And What Was I Doing When I Was Fifteen?


It’s a legitimate question that I must ask myself before I reprimand my rebel son for the umpteenth time. What was I like, when I was fifteen?

I reflect on this conundrum as soon as my son finished his dinner – in under ten minutes – half-hanging from the table chair, and having cursed the entire world in general, and the Chinese in particular. What’s the point, he argues, of doing well at school, when people are dying from Covid-19, everyday? He reasons that, having probably obtained a 5 out of 10 in his online biology test, his overall mark of 6,8 would still be sufficient even if it went down to just over 6.0. Fair game, I say. I can’t argue with that, if he’s happy with just hovering over the relegation places, in his stride to climb the social ladder.

I was so frustrated with my son’s remarks, that I didn’t even notice that he was in his pyjama’s. Ready for bed, you might think? No, he never bothered to get dressed, in the first place. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, since the lockdown, he has spent more time in his pyjama’s than is humanly acceptable. Frustrated, moi? No, I just have to thank the heavens that I can get away from it all by reading and writing.

If I’m honest, I admit that I wasn’t much better at his age. Like millions of other average school children in the French educational system, I got a regular, “peut mieux faire,” (“can do better”) on my school reports. I’ve always wondered why the school teachers didn’t have a rubber stamp with the very same words, to avoid them having to write it out thousands of times.

It took me until I was 18 to realise that if I wanted to fulfil my childhood dream, I would have to do better at school, and that required me to actually understand what hopelessly bad teachers were trying to teach. I spent the final few years in the English section of the French school, studying for O and A-Levels (remember those?). The O-Levels went reasonably well, but the shock I got came two years later when, instead of obtaining three grade C’s for my A-Levels, that would have sent me to university, I flunked – big time. A measly D, E and F (yes, F as in “Fail”), is all I got.

The next year was when it all changed and, looking back, that failure was probably one of the best things that happened to me. I left the French Lycée and enrolled in a school that was more a version of child brainwashing than a care-free school. It was a cram school, one of those specialised schools that teach you how to pass exams. Expensive? Yes. Did I pay for it myself? Yes, I did. 

I got a second chance to go to university but the entrance requirements were, unsurprisingly, higher – a grade B, and two grade C’s. I have never studied so hard. I did nothing else for a whole year. Even my packed lunch was discretely eaten in a public library, where eating was forbidden. From a grade D in chemistry in June, I obtained a B, the following January. The other two subjects (physics and biology) went from D and F, to two B’s. 

But does it all matter and, in the end, isn’t my son just telling the truth? Maybe he is, and he is right in wanting to spend more time with his buddies on the PS4 whilst, at the same time, scraping through secondary school. If he’s like me, he’ll find a passion when he’s over 40, and find out that he was wrong in his career choice all along.

It happened to me. Wanting to be a dentist all my life, after having broken my front tooth no sooner that it had erupted, I became a dentist, only to discover that I was just fascinated by immunology. It’s probably the fact that the immune system is so violent and so slick, at the same time, that I became obsessed by its cynicism. And it’s a subject that brings me back to what I finally learned when I was 18 – it’s no use trying to learn stuff if you don’t understand it, first. Immunology is not as complicated as it seems.

Like any father, I just want my son to be happy with his life, without worrying too much about where the next meal is going to come from. But I remain convinced that, in the early years of your life, you must learn the ground rules of what it takes to do what you want. I underestimated the importance of not trying to blindly repeat what teachers said at school, but looking out for, and understanding, information that might inspire you later on. Maybe I should have paid more attention to my biology teacher when he was going on about those little white cells, and how dedicated they are in protecting you from others.