Youth Review: 17-18

Before the school year could begin, there was the usual stressful wait for the exam results. They were just a few weeks away, but it was a very long time when I had nothing else to do all holiday. I briefly considered getting a job, but decided it would be too much effort. I didn’t need the money and I wasn’t saving for anything, so I continued to sponge off my parents for a little longer…

In the end, time ticked away, and by mid-August my AS-Level results were out. I had to make yet another train journey up to my college just to pick them up. This boring ordeal was made up for by the fact that when I got there, the results cheered me up no end. I’d got an A in every module I’d sat, and the bonus marks above the A in some of them would come in handy to ease the pressure next year. Life suddenly seemed very very good.

Buoyed by the news, I started to look forward to the next school year. It would be my final year of A-Levels. Then I realised. What am I going to do after that? As Madness once almost sang, “It Must Be Uni”. But the thought was an odd one. No one in my family had ever been to university, and all I wanted to do was to become financially independent. With some A-Levels under my belt at the end of next year, surely I’d be employable and be able to get a decent job?

Within days of the next term starting, my (new) form tutor organised a meeting for all the second years in my tutor group. I really liked my new form tutor. He was more down-to-earth than the last one and very funny, with an accent that sounded like he came from the same background as me. So me and him got on very well indeed… something which was vital in order to get a good reference to apply to university through UCAS. The meeting itself was a little daunting though. He essentially told us that university is now vital to achieve anything in life, and so encouraged everyone to apply. I wanted to disbelieve, so I could leave school for good, but a nagging thought at the back of my mind was telling me that he has a point… Sure there were plenty who succeeded outside of university, but they tend to be the exception that proves the rule…

Meanwhile, the decision to drop Media Studies was paying dividends. Now gifted with several extra free periods, I had more time to do my work in the college’s library. This was perfect as it enabled me to do most of my homework while still in college, and so freeing up lots of my time at home. This would be to come to some use shortly.

I had also taken the decision to do a new maths module instead of doing coursework. The thought of maths coursework bored me silly, so I got together with several other students and nagged the teachers to offer Discrete Maths 1 (D1) as a module. Given that one of the teachers had taught the module before, it was not too difficult to persuade them once they saw the demand. I just didn’t want the stress of so much extra homework from the coursework module when I had so little time to do it in the first place. I was happy something went my way…

The beauty of the extra free time was slightly offset by the fact that one of my friends had passed his driving test. This meant more trips up to Tesco, but now in a car, making the journey take just one minute instead of the 10 by walking. This extra time in Tesco (how exciting!) meant we would often show up at the exact time the “Product Testing Centre” opened in the shop. This was a glorious experience. We were often invited in to test many new products, from crisps, cakes and biscuits to a rather more mundane plate of green beans. It was often difficult to write anything of value on the forms, especially as they would ask for the differences in taste and looks between very similar things (distinguishing between Plate Of Green Beans A and Plate Of Green Beans B was memorably impossible) but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity of free food.

So instead of doing something more productive with my free time in college, it was once more frittered away. I did stand to be my class’ representative on the student council, but I was predictably defeated by my lady opponent who was more popular than me. The vote was also held on the same day one of my friends was off. If he was there, it would have been a tied vote, 5-5, I’m sure. In the event, my D1 maths class took place at the same time the Student Council met every week, so it was probably a good job I didn’t win…

The term proceeded as quickly as the last, only there was now the additional pressure to produce a “personal statement” for my UCAS form from my form tutor every week. I think he was a little concerned that I was hesitant about going to university, and the evidence for that came from the fact that I had not yet considered what courses I wanted to do, ordered any prospectuses or given any of it a moment’s thought. My teachers were all badgering me in certain directions, with my tutor and business studies teacher telling me to do that, while my politics teacher told me about politics courses all the time. I just knew one thing for sure: if I was going to go to uni, I would not be studying maths!

Eventually, my thoughts turned to money. It couldn’t be helped. I suddenly realised that the only cash I had was a couple of hundred quid sitting in a bank account that was the product of several years saving of 50p’s and £1’s that I used to get off my mum every day to spend in the school tuck shop. But I realised that if I was going to go to university, I would need to start saving some money. Plus, I realised there were things I wanted to buy, and one of which was a new guitar. I was fed up with my nylon acoustic cheapo one I’d bought from Argos. I wanted a real one.

The solution was quickly found. My mum’s friend’s mum was the franchise owner of a Shell petrol station. They were looking for staff after several of them had just been arrested for large-scale fraud with credit cards. It says a lot that they were prepared to trust a 17 year old young adult than any other one, but then again, it was in a very rough area, and the local folk were not particularly the employable type. I felt a confidence boost coming on.

But my enthusiasm for the job was sapped when I discovered that I was going to work 7am-3pm on Saturday and Sundays. I had no choice in the matter, as there were no other hours I could possibly work. They didn’t want me doing the afternoon 3pm-11pm shift, and the night shift was out of the question. So… mornings it was.

I turned up for my first training shift around the end of October 2002. It was an enlightening experience. I would say it was my first “real” job. The desk work I did last year for Yorkshire TV was nothing compared to this. Here I was on a pittance £4.44/hour to do an 8-hour shift with no proper breaks. Nothing could possibly prepare me for customer service work… but I picked up the till/petrol pump interface very quickly. I wouldn’t be long until I was ready to take shifts on my own without anyone there to help if it became too busy.

On the whole, I’d say 90% of customers were fine. They would say thanks, and some would even say goodbye and maybe add a smile. But there was the remaining 10% miserable bastards, who wouldn’t even say a word. Some of them you’d be lucky to get the money off, as if they were doing you a massive favour for actually paying for their petrol. Then there was also a significant proportion of cheats who would go a penny or two over, drop off a rounded off sum and walk away quickly before I could ask for the penny or two. This resulted in many unbalanced tills at the end of the shift.

It was not an easy job. I was surprised at just how much was involved. Because it was also a convenience store, there were also newspapers to put out, count and organise (often having to put the magazines in each newspaper was a terrible waste of time)… and then there was delivery of milk, sandwiches, bread and other short dated food. So I had to rotate the stock. It was just me versus hundreds of customers. I would spend almost every moment doing something. It was practically impossible to do everything, as alongside all this I was always having to monitor the forecourt to see if anyone looked a bit suspicious… because yes, drive offs were a daily occurence. If someone looked dodgy, I could ask them to pay first, as that was the official policy, although not enforced.

And then, of course, there were the miserable, moaning, whinging taxi drivers, who thought the whole world owed them a favour. It was always endlessly amusing watching them rock their cars/cabs to get all the petrol/diesel out of the nozzle. Then they’d have the cheek to ask you for a paper receipt, “so they could write in the numbers afterwards”. You would be hard pressed to find a taxi driver who wasn’t cooking their books…

So the stress levels were very high indeed. Add to that the fact that there could also be people robbing you blind in the shop, while you’re watching for suspicious customers, and it was too much to control. There would be nothing more disheartening than watching someone put the pump in the holder and just get into the car and drive away. I only ever witnessed that a few times, as mostly they got away while I was distracted with big queues. It was extremely busy almost all the time, with me taking thousands of pounds every shift. But the worst drive off was when I watched someone sail away and noticed that they had taken off their registration plate so I couldn’t phone the police. How didn’t I spot it and refuse to turn the pump on?

I was now working seven days a week. I did have the bonus of being able to go in slightly late on a couple of days during the week as my new timetable allowed some later starts. But it was a lot to juggle, and I look back on it now rather impressed. I don’t think I could handle that these days. I must have either been desperate or very stupid. The stresses between the job and my college work combined were very high…

Back in school, I had had enough of thinking about universities. I eventually took the decision that I wanted to study politics, and so all that was left was for me to take some quick decisions about which courses I wanted to do and where… all without visiting any universities. I had no time for that as the deadlines were upon me in days. Thankfully, my politics tutor delivered the goods, when he suggested to me the course that I’m currently on. It seemed to have everything, and with the added bonus of a year working in Parliament. I had to choose it, and to hell with the consequences. It just sounded so good. I made up the numbers by randomly pulling out politics courses from the UCAS website, and fired off my application. And then at the last second, I made the strange decision to put my whole life on hold, and checked all the boxes to “defer entry”… in other words, I made the decision to take a gap year. My plan at the time was to hope that my life would take some unforeseen course during that year that would make university unnecessary. I was still not inclined to go… but I didn’t want to tell anyone that.

Eventually the year was over. Another good Christmas was followed by an unusual New Year 2003, for I had to take the first shift of the year in the garage. I was on double time, which was not bad at all, but it did mean I couldn’t enjoy the traditional family party as I had to go to bed. And then as soon as I got home I remember having to do some maths revision…

Because it was exam time again. But not as seriously as previous exam periods. There were no “mock” exams this time around… these were proper exams, but there weren’t many of them. I had two maths exams, and three General Studies exams. I had no intention of answering the General Studies exams properly as I viewed it as such a waste of time. No university would accept it as a qualification in order to secure entry… so it had no value to me. So I made a protest by writing a bunch of gibberish, song lyrics and references to Richard Hillman of Coronation Street in all three papers. Meanwhile, the maths exams went as well as could be expected…

No sooner did I think I was free of the shackles of thinking about university, did letters arrive from them all inviting me to come to open days to see what they were like. Ack. The thought scared me. It suddenly made it all real. The numbers and sentences I had been writing onto an application form only a month before suddenly had lots of consequences that I wasn’t expecting. I don’t know why I thought that at the time… perhaps I was stunningly naive, or maybe in denial that this was actually happening to me. My teachers were wanting me to apply for Oxford, Cambridge and other pompous institutions, but I declined all of their advice to plump for good old Hull instead. But I didn’t want to go them. I didn’t want to sound arrogant. I had already quit a private school to get away from the sneering mentality of those who go to the “better” institutions… and thought I would take a chance in a less reputable establishment, just to see how it goes. Would it make that much difference?

Of course, the fatal flaw in my argument at the time was that there was no way of telling otherwise. Whichever path I chose to tread, it would be impossible to go back and work out if taking the other decision would have made any difference. All I can do is guess… which is in itself a pointless exercise. I have no idea how different my life would be if I’d gone to a different uni. Probably very different, but that is about as specific as it gets. All I knew for sure was that my parents had always thought I would do something a little more traditional than politics. But my mind was made up, and there was no turning back…

I decided I better had arrange a visit to Hull. Maybe that would convince me to go to University? Maybe that would finally help me make up my mind once and for all. College was ticking over nicely, and my job was still stressful, but the cash was now coming in very useful indeed. I bought myself a new guitar, which would be my pride and joy for many years to come. I also bought a real musical keyboard, and the investment was well worth it. I had only ever had cheap and phoney ones up until then, but now I had something I could make real music with. I couldn’t really play the piano, but that wasn’t going to stop me. The rest of the money was just being saved up… very wise choice, it would later turn out.

Unfortunately, the eventual visit to Hull in February didn’t help me make up my mind. They asked for me to get three B’s to get on their course, but said they didn’t need to interview me. I would later learn that almost everyone else on my course was interviewed. This is rather strange in hindsight, as it means they took it on trust that what my form tutor wrote in my glowing reference was true. I explored the site on the day and met several of my future lecturers and tutors… it all looked very big and scary, but I just tried to put it out of my mind. I didn’t want to think about it.

March soon ticked away, and April was soon upon me. The stress of the garage was getting too much to cope with, and I had by now grown to hate my job. The money was no longer worth the considerable worry I used to spend every shift thinking about who was going to drive off on me today… and so I handed in my notice. Funnily enough, my employer completely understood. She told me that she was going to quit shortly as well, as she’d had enough of the franchise she had been awarded. That made me feel a little better, as it felt like I was letting them down. But they understood… especially as I really needed my free time now to start revision for my final exams.

The school year just disappeared. I wish I knew where it had gone as I had been enjoying it so much towards the end. I’d finally hit my stride in there: confidence, personality and a good smattering of humour… just in time for me to leave. All of a sudden teachers were wishing me good luck for the exams and handing me endless past papers for me to revise from. And then I realised that all the friends I’d made here would soon be no more. It hardly seemed worth it to have these great friends for such a short space of time. But they did make my life in college worth living. They taught me a lot, and I saw much more of youth culture than I could have done anywhere else. It broadened my horizons considerably, and even though I can’t predict how different my life would/could have been if I’d stayed in my original school, my intuition tells me that I wouldn’t have been the same person I am today if I hadn’t taken that bold step into the unknown, changing schools at that stage in the day, and seeing life from a different perspective.

I revised my arse off. There’s no other way of putting it. The material was difficult, but this time across only eight exams, less than last year, and way down on how many I had to do for GCSE. I don’t think I emerged from my house for weeks as I would sit down with my gigantic folders of notes, read them, write them from memory and rewrite them again. The only trips I made outside were to do the actual exams in the college, and every time they felt like they’d gone well… but I was probably confusing that with the relief of just finally having done them.

They were over, and it was now June. College was done. My friends had gone their separate ways, but we planned to reunite on exam results day in August to celebrate/commiserate accordingly.

As I approached my 18th birthday, I realised that I’d just gone through the two most extraordinary years of my life, and they were now behind me. The fun, games and hard work all seemed to be in perfect balance overall. There were difficult and dark times when my workloads and other stresses were too high… but I got through them, and chalked them up to experience. But they were good tests. Now they were all over, and I was finally about to become an adult. The moment I’d been waiting for all my life was here. I could finally call myself an adult. I’d been thinking of myself as one for ages now… but at last I could now legally say I was one. And I could finally get myself into debt with a bank for the first time in my life! This was an exciting and liberating prospect…

My birthday was a great occasion. I spent it with my extended family as we all went to a restaurant, and then came back to my house for yet another famous family do. It went on deep into the night and the next morning, ending with me watching the sunrise at 5am. It felt a real humbling experience. I don’t think I realised at the time, but it was quite a fitting end to all those years of childhood. All that frustration, and all that desperation to grow up. All that trauma, and all those decisions, both consciously and subconsciously, about who and what I wanted to be. And there was the end product of all those processes, watching the dawn of yet another day – his 6,575th, to be precise (if I’ve got the sums right) – and wondering what lies ahead…

It makes me feel very small and insignificant. But maybe that’s just because we are all small and insignificant at the end of the day. We only get a limited time to prove ourselves, and in the end we suffer the humiliating irony of realising that in fact we don’t have to prove ourselves to anyone.

But from the sublime to the bloody ordinary, life had to continue. I now had a whole gap year ahead of me, and absolutely nothing to do in it. I was soon going to have to learn what being an adult really entailed…

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