Jack's blog

What it's like to be a teenager with engineers for parents.

I've got my head buried in 'GCSE Physics: A Complete Revision Guide' at the breakfast table when Dad asks what are my A level choices.

I give him a stare which means: "My exam kicks off in two hours' time and we have to do this NOW?", but he doesn't give up.

"A levels: what...are...theyyyy?" he says.

I try this out on him: "I really thought you would have known, Dad, but they're the exams school students in the UK sit at the age of 18."

He exchanges a 'look' with Mum, but she's in her number one suit (which says, according to her, "I am an IT expert yet can actually do project management too"), memorising figures for a sales pitch while eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon to calm her nerves. Do I need to say that
I am NEVER allowed to get away with that?

Dad looks back at me and I know I'm about to get the big speech on life actually being a series of equations for which you need to prepare your variables so I get in first.

"Maths," I say.

"Good," he says.

"Probably higher maths if I can get rid of maths in the first year."

"Great," he says.


"Right," he says. (I can see him weighing up how much my violin set him back and thinking that Music A level more or less justifies the whole thing.)


"It's a science," he says.

Pause. Long, long pause.

Dad's looking excited, like when you're about to move into checkmate without realising it. I can see the 'Ffff' sound forcing its way between his lips ('ffff' for Physics, stupid).

"And ECONOMICS!" I say.

The jar of peanut butter smashes on the floor.

"...which is not a science," says Dad, pretending to calmly butter some toast, although I can see he wants to stab right through to the plate.

I know I'm in trouble.

"But it does lend itself to mathematical modelling," says Amy, one of the Tweeks (they're twins, they're geeks, they're Tweeks: on their 12th birthday they dissected a Bratz doll and spliced in the voice box of my old talking Scooby Doo. Now they've got a wafer-thin fashion model asking for Scooby snacks and giggling every 30 seconds.)

"But economics is so...." Dad starts off.

"Interesting?" I say. "All about human behaviour? Sexier than engineering?"

"Uncontrolled!" shouts Dad.

"What do you mean, sexier?" asks Mum, realising, too late, that sweeping up fallen peanut butter with a broom is not going to work.

"They have conferences in Davos, Switzerland, and get to talk to top politicians and get in a bit of skiing. You lot have conferences in Birmingham and get to talk to the deputy purchasing manager."

"Although I believe there is a ski slope," says Mum, now scraping the peanut butter from the floor.

"Don't agree with him!" says Dad.

"It's the variables," says Alice (Tweek 2). "They're upsetting Dad. There's too many inputs, no real way of measuring them or even realising they're there at all, and no way of predicting output with any confidence. I mean, Mum might give the best presentation of her life and all the IT manager is going to think about is why she's got something horrible on her skirt."

"Bloody hell!" shouts Mum, rushing off to find something that gets peanut butter out.

"But I always thought you wanted to be an engineer," says Dad, sadly.

"But I could still do anything," I say, trying to calm things down although inside my head a voice is shrieking "If I don't memorise the equation for kinetic energy in the next 15 minutes then I might not end up doing much, will I?"

"I might find the unifying theory of economics...."

"Not with biology you won't," says Dad, darkly.

"But biology doesn't reduce to physics in the end," I say. "Nothing in physics or chemistry really explains thought or choice, or why I want to do economics. And even if it did it probably wouldn't change my mind."

"With enough work it probably could," grumbles Dad, who thinks biologists are lazy. And physicists too, come to that - all this time and they still can't make anything fit together properly.

"Besides, you don't want to be an economist - they're like solicitors or estate agents. No one can actually work out what they do for a living so best case scenario is that everyone thinks you're a charlatan and worst case, everyone hates you because you got the housing market wrong."

"Well, that's really the banks, Dad, or the government, or consumer confidence, or a hundred things, really."

Dad clutches his hair. "See?" says Alice. "It's the variables. Does his head in."

"Would it help, Dad," I say, "if I said that supply and demand could be seen as amplifiers acting with regard to each other and that the fact that you complain about the shocking price of petrol every time you fill up is merely an oscillation which we could probably have seen coming, if only we'd worked out a better control system?"

"Well... somewhat," says Dad.

The sound of silent resignation fills the kitchen, while from upstairs comes demented swearing as Mum realises there's peanut butter on her suede shoes.

"But what about looking forward to uni?" says Dad. "Did you know you could be a software engineer with that level of maths?"

I reopen my revision guide. Sometimes it's safer to stick to academia.

Jack's blog was translated by Jane Maltby

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