Saturday, June 26, 2004

When 'No' is not the answer

The red-haired receptionist looked at me.

"Is it for your son?"

I'd just asked her for a prospectus to a journalism school. I shook my head. "For me."

"I'm sorry."

I could see that she meant it.

"You have to be under twenty on the date of entry."

I was changing my life. I'd recently left the family business, already with a wife and children. I was determined to write for a living.

I had managed some freelance work locally, but it wasn't easy to get going. I'd decided I should maybe go and learn this journalism job properly.

At that time there was only one journalism school in Ireland. It had a very limited number of places, and I'd now just found out that none of those places would ever be mine. I drove home.

The next day I hit the phone. I tried a university Engineering faculty to see could I start on their degree course. I phoned a Law school. I rang several Government departments. I asked a bank for a start. I sussed out whether I could become a trainee airline pilot. Even enquired if I would be considered by the Air Corps for the same purpose. I pestered anywhere I could think of where I might be able to start on the bottom rung of a professional career ladder.

But almost without exception, in those days before there were laws about age discrimination, at thirty-two I was just too old to get on that bottom rung. Whether through third-level education or directly into a professional job. Even at 'office boy' level.

Sure, I could get a job as a barman, or a waiter. I could cook, or I could be a funeral undertaker's assistant, even. These were all skills I'd gained while running the family business. A pub, restaurant and undertaking operation typical of many Irish country towns.

But that was all work that I was trying to get away from.

Besides, to actually get a paper qualification for the catering business, for instance, I'd still have to do a three-year course. Regardless of my practical experience. But I was too old to get on that course. For the same reason, I couldn't even become a carpenter's, or a plumber's, apprentice.

(Besides, I'd already been a plumber, and heating system contractor, in an earlier part of my life. But without an engineering qualification or 'proper' training. And I didn't want to go back there either.)

Anyway, the only light at the end of the careers telephone tunnel was at the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. It seemed that I could become a trainee postman up to the age of forty.

I sat down at my typewriter.

(No, NOT to apply to Posts and Telegraphs ...)

I began with the journalism school rejection. And I finished pedalling a bicycle up a country boreen. A trainee postman on his way to eventually becoming a Higher Grade Civil Servant ...

I sent the resulting piece to the Dublin Evening Press, with the headline: 'So you're over Thirty and want to Change Your Life? You haven't a hope!'.

It was my first nationally published article, for which I was paid the princely sum of fifteen pounds.

After some twenty-seven years of writing for a living, ranging through local and national print media, local and national radio broadcasting, internet publishing, occasional journalism teaching, and even some successful fiction, that article is still framed on my office wall.

And I've proved the headline to be completely wrong.

Since the day I wrote the piece I've relearned many times the lesson underpinning this story. And I've tried as often as I can to pass it on to others.

Just because someone says 'you can't' doesn't mean that you won't.

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