not make me stupid – it is optimistic and brave.
The instinct to teach is the same instinct I had to write, and I wasn’t qualified for that either. Before I retired from hairdressing at the age of 20, I was earning money writing story lines for Donald Duck for the Scandinavian franchise of Disney. I have never forgotten the excitement I felt as a young woman realising I could write, and I have never lost my energy and enthusiasm. To be given an opportunity to re-experience some of that energy through the seven, third-year creative writing students that were appointed to me was like a dream come true.
I got the first bus out of Ballina and arrived on campus an hour early. Getting lost, a drama student walked me over to the canteen. ‘Are you a student?’ she asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘mentor.’ The idea that I belonged here felt weird. I bought a coffee then sat on the corner of a scruffy orange sofa in the packed, noisy cafe area. Sitting there, in a university campus, I started to feel emotional for the lost years of my young adulthood. I had missed out on all this; the camaraderie – the cleverness.
I don’t believe in the ‘University of Life’ is a replacement for education. I just never managed to make it this far. And so now, finally, I find myself in a university and it’s turning out to be one of the great adventures of my life.