I’m a teacher so I recently headed back to school after 6 lovely weeks with no time structure, no bells ringing, no early morning nagging tired kids to come down and eat their breakfast. I have been at school over the holidays to see the young people getting their ‘A’ level results, which, for many, would decide whether or not they had been accepted into the university of their choice. Some of them were happy, some not so happy. Some deserved their grades, others didn’t.
I spoke to a young woman (let’s call her Alex) who didn’t get the grades she wanted. That morning, she felt like life was over because she hadn’t been accepted by any of the universities she’d wanted. Later that day I heard Radio 1 reminding youngsters that life wasn’t over if they didn’t achieve the grades they were hoping for. Well done Radio 1. Young people and their parents need reminding of this; it’s not a sign that life is over. It is a sign that life has taken an unexpected turn.
Initially, Alex could not see a way ahead.
I asked her if she was absolutely mad keen on the course she had been hoping to do at university and she shrugged.
Now shrugging about a flavour of ice cream is one thing, but shrugging about 3 or 4 years of hard work with £60K+ worth of debt at the end of it is another. You wouldn’t buy a car for £60K without really, really wanting it and being absolutely sure that you had researched it within an inch of its life to make certain it was the one for you, but young people often drift into university and huge debt because it is expected of them by their schools and their parents. This is clearly not malicious on the part of the schools or the parents, we are all effected by the same funnelling, where we jump on the highway from GCSE, to ‘A’ level, to university, to work, the promotion, to another promotion, to our first house, then a bigger house then a husband/wife, then kids, then, then, then. Like we are on some giant production line which ends….
Where does it end?
Retirement? Death? Do we have to wait to be happy until then?
We have it all wrong. We think that if we or our children fall at one of the hurdles, we have somehow gone wrong or failed.
As Alex and I explored, we found many options that she had never considered before. She could take a year out and find a temporary job while she thought about what she really wanted to do. She could look at having a gap year with an organisation like Project Trust or work and save up to do something like Camp America next summer. She could re-take her ‘A’ levels, or, as she mentioned to me, do different ‘A’ levels because previously she had chosen what she thought she ‘should’ do rather than what she wanted to do. She could go to evening classes and study them in one year, she found out. She started to look at apprenticeships and was also interested to find that she could do a degree with the Open University whilst working, which would mean she could avoid incurring debt.
So, after a few hours, rather than thinking that her life was over, she could see that in fact it was far larger and more exciting than she had ever thought. She even began to wonder if she hadn’t had a lucky escape from a course which would have been a ‘good’ choice, rather than a choice which made her heart sing.
It seems to me that there are two ways to live life. We can follow the highway: it is simple if not easy: the path is clearly signposted and there is a highway code to follow so we know how to behave as we follow the other drivers, heading in the same direction, at more or less the same speed.
Or we can off-road: find our own path, in our own way, on our own, taking the risk, doing the thing that no one else thinks you should do, taking wrong turns, falling off, being scraped by brambles, getting lost and being scared.
You know how the motorways are; busy, full of traffic and you sometimes end in a jam. People are killed from driving when tired, or drunk or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time as someone else careers into us. The views are non-existent and you can’t just stop when you want, you have to wait until there is a ‘service station’ where you can fill yourself with lots of food you would never normally eat.
Off-roading can be lonely, frightening, and confusing, but it is your road, at your pace. You can stop when you are tired and eat blackberries from the hedgerow. You decide on the speed and direction and can stop and stare at the sunset for as long as you choose. You are in control.
When Alex was faced with ‘A’ level results she didn’t want, she was faced with more than that; for the first time in her life she realised that she didn’t have to join the highway, or at least, not yet, or not ever if she didn’t want to. She saw some of the side roads she had previously ignored and she realised that rather than feeling out of control because the universities wouldn’t offer her a place, she had lots of options and control, she just needed to broaden her field of scope.
So as our young people head back into schools in preparation for the motorway of life, let us remind them and ourselves that there is always more than one path, and there are never any mistakes, just diversions, detours and shortcuts. The important thing is to make choices which suit us, which are right for us rather than just following the crowd, mindlessly, onto the slip road of life.