Being James Herriot

Skeldale House plaqueI wanted to be a veterinarian from the time I knew what a vet was. At age six I “found” a pregnant cat in the alley behind the house when I was walking home from school. I tempted her to follow me home, and used my tiny allowance to buy a can of cat food at the convenience store a block away. I had dreams of her living in a cardboard box bed under our deck and giving birth to adorable kittens, all of which I would be able to keep and love. Instead she ate my cat food appreciatively and disappeared down the alley when I went in the house for supper. I had already named her Mrs Patches. I cried when I found she’d gone.

I never stopped wanting to be a vet. Animals were my main focus, all the time. Most of the books I read were stories about animals – The Black Stallion, Big Red, Lad A Dog. Then I discovered James Herriot and thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I read each book so many times that I practically memorized them. All of his patients became my friends, and Mr Herriot embodied everything good about veterinarians.

In high school I took all of the tough courses through grade 12 – math, physics, chemistry, biology – and got good grades. I worked weekends at a vet clinic cleaning kennels and doing the chores that didn’t require much skill. Getting into the university of my choice was easy. After 2 years of pre-veterinary university courses with great grades (more sciences, math, some agriculture), I applied to vet school. There was intense competition, with about 18 applicants for each place in the veterinary program. I was sure I would be accepted. Nobody would make a more perfect vet than me.

I didn’t get in.

I was heartbroken, sort of like when Mrs Patches disappeared but in a more adult way that lasted longer. All of those years of planning and hard work seemed to be for naught. Didn’t they know I wanted nothing else in life? I hadn’t planned for this emotionally. I had considered it from a practical point of view; I just never thought the contingency plan would ever need to be put in place.

Regroup. I went on to get a degree in science, obtained some real life experience working in the veterinary field, and reapplied. I didn’t tell my friends or family that I was applying. If I didn’t get in (again) I didn’t want to have to tell anyone. This time I got an interview, so I knew that at least I’d made the first cut. A large part of the interview was about the realities of the job – what did I think about retail sales in vet clinics? Did I want to own my own practice? What were the pros and cons of buying an existing practice versus starting my own? Did I know about career options for vets outside of clinical practice? What kind of salary did I expect to make? Obviously they wanted to make sure that their students had some concept of what they were in for and had no illusions that this would be a glamorous, high-paying career.

The envelope from the vet college, when it came couple of months later, didn’t give me any clues as to its contents. It appeared to contain a single-page letter, just like the last time. Ever the pessimist (or, perhaps, realist), I was sure I’d been rejected again. I opened it quickly, hoping to be able to read the “We are sorry to inform you” quickly and throw it out and get on with my life somehow. I had to read the first paragraph several times before it sank in that they’d actually accepted me. I was going to be James Herriot after all.

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One thought on “Being James Herriot

  1. Pingback: Some James Herriot; All Creatures great and small | Adam's Symposium.

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