Marianne Grant returns to encourage pupils to use their past to create their future

Our Lecture Series continued with alumna Marianne Grant who captivated pupils with the story of her life and career to date.

Marianne’s tale is a love story – a love of life, people and adventure – some born out of adversity but also luck, grit, bravery and disappointment. She emphasised that people and experience are the most important currencies that you can possess in life.

Marianne was the eldest of three children (her sister Alison also attended Sydenham High). Her mother, from Hungary, and her father, from Jamaica, met in London when her mother was working in a church. Her father was in the Army and served in Egypt during the Second World War. It was hard for them to find a house to live in, Marianne recalls, as in those days, mixed race or black people trying to buy a house was very difficult and her parents “learned quickly that they would have to depend on my Mum being the one who went to look at houses.” Eventually they bought a house in Brockley Rise. Music was key part of family life and Marianne started learning the piano when she was four, encouraged by her father’s whose theory was if you played music to children before they were born they would be able musicians – and indeed she and her siblings all are!

Marianne’s father believed strongly that it was important for children to have the best start in life and particularly because he knew through experience that his children were going to have difficulties growing up in the 1960/70s society. Her father was very impressed by Sydenham High School girls that he saw on the bus and so they approached the school and, even though the school year had started, Marianne was interviewed and accepted into the Junior School in 1960. Marianne believes herself to be the first non-white girl to go to Sydenham High.

Marianne was supposed to leave the Junior School to give her younger sister an opportunity to attend instead but the Headmistress of the time, Miss Yardley, intervened and said it was important that both sisters stay. Fortunately, Marianne passed the 11 plus and received a scholarship, thus ensuring her place at the Senior School. Marianne embraced Senior School life – enjoying music, especially choir and swimming at Crystal Palace Sports Centre. Her year group was pretty innovative – forming the only Bridge Club at a girls’ school in London and competing against the boys’ schools in the area.

They were wonderful experiences but adversity had dealt Marianne some difficult cards. On 26 November 1968 Marianne’s life changed forever. Her father had come home from work unwell and he died that night. Marianne was only twelve – it was a huge shock for the family, “I had to step up and be a real support to my mother who had to take care of us all” she says. Marianne suffered several serious health problems with her knees, preventing her from doing any sport at all from the age of twelve, and a very late diagnosis of endometriosis which took its toll physically and mentally, and meant she spent much of her school days “looking like I was ok when I really wasn’t ok”. Academically she had to also deal with the bitter blow of not achieving her dream of becoming a gynaecologist. In spite of this, and against 1960’s backdrop of what girls could do, she embarked on a diverse and fascinating career path which has taken her from newspapers to Government Affairs to trade associations, the automobile and the film industry, from the UK to South Africa and the States.

Marianne shared with us her key career takeaways which are that individual careers are the product of unique experiences gained and the data of those experiences used in future interactions. She asserted that 50% is good enough. People and research will help you fill the gaps and you should take every opportunity to learn from everyone you meet. Listen actively and use your experiences to inform your future. Marianne advocates being Meccano rather than Lego as it’s more structural and the framework is flexible – we all need to be able to adjust.

Marianne closed by advising everyone to start where you are now as you all have something to begin with.

You all have this road ahead of you – I’m excited for you, even with the trials and tribulations of COVID and how its changed things – in lots of ways it’s going to change things in a way that is going to make your lives easier – as its more easier to communicate with people and learn different things. I’m really happy to answer questions in the future. I’m a proud Sydenham High girl and I’m happy to be able to give something back to Sydenham finally after all these years.

Pupil Question & Answer Session: a selection

What was the deciding moment when you knew the teaching job wasn’t right for you?

I really loved teaching part but I didn’t like the staffroom part – those were different days and people didn’t really interact in the way they do today. But I really loved teaching. And I still do – I do a lot of teaching coaching and mentoring.

What was your favourite subject in school?

In Science, Chemistry – I loved finding out why things work the way they do, from a chemical point of view and all the things they used to have to investigate. I liked the whole thing about doing an experiment where you had to prove something. My favourite subject over all – difficult- I’d say music. Music has been a common theme through my life. I really enjoyed music classes but I particularly enjoyed choir and I have sung in choirs ever since.

Were you treated differently by students and staff?

I was by some students and sometimes by staff – I think it’s inevitable. Sometimes parents would make comments about me, or my hair or something which they thought was nice but didn’t feel nice. But in general I was a Sydenham High girl and I pretty much blended in, particularly by the end of my time. Most of the discrimination happened outside school.

Were there any other black girls at the school when you left, apart from your sister?

One or two and Indian, or Asian girls, but not many, so it was really wonderful when I came back to the school in 2018 to see a completely different complexion of the school. That was very encouraging.

Were there any clubs you wish you’d tried?

I wish I could have done sport! I had to sit out of all the sports from the age of twelve. I used to like rounders and I also loved tennis. When everyone else was doing PE I had to watch them. That was even worse!

How did you approach your life after giving up your dream of being a gynaecologist?

I think I just switched my brain. I’m quite good at that – just saying ok that’s not going to happen, let’s move on. I’m pragmatic so I just thought – what am I going to do instead?

What is the most random encounter you had that you took something from?

A gentleman I met on a plane in South Africa flying from Joburg to Cape Town – he was wearing what turned out to be very expensive pyjamas  and was a very wealthy businessman in the oil industry – we talked about our jobs and since then he has introduced me to many people who have been instrumental in changing the way that the SA government looks at the Screen sector.

Out of all your roles which have you found the most interesting?

Probably my job at Ford – they wanted to do everything I had been talking about in previous jobs, so I had free rein to make it happen at Ford. The Ford truck F150 is the biggest selling truck in the world – they applied all that I suggested and it won truck of the year, so that was brilliant. Also what I am doing now at Auddy is very different – it’s fantastic to be part of creating things and putting them out to the public, as well as all the organisation of a brand new company.

Best piece of advice that you have ever received?

That’s hard – but I would probably go back to what my father would say to me, which is that you have to be better than everybody, and you will have to work harder to be better than everybody. If he hadn’t said that, I wouldn’t have got out of the box as early as I did, in school and when I left, never giving up.

What advice would you give your twelve year old self?

I probably would have given myself the advice to listen more to Miss Hamilton (Headmistress). I think I would have ended up in a different place but I think I was being a bit rebellious, for the wrong reasons at that point, and I was allowed to do it. But your teachers, headteachers and parents know what they are doing, they’re qualified and if they give you advice you should listen – and I probably should have listened a bit more than I did!

Did being a woman in advertising impact you positively or negatively?

I think it impacted me positively – I think so because I refused to be phased when people were being mean about women or making racist comments. If people said something to me, I would ask them to stop and if they didn’t I would tell myself that that’s their problem, not my problem. It was a brutal industry back then but I survived it by not letting it get to me. So it was very positive in the end and it has helped me going forward.

What is your favourite thing to do in LA?

One is that I sing in a wonderful church choir and we are finally able to sing together again, though we have to do it outside. I also volunteer – the Metropolitan Opera in New York has a Young Singer programme, a competition called the National Audition, for singers between the ages of 20-30. It runs in regions and then the final is usually in NY. I’m actually the Vice Chair of the Western Region. The final this year is on Sunday online. I also love walking and being with my husband and playing in my garden.

Who inspires me now and who inspired me as a teenager?

As a teenager, my friends at school inspired me and my mother inspired me very much and I also had Godmothers who were really wonderful people who inspired me and helped me to see straight some of the time. In terms of now, I think everyone that I meet gives me some sort of inspiration – I get a lot from my brother and sister and a lot from doing things like this, talking to young people who can give me their perspective on life as well.

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