Summer looms and with it the end of the school year. After finishing their AS-level exams, my older teenagers are moving on to the next step and currently they’re all university websites and open days, Ucas forms and personal statements. I would say, “Oh how it brings it all back,” except that it doesn’t. The gulf between their experience and mine more than 30 years ago is vast, in ways that once again make me both envy and pity them. I envy the amount of help and information they are offered and pity them for precisely the same reason.
We didn’t have AS-levels, so my lower sixth was a layabout year and, with no college websites to look at, I relied on the few prospectuses lying around at school. My parents, as was the norm, left all the choosing and visiting up to me and were not there to witness my half-hearted mooch around the windswept Hull campus, or my miserable failure of an interview at the University of East Anglia. I vaguely remember filling in an Ucca form, trying to think of a reason for wanting to go to a particular university that was better than the hope that it might possibly have me, and then running into real difficulty with the interests and hobbies section.
Though my late adolescence was a strange and vivid time, it looked bleak and empty when I tried to put it into words. I had no list of achievements to impress an admissions department – I wasn’t head girl, a prefect, a Girl Guide or a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award winner. I’d given up piano lessons; I didn’t play chess, or netball, or any sports at all. I wasn’t in the choir or the drama society. My work experience was a paper round and a Saturday job in a toyshop.
Instead, the things that absorbed every second of my waking life were the following. I wrote diaries – sometimes brief, factual entries detailing the day’s lessons and weather, sometimes tales of heartbreak and despair requiring extra paper to be Sellotaped and concertinaed in. Alongside the diaries, I wrote songs, often heartfelt accounts of momentous events involving boys, inspired by my repeated playing of the few records I owned: Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True, the first Cure album, records by the Undertones and the Buzzcocks. The romantic end of punk.
I spent a lot of time loitering at bus stops with my friend Jane, waiting for a bus, hoping for an idea of somewhere to go. Skulking around the streets of St Albans, we covered lamp posts with stickers for our band, the Marine Girls, in a sort of polite, suburban form of graffiti tagging. Yes, I recorded some songs and played some gigs but, above all, I dreamed – about the future and the things that might happen. I dreamed and I wondered. When would I find out who I was? Would I be good at anything? Would anyone love me?
None of this stuff worked on a form. The dreaming had led me to books, so in an attempt to impress the grown-ups, I listed the ones I had read, some of which had already been chosen to impress an older boy. Camus and Sartre, Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, Kerouac’s On the Road. Fine books, all – but an erratic combination reflective more of teen angst than of the literary canon. They said something about me but perhaps not what I meant them to.
I’d love to go back and read that Ucca form now. Or witness the expression on the faces of those who had to consider my application. I was just making it up as I went along, you see. My daughters, on the other hand, have already had parents’ evenings devoted to the process and days of advice at school and will be spending the summer honing their personal statements, in accordance with current guidelines and expectations.
Despite it all, they seem just as terrified as I was. All the excitement and optimism sit squarely alongside the fear of failure and the inevitable sadness at the complete end of childhood. Full of doubt, struggling to define themselves, they have to come across as fully realised people with relevant interests, clear goals, coherent ambitions. As if any of us are that.