Youth Review: 18-19

It’s hard to know where the official end of “youth” is, but for this youth review, I’m going to go up to 21. Even though I complain bitterly about arbitrary dividing lines between things, I have to stop somewhere. Perhaps it’ll make me accept that real “youth” is now well behind me, and adulthood is where it’s at…

We continue this sorry tale in July of 2003. My life is in complete disarray. I’ve just finished my A-Levels, and have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing. My denial is certain: I cannot go to University, even though I have a deferred entry for 2004 in place and will likely be confirmed when I get my exam results, barring total, unmitigated disaster in my results. But there was me thinking my life had begun, and I had to do something with it.

I applied for a couple of real jobs, both of them chained to a desk and computer. They were utterly low grade, data entry or administrative assistant jobs, and I didn’t even get an interview for either. This was very disheartening. I thought I would at least get asked for an interview, although I was actually dreading it happening. In truth, it was probably good that I didn’t get the interview, because my nerves would have been shot.

So I had to lower my sights. I went to my local shopping centre and strolled around looking for jobs. I handed in my CV to a building society, and they said they would get back to me. I asked in Game to see if they needed anyone, and they said not until Christmas. I was expecting the same response everywhere.

Except for the card shop. A well known, high street card shop, no less. It was never frequented by any of my family, because we all believe that paying £5 and above for a card is extortion. But I wasn’t going to be choosy. There was a sign in the window, and it had a closing date of today on it. So I went in, spoke to the manager, and got an immediate interview. I should have been suspicious about the lack of interest in the job: maybe it meant something. The interview was easy, I filled in an application form, and was effectively told I had the job. Hooray.

It took a few days before it was confirmed to me, but I was just glad to have something to do. I had no idea where it was going to take me, but I was utterly bore of sitting in the house all day, every day. I at least had something to get up for now.

The job began in earnest. The staff were half good, half bad. The manager was an utter bitch. Nasty, spiteful, bitter and obsessed with the latest targets thrown at them by her area manager. It seems to be the story of retail as far as I’m concerned. Thankfully, the assistant manager was much better, and it meant that the manager’s day off was a cause for celebration. I was not happy about the fact that I only had a part time job of 16 hours a week, paying a miserable £4.13/hour. I wanted to work much more to make it worth my while… but with hindsight, maybe it was a good thing that I didn’t have to go in any more than I did. I don’t think I could have stood it.

The worst of it was that the 16 hours was split into four four-hour shifts. In my previous job at the petrol station, I was working two eight-hour shifts, and actually getting paid more for it. I contemplated going back there, but I don’t think I could handle the stress. My new job was OK, apart from the manager. I had spells on the till, spells in the stock room, and other exciting duties putting stock out on the shop floor, especially in “my” card section, the humourous cards.

In truth, I was good at everything there – it was hard not to be – except for keeping in control of what was on “my” card section. For a card shop, this is a pretty disasterous flaw. I always blamed the manager for not giving me enough time to work on my section. I had so little time to work out which cards were out of stock, and order them. Then I had even less time to actually put the stock out. This whole process would take many hours, but I would often get no more than 30mins to do it, as there would always be some other tedious job to do.

In the end, exam results day rolled around very quickly. This was to be my last trip up on the train to my college, the final long journey to destiny. I thought all the exams had went well, and I had marks in the bank from last year, so I wasn’t expecting disappointment. There was a total lack of nerves. I just wanted to move on. I met up with all my friends and we collected our results envelopes together. There was a lot more riding on it for them as they were all going to universities that October, and some had been set very high grades to achieve.

My first results were for maths. I was expecting a poor result on P3 – Pure Maths module 3 – which confused me endlessly. But when it came out to be 72/100, I knew there was no possibility of me scoring below a B any more. Then I noticed my P2 module was 90/100, and so maths, the qualification I was most worried about, came out as a safe A in the end. I was overjoyed.

I turned the page to examine my Business Studies marks. Astonishingly, I had scored 100% on both module 4 and module 5, and 111/120 on module 6. Over the six modules I had a total result of 571/600, and I needed 480/600 for an A. I was gobsmacked. Maybe I should have been doing business studies for a degree…

On a roll now with two A’s, I thought another A in politics, my favourite subject, was guaranteed. On turning the page, I was deeply surprised. There in front of me was a B. But not just any old B. It was three module marks that when added to my first three totalled up a score of 479/600. I had missed an A by one mark. Two years work, and in the subject I wanted to do for a degree, and I had missed out on the highest grade by one lousy mark. Just one more paragraph, or maybe even one more example or sentence… it could have made the difference. Despite a B being an excellent result, I couldn’t help but feel really gutted. My politics tutor had told me he’d never met a student more naturally fluent in politics before, and so if anyone should have gotten an A, it was me. I had high expectations… and they had been dashed. It turned out that no one had done well at all on any of the politics papers, so something must have gone wrong. One particular paper had been a disaster for all concerned – the synoptic paper 6, in which I only got a D.

The teacher said he would appeal all the marks for paper 6, and recommended all of us pay for a remark on paper 5. So we all did so. I crossed my fingers, hoping that somewhere amongst the pages they could find another mark. It seemed mean to miss out by just one…

So the anticipated exam celebration didn’t actually happen. I was ecstatic with my other grades, but not acheiving the other A by one bloody mark was a real annoyance. It annoys me in life if things come down to something so tiny and trivial, but it is very frequent that one small thing can have massive repercussions at a later point.

I put it out of my mind and went to work. It was, as expected, boring, and a terrible, crashing way to come back down to earth. Meanwhile, my friends had done as good and as bad as they had expected, and all managed to get on their preferred university course. I had also done as well as I needed to, and a few days later got a letter from them congratulating me and telling me a place had been reserved for me on next year’s course, and to enjoy my gap year. I discarded this letter, and returned to a state of denial. I was not going to university.

Eventually the pay started coming in. It helped to mitigate the feeling of worthlessness I had. I stashed almost all of it away into a bank account, just as I had ever since I started working. But I despised the job. As the time went by, I eventually received a letter from the exam board, telling me that they had managed to find those missing marks, and the B became an A. I was relieved to say the least… but I always wonder if they really did find the marks, or if they just decided to be kind and give me them…

Christmas soon came around, and so yet another year of the 21st century was behind me. 2004 emerged, and news came from far afield that my friends were all having a great time at university. We went out for a drink (or two), and a degree of envy began to rise. There was me pretending I had started a Real Life, with a McJob, and there they were having a lot more fun. The wheels in my head began to turn…

Months after I put in my CV to the building society, I received a call from them, asking me to do a telephone interview. I did so, and it was quite possibly the worst thing I’ve ever done. It was extremely difficult to think up answers to their long and pointless questions about me and what I’ve done or haven’t done in life. It was even worse having to use examples from my current unstimulating job in the card shop. But it must have went well, because I was told at the end that, once more, I would be “hearing from them” shortly. Hooray?

I had a little think about it. If I could get a Real Job, then I could make my Real Life complete. It would pay better, and there would be a chance of going places in a bigger organisation. I crossed my fingers…

Weeks later (not a good sign of an efficient company), I received a letter. I was expecting this to be a note telling me I had been successful and could start work for them. It wasn’t. It was an “invitation” to join them at a recruitment day, where I would be tested to buggery and interviewed in front of groups, with groups of fellow interviewees, and individually. Then there was an “application form” enclosed, for me to fill out. All 10 pages of it.

Deciding that this was thoroughly over the top for a desk job, taking people’s money off them, giving some of it back, and having to cold call after hours trying to sell life insurance to them, I told them where to stick it. Well, I wish. In fact, I just didn’t go to their recruitment day. And that was that. Weeks later I received a letter asking me why I didn’t go. That went straight in the bin. What on earth were they expecting? It was almost like I was being recruited to work for the secret services, the amount of hoops they were asking me to jump through.

So that plan went to rack and ruin, and I was now deep into March with no prospect of achieving a Real Job. So much for all these “excellent” qualifications I had. Employers didn’t seem to care, and that was despite the fact that so many people don’t even possess a single GCSE.

One day in work, I had a barney with the manager. Her endless picking on me for the tiniest of mistakes, which we all make, was just too much for me. The manager had her favourites in the other staff, and they made the same small mistakes every now and then, and they were simply waved away. I could do a small thing like leave some cellophane wrapping in one of my stock drawers, and she would come around on one of her many “inspections” and tell me that they were not up to the required “standard”. Even though most of the drawers in the shop were like that. I really didn’t know what she was expecting.

She did seem to have it in for me, so much so that it would be such an ordeal for me to ask for some change for the till, because there was never any in the shop. The manager refused to get five pound notes from the bank, and would instead supply me with one or two bags of pound coins, £20 worth in each. All it would take would be for two fools to buy a 99p card with a £10 note and I would be wiped out of change, having to ask her again. It was always her own fault, as I couldn’t control what money people gave me… but she would act as if I was deliberately calling her over just so I could annoy her.

Then there was the bell, which the person on the till could ring once for another assistant, twice for the manager, and three times for security. One time, the manager was on her lunch break, and as normal, I had no change to give out. I rang the bell twice. The manager came storming up the stairs with the security guard, who was also on his lunch, and other members of staff who were in the basement. She asked me who the villain was, and I looked back with a quizzical face. It had become well known amongst other members of staff that the downstairs bell was faulty, and one ring would often be translated into several, and so two rings could sound like many individual little presses. This must have been what she heard, and so it sounded like we were being robbed blind on the shop floor. Meanwhile, upstairs, and with me having witnesses, the (seperate) bell only rang twice.

A stand off ensued. I was not going to accept any harsh words from her, because the broken bell downstairs was not my fault. But she wasn’t having any of it. She moaned and moaned for me daring to disturb her lunch, when she thought there was a riot in progress. A typical overreaction from such a snivelling cow. I wanted to resign on the spot and put her in the lurch completely, but I thought it would look very unprofessional, and I’d never get another job again because I wouldn’t have a reference from her.

This event tipped the balance. As I lie in bed that night, I realised what a hole I’d put myself into. The gap year was utterly unnecessary. I had to get out of this position and away. I had such an opportunity ahead of me, to go to university, something no other person in my family had ever done. Why would I want to throw that away? If I was going to throw it away, it would have to be for a bloody good reason. I churned it through my mind, and decided, that working for Clinton Cards was not a bloody good reason. In fact, neither would working for the building society. I decided. I had to go to University.

Probably just as well, because in April letters started to emerge from the university telling me of my course and what accomodation I’d like to stay in. Even though I’d take this decision, I decided to leave the letters for now, because there would be “loads of time”.

Then, out of the blue, my parents decided that we should go on holiday this year. Abroad. This was a most unusual turn of events, since it had been ten years since I’d last gone on holiday abroad to Portugal. Now we were suddenly going to go to Austria that summer. The discussions had been taking place about where to go between my family members, but when I suggested Austria I wasn’t expecting it to be taken seriously. I didn’t want to go to the same old destinations in Spain, just to lie on a beach. I wanted a more active holiday, and I suggested Austria for that.

So it came as a great surprise that it was actually going to happen. I paid for myself, and the date was set for mid July. It would be a coach holiday, which would be also rather unusual. At last there was something to look forward to…

Of course, there was nearly trouble in work as my manager moaned that I was booking time off when someone else had already booked the week off. Despite the fact that July would be the slowest month of the year, she couldn’t bear to have more than one member of staff off at once. It was the Rule from her area manager, but I strongly suspected that the remaining six members of staff would be able to cover. In the end, she was gracious enough to admit defeat, and “allowed” me to book the two weeks off.

The sad thing was that I had told my manager that I was planning to go to university at the very first interview I had for the job. I wasn’t being sincere at the time, as I didn’t think I was going to go back then, but it meant that it took all the excitement out of the fact that I was yet to remind her that I was planning on handing in my notice shortly after I got back from my holiday.

Then even that plan was ruined when in May my manager asked me if I was still going to university. Now that I’d definitely decided to go, I told her yes, and so I couldn’t serve her with the tiny one-week notice period in my contract. She now had months to prepare. I really wanted to leave her in the lurch, but she had defeated me. Argh.

May disappeared, and June went the same way. Nothing much else changed, and I totally forgot to send back my accomodation forms. All I had done was apply for my student loan… late. So I was definitely expecting trouble from that, but little did I know that I was storing up trouble with the other non-decision.

In the meantime, I had started working extra shifts in other shops around the region. After me asking me manager for more hours on a fairly regular basis, and her saying she can’t every time, she eventually “realised” that she could be getting more hours for me in other stores. This finally gave me some extra money, something I was beginning to realise I would need for university…

Suddenly, it was July, and a whole year had flashed before my eyes. The year had been an failure as far as I was concerned. I didn’t need to take a gap year, and I didn’t make that much money to make it worth my while. It did, however, teach me one important lesson: that I simply had to go to university. It would be the only way I could possibly stop myself getting into the same rut as my own parents did when they were my age. I had to try to better myself, to try to make something more of my life than I would if I’d just say back and let it wash over me.

So maybe the lesson was a good one. It taught me that I had to go further than the sharp end of life. I couldn’t accept remaining in that position any longer. I don’t want to sound patronising, but I have nothing but sympathy for everyone who finds themself in that position. It surprises me little that we have an imbalance in the labour market now as companies struggle to fill their menial jobs. I don’t blame people for not wanting to take them. There are better jobs out there, but the competition is fierce. People want to better themselves, and good luck to them.

It was the feeling I got. So perhaps it wasn’t such a bad year after all. But all I can remember thinking as I ate a slice of birthday celebratory pizza in Pizza Hut, was that I couldn’t wait to get out of here. I had become 19. I wasn’t really concerned about my age, because there is nothing remotely exciting about 19, just as there isn’t about 17. But I was still a teenager. And that was still good. I was going to have to enjoy my final year of teenagehood…

It was going to be an interesting year ahead…