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Thursday, August 13, 2015

School's out for ever

I threw up on the morning of my A-level results day, just like I had on the day of my A-level British History exam, and just as I would find myself doing seven years later on the eve of my first ever paid stand-up comedy gig.

Nerves, you see. Let's not even talk about losing one's virginity. Vomit isn't everyone's idea of erotica.

On A-level results day, I was sitting on an offer to read English at Cambridge; an offer that surprised almost everyone, not least my English teacher. But they wanted three A grades. It was no means certain I was going to get the grades. My French was always weak.

We went to the school to get the envelope. My History teacher wouldn't meet my eye. Whilst I had managed somehow to get an A in French, I had missed my History grade. To get an A I needed 480 out of 600 marks. I had achieved 479.3. My History teacher had to hold the pen and do the maths for me as my hand was shaking too badly to make legible marks on the paper. I was 0.7 of one mark, out of 600 marks away from an A. I had missed my grades by 0.05%.

My History paper was sent for a re-mark.

My friends and I spent a weird afternoon in the park. I think they went drinking that night, but I don't remember going with them.

It took Cambridge five days to reject me, by which time all the best clearing places had gone. My insurance offer uni offered me halls of residence for "young ladies" only, about five miles from the department.

A month later, my History re-mark came back as an A. I had achieved my grades, but it was too late for Cambridge. I felt more adrift than I ever had before. I had never thought I was definitely going to get such high grades, but I also didn't imagine being left in this hinterland of having technically achieved the grades, but still being rejected from my first choice university.

My friends quickly firmed up their futures - the vast majority off to uni, a couple to adventures overseas. I dithered. I dithered some more. I seriously considered breaking contact with all of my friends as I could never be that person I wanted them to see me become. This was madness, depression, desperation, whatever you want to call it. Thankfully, it didn't last.

One day, let out from my summer job early one afternoon, I waited almost an hour at the bus stop by the September blackberries in the hedge. Unbidden, a half-forgotten Eagles' lyric popped into my head. "It may be raining, but there's a rainbow above you..." It started to rain.

I turned down my insurance offer. I decided to stay with my summer job for a year, and reapply to other universities with my three A grades, the following year.

My friends left. I made friends at work. I got a car. I visited my friends at their universities. I sent off my UCAS form for the next year. I wrote to my overseas friends. I started enjoying my job. I started getting really good at my job. I got to use my French. I got to travel regularly to London. I learned the basics of sales, marketing, accounting software and how to deal with clients and suppliers. I became a valued member of the team. Fast forward eight months, despite an unconditional offer from a top uni, I didn't want to leave the job, and had to fight myself to take the next step back into education.

University, when I finally got there, was something of an anticlimax. My English degree helped me to land a graduate job, for sure, but I have never used the contents of my degree, nor my English, French or History A-levels in my "real" life. My History is incredibly fuzzy and I still can't remember if it's Cranmer or Cramner. My French is pre-GCSE standard these days. I do still love reading, but as a pastime only.

I can't be glib and say A-levels don't matter at all, but if you're reading this today and the world feels slightly unreal, and the future is foggy, you likely have a very long time left to start becoming the person you want to be. As Mr Nunn always says, "Life is a long race".

What practical advice would I have liked on the day? Probably that which was inaccessible at the time: words of wisdom from my 35 year-old self. So here we go:

"It would be dishonest if I didn't say that I still occasionally wonder how my life might have been different had I gone to Cambridge, been in the Footlights, got that First... but I regret nothing at all about how my life has actually turned out. I am happier than my teenage self ever thought was consistently possible. It may be raining, but there are rainbows above you. Also, try and get some more contemporary taste in music and don't eat that lasagne before sex."

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