When I grow up

One day last week the WordPress blog prompt of the day posed this question: ‘What did you want to be when you grew up?’ I’ve never been tempted by those prompts before, but something about this, combined with people regularly asking me if I’ve always been a ‘sailor’ and Novak Djokovic admitting that since he was a little boy he’d dreamed of one day standing on Centre Court at Wimbledon holding the champion’s trophy, led me to reflect on what I had wanted to be or do when I grew up and how close – or far – I have come to that dream.

Between the ages of ten and fourteen, when I really started to think about what the future might hold, I had two very different dreams. I wanted to be an astronaut and I wanted to be a veterinarian. I had many heroes back then, but two stuck out.

The first was Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. I remember when I was about twelve years old, my religion teacher at school set us a homework exercise to research and write about our hero. I chose to write about Tereshkova. I didn’t know very much about her, but this exercise prompted me to learn more. Back in those pre-Internet days (it was about 1985 or 1986) I used my Nana’s encyclopaedia and went to the local library to find books about space exploration. And I wrote – if I do say so myself – a very good biography of the astronaut, from her humble origins, to the extreme training she underwent, to her hero-worship in Russia when she came back down to Earth.

But it was all a cheap trick on the part of the religion teacher. She collected our copy books, checked them for spelling, grammar and content, and got a few students (including me) to read our homework assignment aloud. My fellow students wrote about sports and pop stars. No-one else – including the teacher – had ever heard of Valentina Tereshkova.

When we’d finished reading, the teacher asked us all what was missing from the work we had done. For the most part we looked at her blankly. A couple of students suggested structural or grammatical shortcomings. But no. The teacher, with the pained look of someone wondering why she wastes her time on such a bunch of philistines, told us how disappointed she was that not one of us had chosen Jesus as our hero. (This is the same religion teacher who, later that same year, gave me the most memorable report card of my entire educational career. She wrote this, and this only, on my report card: ‘Martina has the potential to become a good Christian’. Nuf said! Alas I never did live up to my potential)

So that was Valentina. I was obsessed by space travel. I knew the stats, the history,the Chuck Yeagers from the Jim Lovells, the Sputniks from the Saturn Vs. On my bedroom wall, amidst my posters of Boris Becker (I’ve noticed these past couple of weeks that neither Boris nor I are aging gracefully), Spandau Ballet and Bruce Springsteen (my tastes were nothing if not eclectic), and wise sayings from such environmental luminaries as Chief Seattle and Anita Roddick, I had a huge poster of the space shuttle (or a space shuttle – I can’t for the life of me now remember which one it was). One day this short, fat, un-athletic, short-sighted, mathematically- and scientifically-challenged girl from the Bog of Allen would make it into space!

My other dream and my other hero were decidedly Earth-bound. When I was eleven, I was, along with another girl (Celine Dunne, was it you?) put in charge of the little library in my primary school. It was probably our superior alphabetising skills that landed us the job. We shelves, we stamped, we took care of the books. We had unsupervised access to the library and we got to skip regular classes to fulfil our librarian duties. (Ok, so I wasn’t that special. I was also chosen for toilet cleaning duty, the memories of which have left me scarred to this day). One day I discovered a book written by Jane Goodall. I remember sitting on a low book case, getting lost in that book until my teacher brought me back to the present when she walked in and asked what was taking me so long. That book transformed the way I thought about animals and about human’s relationships with animals. Here was a woman who devoted her life to studying chimpanzees in their natural habitat, quietly and slowly gaining their trust and learning about their culture, their social organisation, their loves and their fears. People could do this work for a living?

I already had an idea that I wanted to be a vet, to work with animals, care for them, make them well. And although reading Goodall didn’t at first make me consider more exotic forms of veterinary medicine, it did help me to think about more empathetic and caring ways of working with and assisting animals. That, and watching All Creatures Great and Small on television every Sunday evening with images of Yorkshire vets up to their shoulders in pregnant cows settled it for me. This mathematically- and scientifically-challenged girl could become a vet.

I gave up on the astronaut option pretty soon, but considered astronomy instead. At fifteen, I chose two science subjects for my Leaving Certificate (Irish end of school state exam) even though I was mediocre at best when it came to biology and absolutely clueless about physics. I tried higher level maths, but it was way beyond me and I only stuck at it for as long as I did because I had a crush on the teacher!

What I loved and what I was really good at was Geography. Not only did it come easily to me, but it fascinated me and in the end that was the path I followed. After all, an F in physics was neither going to get me on the International Space Station nor into veterinary college.

I have no regrets about not becoming an astronaut or a vet. These days I take a more critical view of both the military-industrial complex at the heart of manned space exploration and its environmental consequences, and my anthropology research has, by my own design, brought me around to researching cross-cultural human-animal relations. I’ve got to hang out with some pretty cool people and animals as a result.

These days, I enjoy listening to Lily’s and Katie’s plans for when they grow up. Lily plans to be a writer-fisherwoman-ballet dancer. And why not? Katie wants to be a hula-hooper and a sailor. We’ll have to buy a bigger boat if she plans to pursue these simultaneously. No-one ever told me my dreams were wrong or unrealistic. No-one ever said ‘You? An astronaut?’ (Although a priest once got annoyed with me when I confessed in the confessional that I wanted to go plant trees in the Amazon. He said I should go help people instead. In hindsight, two thoughts spring to mind: (a) I was a weird teenager and (b) that priest really didn’t get the bigger picture, did he? I hope he’s somewhere now, studiously getting to grips with Laudato si’). My dad was a little concerned about the physicality of being a big animal vet. But I was generally left alone to figure things out for myself. Never in my wildest dreams would my 14-year old self have predicted that I would become a live aboard-sailor-writer-environmental anthropologist-English teacher. And who knows where my life will lead me next?

For the past decade I’ve been getting to grips with maths and physics, thanks to my geophysics-glaciologist-maths and physics teacher husband. Lily asked me the other day if we’ll ever go to the moon (she meant ‘we’ as in our family, not ‘we’ the human race). ‘Maybe someday we will’, I told her.

I guess what I’ve learned is that there’s nothing wrong with dreaming big and dreaming weird. But that other paths – just as interesting, just as incredible – are always open and calling to us.


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