Two years ago, I went to Germany to share and compare research on lifelong learning with other education students from all over Europe. We had a phrase that we coined, that learning should be ‘from the cradle to the coffin’ (some things just get confused when you are translating from different languages…I’ll tell you about the presentation about the ‘farmers’ in Italy another day).
I left Girlguiding when I was 18. I was only 17 when I went to university, and was kept in guiding by a lovely Ranger leader who kept communicating with me, and always left the door open to come back whenever I was at home and a Brownie Guider who picked me up from my relatively isolated student village. In my second year, I was all on my own. Our ranger unit became self run (and never got any new blood as a result with no qualified leader) there was no one to ask about the Queen’s Guide pack my leader had given me before she emigrated and I lived in a flat far away from the Brownie unit. They never trained me and never offered me a transfer to a closer unit.
And there were so many opportunities to learn for someone my age. I got to be a volunteer youth worker, I got music lessons when I sang in my church, people fed me every Sunday and offered me leftovers to take home, I was at university where there were so many societies to join giving access to try so many new things like underwater hockey, opera singing, trampolining, debating, first aid… it was amazing.
When I graduated at 22, I was straight into a workplace where there was so much to learn. How to do risk assessments, live up to standards of the Care Commissions and the education inspectors, child protection policies…I worked evenings and the occasional weekend…and by the time I was in a position where I had time to learn something outside of my workplace, I was 26 and it turned out I was deemed too old for everything.
The world seemed to say that once you were a grown up, your opportunities for learning were kinda done.
I came back to Girlguiding really to get involved in my local community. My friend Ashleigh (a fellow Girlguiding leader) put it best in a social media meme a few weeks ago. We got involved to “be who [we] needed when [we] were younger”. My Ranger leader had been a rock in a difficult two years of my life, and she had been someone who did not judge. She accepted me for who I was, accommodated me and encouraged me. Even to the point where she let me travel to our Venture Scout camp by train and picked me up from the station because I was too scared to travel with the Rangers and Scouts on the coach in case anyone got travelsick on the bus.
Although my Guide leader was an extremely stern ‘old school’ type of Guider, she was kind to me, and she encouraged me so much. She helped me get my first paid job when I was 15 and always passed on every Guiding opportunity to me. When me and my two friends got our Baden-Powell Awards, she made a big deal for us. There was cake, an award from the County Commissioner, gifts and a party where we were allowed to invite our friends and family. (Yes to my own Guides and Senior Section, I totally copied her when it came to celebrating YOUR Baden-Powell and Chief Guide award achievements). I felt like I’d achieved something great. When I got into the County Show, she brought my unit along to cheer me on. I knew she had my back.
It was sad to realise that in the years I’d been away from Guiding, I’d missed out on all the opportunities of Senior Section awards. And now there was nothing. Sure, I did my Leadership Qualification – but really the only thing I learned was how to use the Girlguiding admin systems. Everything else was pretty much skills I was transferring from the fact I was a Community Education Worker by trade already! I was very happy to qualify, but mostly for the fact it meant that I had checked the box to be able to do more with my units.
I get super jealous of the girls sometimes, for all the amazing things and badges they can achieve. Though I am sad for the Guides – there are fewer badges for them to achieve now compared to when I was a Guide, and no badge book which makes things more difficult.
But as we did Free Being Me, it got me thinking about something that had been bugging me for a while. We talk in the Free Being Me programme about the image myth. It was all about weight, skin colour, hair colour, texture, body shape. But not about age. And if there’s one thing I’ve noticed it’s that there are very few older women in our media. There are even fewer who are learning and embarking on new things. Have you noticed?
I’m finding at 30 that there is little opportunity for learning and achieving. Heck, even two years of university and earning a qualification only got me an automated e-mail to say “Qualification Achieved”. At least I got a nice letter and a shiny badge from Girlguiding UK even if they did put not quite my name on my certificate when I got my Leadership Qualification. The only badges I get now are the ones I can simply buy from the Guide Shop, and it’s just not as fun or rewarding. Gone are the days where I learned Scottish Country Dancing for 4 weeks and showed what I’d learned in front of a tester. Or spent several evenings learning first aid and then showed off my skills on a resusci annie lying on a gym mat. I’m not trying to write poems or learn photography or the constellations of the sky. I can go to my local adult learning class for leisure, but there’s no badge at the end. When I did ballet as a teenager I got the opportunity to be examined and got a lovely certificate. Now I just turn up if I want to. It’s fun and I love my ballet teacher. But I kinda liked the certificates and knowing how I was progressing.
I thought I was the only person that felt the need for badges, but then Dotty Winters wrote this article for Standard Issue Magazine. And I was like “YESSSS! I’ve been saying this for AGGEEESSSS! I want grown up badges too!!”
Yes, there’s a bit of selfishness in my quest for adult badges, but also something serious. What message does it send if we are telling young people that all their learning has to end at 25? Because really, that’s the current perspective society is giving us. Not only does it send the subliminal message that you’ll have life sorted and sussed out by 25 (I was shocked to discover that it is not the case), but we are short changing everyone. The wisest people I know are the ones who not only have life experience but still want to learn new things. Like my friend who retired and the next week starting taking guitar lessons.
I’ve heard my own mother say she’s too old to learn, too old to start something new. I used to get annoyed, but now I understand. And I want to change that.
Guiding started as a way of extending learning beyond the classroom.
Let’s extend it beyond 25.