Thursday, 15 August 2013

MAKING THE GRADE


 Ah, it's A Level results day or the day when I realise I'm really really still not over the greatest disappointment of my life and resent the hell out of some 18 year olds with their whole lives ahead of them.

I was in Upper Sixth and gearing up to take A Levels in English Literature, History and Politics when in I got sick in December 1996. I went from getting 3 As in my mocks to not being able to get out of bed in the space of a week. I spent the days I should have been doing my exams alternating between vomiting, sleeping and sobbing myself to sleep in bitter disappointment.

Everyone helpfully pointed out that I could take re-sits and the pedant in me resisted the temptation to point out you can't re-sit something you've not sat at all and gritted my teeth instead. I was still missing out even if I took the exams a few months later. The excitement and plans of my peers wasn't something I could share. They were preparing to spread their wings and leave for new lives. I was preparing for surgery. I felt so left out of their milestones and newly adult interests, like a child listening to the grown ups talk.

Overnight I'd lost everything that gave me pleasure and structure. Friendships were strained, my academic aspirations stunted, plans put on hold and my reputation amongst my peers as the smart one who was going to excel destroyed. And worst of all, I had no idea if it would come back. Would this surgery sort me and I could continue with only a small blip? Or was I destined to stay on the sofa watching This Morning forever?

I don't remember very much about the day all my friends got their A Level results now, but at the time it would have qualified as my personal hell. Listening to their excitement and achievement and knowing that my joy for them was mainly being overwhelmed by massive disappointment and a sense of failure in myself. If you persue the academic route past GCSE, you are told that your exams are crucial and that to come out with no grades is the very worst thing that can happen.

Well, I'd come out gradeless and gallbladderless and all around me was the insistence that without A Levels my life was over (and that was from the teachers and government, not the supposedly histrionic teenage girls...) The only thing I was excelling in was disappointment. I was gutted, but I managed not to scream 'you got a B at A Level and you're fucking crying? How do you think I feel?' at the friend who insisted on telling me this in detail and then not inviting me to the results party with everyone else. (I recently saw her lie about her results on Twitter and chuckled evilly.)

No, I think I took a path of the higher moral ground and cheap booze that night and concentrated on the whole re-sit thing. November was totally the plan and then have the rest of the year off and go to uni in September 1998. I'd study until then and then earn some money so when I got to university I'd be older, wiser and richer than my peers. Dead simple.

Until I discovered they'd abolished November re-sits that year. June 1998 was the earliest I could do my exams, but the only way to be legally able to sit them was re-enrol at school. My headmaster kindly offered to bend the rules and just shy of my 19th birthday I was sat in a school uniform like the new girl again. I think I lasted 6 weeks. I don't remember because the fatigue was so severe I felt like I was hallucinating.

June came and went and as my friends arrived back from their first year of uni, I was missing my A Levels for the second time. In September I enrolled at tech and claimed Income Support to reduce the cost of 3 A Levels from a grand a pop to £30 each. I'd have been pissed off if I'd spent the full amount. I missed my exams in 1999 too in a haze of vomit and pain.

Next September I did night classes to cut down the amount of energy leaving the house I needed to expend. I also dropped the two I didn't really need to get into university as a 'mature student' and finally in 2000, just as all my friends graduated, I sat my English Literature A Levels. Unsurprisingly since I'd been studying the syllabus for 5 years, I got an A.

It was an absolutely massive anti climax. Each peer group I had befriended and studied with had already sat their A Levels and moved on to something else. They weren't interested in my seemingly childish achievement as they had more adult thoughts now. I don't know why I was surprised since none of them had offered much empathy or understanding of my repeated rubbed into the wound disappointment over the almost four years I'd watched all of them grow up, get grades and basically leave me behind.

One friend came with me to get my results, but none of the rest seemed bothered. Despite having sat with a rictus grin for each of their exam results parties, politely not wanting to ruin their night bellowing 'it's not fair' and then sobbing into the punch, no one cared to go out and help me paint the town red. I met up with some friends, dying to celebrate my achievement and effort and was usurped by everyone wanting to stay in and watch Nasty Nick be evicted from Big Brother and eat Pringles. On a pie chart of disappointment, it's hard to say which was worse: getiing the results or not getting them.

I'd spent all that time worrying about my life being fucked up by my A Level delay, I'd felt like a silly childish failure who wasn't important because I wasn't hitting the same milestones as everyone else and I'd been hurt and rejected by people's lack of interest in my difficulties. I don't think ever admitted to myself how hard I was finding it. Told to think positively, I thought acknowledgement was giving in and I felt weak admitting that disappointment was ripping me apart. In hindsight, I'm not surprised I coped by developing an eating disorder. The one thing I was good at was being skinny.

I do wonder how well I'd have coped if I'd known that my fears were real and that not getting my A Levels really would fuck up my entire adult life? I'm now 34, have one A Level to my name, dropped out of my degree and haven't worked for 10 years. I've never earned above minimum wage and since I was 15, I haven't completed a full year of work, study or training without prolonged absence. I'm completely and utterly unemployable and my CV paints me as the most unreliable person possible.

Ot course, I know that I'm dedicated and resourceful and determined. That seemingly not sitting my A Levels but finally getting to uni isn't because I'm a flake but because I don't give up. All that being stopped in your tracks has taught me to flexible where I can be and to learn to adapt to new places and people all the time and to start again and see it as a challenge. These are skills most people don't have even now and I had them before my 20s. But ultimately when you're asked to write your achievements on two sheets of A4, they don't count and they go against you.

The only thing I'm abundantly qualified in is disappointment. It's a useful life skill up to a point, but I've never found it gets any easier the more you try it. It just mutates and twists into bigger uglier shapes. It's made me mature and it's made me less understanding at the same time. As friends start to feel disappointed with life as their 30s bite and their boyfriends don't match up as life partners, babies don't arrive and dream jobs and houses are beyond their grasp, I roll my eyes, mutter 'life's a bitch, huh' and then feel like a shitty person on top of everything else.

I try not to dwell on the enormous shitstorm of disappointments my life has brought where the rule seems to be that no matter how small my desire in life is*, it won't come true (almost all stemming from the same fact that i'm ill and have just got more complicatedly ill over the last 10 years). I've learned to adapt to day to day living and count my small blessings and on the whole I'm content and massively appreciative of what I can do and have achieved. But sometimes I just need to acknowledge how shit and unfair it is and not put a brave face on.

And that day is always A Levels results day. It sneaks out even though I don't consciously think of it in between. I'm torn between envy and irritation as those perky teens celebrate more academic achievement than I've managed and get to go out and celebrate with something that isn't a bastardised potato snack. The difference is this year, I'm not going to apologise for it...

*apart from better friends than I used to have. I have those in abundance and I love them.

2 comments:

  1. I still vividly remember the day when my older (by ten years) sister got her A-level results. She had to be escorted back to my mum's car by one of the teachers because she had fallen far short of what was expected.

    I don't remember getting my own results (over ten years ago now).

    FWIW, you're such an understanding and compassionate poster on the Guardian, it's a pleasure to read especially on the advice columns :)

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  2. Dear Gherkin girl,

    I hope you don't mind, but we've interacted a few times on CIF and I like what you have to say there...and I like you. I'm wondering if you'd be interested in chatting away from public fora (albeit online and not really in public, but still in front of people)?

    I apologise for posting on your blog like this, I don't mean to invade this space, but I know that you moderate comments so you can (and hopefully will save my blushes by so doing) delete comments.

    I post as Alanmcinally.

    PS. I don't dunk ;)
    PS2: I may have posted this message twice....fat fingers....

    ReplyDelete