Life lessons

Ben Robinson: close-up portrait

With his 40th birthday approaching and feeling unfulfilled in his job, Ben Robinson decided that things needed to change. For that he would have to go out of his comfort zone.

I remember the first time I became acutely aware that I was stammering. I was 11 and had stood up to read aloud in class. Thirty years later I can still recollect the feelings of confusion and embarrassment as my voice refused to do what my brain was asking it to. 

The year before, my last in primary school, I had a major speaking role in a school production and been complimented by audience members afterwards. Life events and secondary school would change that. 

As I entered adolescence my stammer worsened. Reading aloud in class became my waking nightmare; breaking out in cold sweats as I watched the textbook being passed around the classroom towards me and the feeling of shame when I’d finished. 

I equated my inability to speak with regular fluidity as a pre-ordained decision that I was not going to be successful.

Like many who stammer, my surname presented problems. But when not giving my name or reading from a text I was able to disguise my impediment with word-swapping or mental gymnastics. I was for the most part fluent and something of a ‘covert’ stammerer. Nevertheless, my confidence dropped significantly. I went from being a grade A student to grade D or E. In French, History and English lessons we were forced to read aloud. Why wouldn’t we be? Speaking is a big part of day-to-day life after all. I couldn’t do it. As time went on I equated my inability to speak with regular fluidity as a pre-ordained decision that I was not going to be successful. I wasn’t cut out for it. I wasn’t good enough.

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Fast forward twenty-five years. I got married (I stammered my way through my wedding vows), have two beautiful children and life is good. My confidence is at an all time high. Enough so that I decided I didn’t want to turn 40 unfulfilled in my job working nights in a warehouse and that I’d make a career change into the world of construction. I spent a year and a half learning the ropes by working as a labourer on high-end property development before something happened that would change my life forever.

Moving on

We decided to move house.

The reason for this was our local secondary school. The school had been on a downwards spiral and overlooked by local families for years. Better achieving and more sought after schools lay across town. The first thing I would need to do was take a new job. Labouring was wearing thin and I would never be able to qualify for a new mortgage. So I put the word out and within a few weeks a lady called me from an employment agency with a job.
“Assistant project manager for a construction company,” she said.

“Erm…,” I muttered. “I’m not sure I’d be suitable.”

“You’ll be great,” she assured me. “Go and meet the project manager for an interview.”

So I did. I put my fears aside and climbed right outside my comfort zone for the good of my family. And I got the job! There I was with my company car and laptop, feeling fraudulent but rightly proud that I had taken such a step. Now with a PAYE job we could put our house on the market and achieve our dream of giving our children the education they deserved. Sure, I was always a little nervous on the phone and from time to time I did stammer. I caught sight of the project manager wincing once when I couldn’t get my name out quick enough (he turned out to be exactly the kind of guy I’d feared in life, one who’d push you under a bus!).

I remember how proud I was walking into the university on the first day.

But the job didn’t last. Six months later I was forced to hand in my notice and will always remember it as one of the blackest periods of my life. I was uneducated, unskilled, temping and going for interview after interview in an effort to gain a decent job that would enable us to get a new mortgage. 
But it is always darkest just before the dawn.

Return to education

An old friend put me in touch with his office manager and within a few months I was working as a technician for a civil engineering and geotechnical consultancy. This led to me returning to education — firstly a one-year maths refresher, bringing my GCSE up to a B from a D. Then on to an industry-relevant foundation degree at Derby University, a part time distance learning course that I’m currently in the middle of. 

I remember how proud I was walking into the university on the first day. I was putting right something I should have done a long time ago. It’s hard work with a job and a family but I’m doing it for the best reason — not money or career prospects, but to show my children that anything is possible with the right mindset.

Oh yeah and I got a promotion at work recently. Assistant project manager.

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