The wonder years: a journey to independence

Christopher Bigsby reflects on being a Fresher and the transition from the classroom to campus

August 28, 2014

So, it’s that time of year. Goodbye to double maths; don’t run in the corridor; do you want detention, Jenkins? Red knees from cross-country; I’ve got a note says I’m excused; I’ve got eyes in the back of my head, Riley; you may turn your papers over now; that’s the bell, sir; can I be excused? A C grade is not “quite good”, Phillips; you read the part of Lady Macbeth, Everett. Start with “unsex me here”. No sniggering; you’ll all sit there until someone owns up; being the class clown won’t get you to university, Evans; geometry is not pointless, Fanshaw; if I hear another sound; is that a tattoo? If you use that word again in my class; first love, second love, celebrating a three-month anniversary; medicine for acne, medicine for nits, medicine for a broken heart; I’ll smash your face in. You and whose army? I should give up thoughts of Oxbridge if I were you. Have you thought of Edge Hill? Who wants to be in Iolanthe? The girls from the high school will be taking part. You can’t sing a note, Brown; nobody texts in my class; if you say “like” again, Michaels, you can write its dictionary definition 100 times; university isn’t for everyone, Jones; fill in the Ucas forms and say how you’ve always wanted to do whatever it is you’re applying for, enthusiasm is what they’re looking for, along with four A stars, of course.

Sound and alcohol blunts feelings of excitement and nervousness as students know they are on the brink of something

And all the while the staff with piles of marking looking ahead and wondering. Mr Smith, the economics teacher, standing in the drizzle in his leather patched sports jacket, smoking roll-ups, the supply teacher asking where they are up to and eyeing the door, the headmaster with a Cambridge MA that cost him nothing but is boasted of on the sign outside, Miss Hopkins, bright and breezy but resistant to approaches, Mr O’Connell, an atheist to the core, required to teach religion to those with a preference for flicking paper pellets with rubber bands and despite his time in the SAS with no power to enforce control, Mr Taylor who is in the union, writes the placards himself and sleeps alone.

So they say goodbye to those who are moving on, aware as they do that they’ll have to learn the names of a new lot when term comes round again, saying “keep in touch” and they won’t of course, except that they will be remembered by those who thought they would forget, remembered because they gave them a book, set time aside, urged them to apply, encouraged, encouraged.

Meanwhile, at home, the parents who have waited for the results and been full of pride are contemplating the implications after years of getting them up in the morning, going to sports days, competing too hard in the parents’ race, parent-teacher evenings, driving them to swimming and to friends’ houses, asked, sometimes, not to drop them off outside, their car being second-hand and growing lichen as though it were a mobile garden, and now here they are loading that car with everything they think is needed for a life elsewhere or that their son or daughter believes is necessary to life at all, then dropping them off at a campus they never knew themselves, being of the wrong generation and going to the wrong schools, arriving at a hall of residence brand new it seems and with other parents, in better cars, releasing their own offspring into the wild and already they feel they are being asked to leave as their brilliant child meets other brilliant children, except that they are no longer children and this is the moment they realise as much. Phone, email, Skype, they say, believing they will and they will for a while, and on the way back down the motorway, the car lighter now, except that their spirits are not and they do not speak except to say that he/she has never been away from home before and will they cope, knowing that they will and in some way fearing such for everything has changed in the course of their trip, and at last they are home, which is not quite the same as before, standing in his or her room, which they know will stay just as it is in the years to come, except that it will be empty now and their own relationship changed.

At the university the local criminals are preparing for the annual harvest of laptops and phones as the security doors of residences are left propped open so that cases can be wheeled through; the campus chemist has a stockpile of free chlamydia kits; at the Freshers’ Fair clubs and societies collect fees from those who will never go along to meetings of the gay and lesbian rock climbing society; there is a gig at which the students’ union throbs with sound and alcohol blunts feelings of excitement and nervousness as they know they are on the brink of something but they don’t as yet know what; then it’s induction as they are told what to expect, avoid, embrace as first friends are found, the old boyfriends and girlfriends who they had promised to stay faithful to already figures from another world so that a few will now meet someone they will live with for the rest of their lives but never tell them such for who wants permanence when the world is new; then the first classes and a different kind of excitement not knowing that in years to come they will recall this time as no other and that their journey did, after all, have a destination.

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