I want to be a cardiologist

Well, no, not actually me. I’m far too old a dog to learn so sophisticated a set of new tricks. The speaker is one of a number of young people I’ve been “interviewing” today. I’ve put interviewing in inverted commas because in one sense these interviews weren’t real. They were practice sessions that we provided to Year 11 students at our local secondary school, and there were no jobs on offer. But in another sense the interviews were very real indeed. They weren’t rôle plays: those of us interviewing the young people weren’t teachers that they knew well, but real managers in a real business, asking them real questions. Many of them were very nervous indeed.

It’s a cliché to note that young people get a bad press. That rioting shoplifters get a degree of attention that kids simply getting on with their lives do not. That truanting, alienated youngsters are held up to public ridicule and disapprobation, whilst those going to school and doing their homework are not held up to anything, least of all praise or encouragement. Even more so is it the modern mythology that contemporary schools, especially inner-city ones, are hot-beds of ill-discipline and plummeting academic standards.

As ever, the facts bear little relation to the jealously guarded narratives that assure us things are always getting worse, and that hell awaits our out-of-control and careering hand cart. The school whose students I had the privilege to talk with today had not hand-picked its best and brightest. The entire Year 11 were out and about at employers like us, and I have no reason whatever to assume that the students we received were anything but a typical sample. Two stood out in particular. One was the aspiring cardiologist of this piece’s title. Teenagers today, we all know, are barely articulate illiterates, yet this young man told me with moving and devastating openness that his desire to be a cardiologist was based on his determination to prevent for others the premature death from a heart attack that had taken his own father. He also told me about how his desire to be successful was in large part a way of discharging his debt of gratitude to his mother. She had given up her own desires in order to ensure that as far as was possible he and his brother and sister were not disadvantaged by their father’s death.

The second was a young man who had been a refugee when a baby, and had settled in Scandinavia. He then came to this country unable to speak or read a word of English, just in time to enter secondary school. I asked him how he had coped. He told me, in an entirely matter of fact kind of way, that he had to admit that it had taken him 3 or 4 weeks to get sufficient proficiency in English to allow him properly to join in lessons. Such sluggardly progress reflected rather poorly on the 47 years it’s taken me to become even vaguely fluent in French. His language was now, a mere 4 years later, indistinguishable from any native speaker, and entirely devoid of accent. His ambition was to study criminal psychology: he wanted to understand what it was that “made some people do such bad things”. I could wish that the average reader of tabloid newspapers showed as much maturity, and as little desire to fling miscreants in jail and chuck away the key.

I was left feeling both hugely uplifted, and horribly anxious. Uplifted, because these youngsters so comprehensively dismantled the myths about feckless and disengaged youth. But anxious because, in the week that the numbers of unemployed young people passed the 1,000,000 mark, I wondered how many of our kids, equally as bright, committed, and serious as these, would be left to waste their talents, and perhaps even more terribly, their spirits on the dole queue of our collective economic incompetence.

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