First day blues

This week’s Remember the Time Blog Hop has the theme the First Day of School.

You can steal me and use me as your own

I had never intended to be there. This had not been a part of my grand, life plan, dreamed about for so many years. Nevertheless, there I was, standing around waiting to meet up with a few old friends from school who had also ended up at this place. We were getting together to attend the Fresher’s Bazaar on our first day at university.

In 1983 The Queens University of Belfast was not the university of choice for most British students. It had a highly regarded medical school where students got to see first hand how to treat bomb damaged bodies and the victims of shootings. Being so close to the centre of a troubled city was not, however, regarded as ideal for those unfamiliar with the province. However good the teaching may have been, location mattered.

It was not The Troubles that I was trying to escape from but rather the mindset of the people who perpetuated what I regarded as a pointless conflict. Some of the teenagers I had grown up with were starting to talk like their parents, to harbour the same prejudices. I wanted out.

I had applied to study at The University of Western Australia and received a generous scholarship offer dependant on acceptable grades in my final school exams. I also had an offer from The University of Warwick, and my safety net offer from Queens. All the locals knew that Queens could provide a safety net because there just wasn’t the same competition for places at that time.

Some chose this place because they were happy to stay close to their families. I was not one of them.

The day my ‘A’ level results came out my hopes and dreams were shattered and I knew that I only had myself to blame. I had studied subjects that were beyond my ability and had not put in the effort that would have been required to sufficiently raise my grades.

I would not be flying away to sunny Perth to start my life anew, or even travelling across the water to the mainland. Instead I would be catching the Number 38 bus from outside my parent’s house and travelling three miles down the road, past both my primary and my secondary schools, to attend my local university, Queens. I recognised that I was fortunate that they had agreed to take me despite my poor results. I knew some had not been even this lucky.

September was filled with pub crawls to say goodbye to the friends who had got away. At the end of the month those of us who were left arranged to meet up at the Fresher’s Bazaar. We were a motley crew, brought together by chance and circumstance. It was not the exciting new start that I had anticipated.

The Fresher’s Bazaar was full of stalls manned by the various clubs and societies run by the university. I stopped off at the University Air Squadron stand where one of the volunteers tried to chat me up. The banner overhead invited students to learn to fly; I rather liked the idea of that. However, it soon became clear that there was a problem; I was female. Oh, they most definitely wanted me to join, but they could not offer to training me as a pilot. The heated discussion on discrimination that I was eager to pursue was cut short when my friends pulled me away. Somehow this episode seemed to sum up my day.

We organised our student cards and membership of the sports club before retiring to one of the many bars in the Students Union, a place where I spent a lot of my time in that first year. I attended the parties and balls, sold the Rag magazine, dressed up for parades, but never felt that I fitted in. Most of the friends I had were from my school days, friends and friends of friends. I lost touch with the few new acquaintances that I got to know when I left the place five years later.

On that first day at university I knew that I had put on hold the life that I wanted in order to gain the qualification that I needed to eventually fulfil my dreams. Queens is a fine university and the quality of the teaching could not be faulted, it was simply not where I wanted to be.

With the benefit of hindsight I can see that everything happens for a reason, that the life I now lead and love would not have come about had I achieved my ambitions way back then. At the time though, that first day had the taste of failure. I determined that I would do all that I could to ensure I never experienced that taste again.

Queens-University-Belfast-0064

To read the other posts in this Blog Hop, click on the link below.

Invisibility

Another post as part of Zebra Garden and The Waiting‘s Blog Hop. This week’s theme, The Pool.
RTT Blog Hop

The all girls grammar school that I attended had two mobile classrooms by the entrance gate which were used as sixth form common rooms. These days a school’s sixth form centre is often a slick, purpose built collection of classrooms and study areas. We had damp and cold huts, one for lower sixth and one for upper sixth. They contained sagging sofa’s and uncomfortable chairs, pulled up against the barely functioning storage heater. Their main, redeeming feature was the kettle; lack of sleep could be treated with numerous cups of strong coffee.

On the wall by the door was a notice board on which I one day spotted a letter inviting applications for a scholarship to the University of Western Australia. A bequest existed that would fund a student from Britain to study at this exotic establishment. With my desperation to escape the restrictions of my teenage life bubbling ever closer to the surface, I decided to apply.

I have no idea how many other students I was up against, but was surprised and pleased to be invited to London for an interview with the Board of Trustees. My mother insisted that my older sister accompany me on the trip; I was irritated by this forced intrusion but, in the event, pleased to have her along for support. We travelled overnight by boat and train to the big city and stayed for one night in the Brixton YMCA (it was cheap). I had never seen so many people of colour and associated this neighbourhood with the riots that I had seen on the television news. We kept a very low profile.

Not knowing anything about interview technique or expected behaviour, I chatted openly and confidently about my interests and aspirations. I gave the performance of my life and was offered the scholarship, conditional on achieving good enough grades in my exams. I spent the next few months dreaming of life on a campus by the beach surrounded by tanned and beautiful people. In the days before the internet my view of places was largely dictated by television imagery and my mental picture of life in Australia was based on soap operas.

My mother blamed the number of parties I attended; I suspect I had bitten off more than I could chew in subject choices; whatever the reasons, I did not achieve the grades that I needed in my exams and was rejected by the university. The bitterness of my failure was all the more acute because I felt that I had let the Trustees of the scholarship down.

I managed to get into my local university and settled into another few years of living under the restrictions imposed by my parents. Many of my friends went away to study while those who stayed made new friends and got on with their lives. I felt as though mine was on hold.

I discovered the campus sports centre and began to go to the pool each day. There I would swim length after length, slowly up and down using my inadequate breast stroke. I found it relaxing, therapeutic, a chance to switch off from the turmoils in my head. I believed that, in this environment, I was invisible.

When I discovered that my regular swims had been noticed by other students, who found out my name through discussions with mutual friends, the pleasure of my lengthy swims was removed. Unknown to me, these boys had been mocking my arduous progress through the water, racing each other alongside my steady lengths to see how many they could achieve with their slick freestyle in the time it took me to get from one end of the pool to the other.

The benefits of my regular swims had been taken from me and I stopped going to the pool. With my invisibility removed the tranquillity  had been tarnished. I was often lonely at university but never more so than when I was noticed and regarded as odd.

Thirty years later I was offered the opportunity to join a local gym with a small pool attached. Once again I started swimming regularly, length after length covered with my slow and graceless breast stroke; I can still use this activity to switch off and relax. Sometimes other users comment on the distance I travel or the time I spend in the water, but these days I do not care. This is how I choose to spend my time. If others wish to measure their own achievements against my slow progress then let them.

I have a friend who introduced me to the  Aquatic Ape Hypothesis; a theory that ancient man evolved as he did due to his relationship with water rather than the land (some reading on this is suggested in this post Sadness and science | E.J.Kay’s blog). I am no expert, but do find it interesting that so many people gain comfort from proximity to large bodies of water; picturesque locations by lakes, rivers or the sea are sought out for holidays or homes. Perhaps the benefits I gain from my therapeutic swims are built into my humanity.

I enjoy my regular often solitary swims a great deal, but see no reason to improve my technique. My visits to the pool are selfish undertakings, never designed to impress others. I enjoy watching the variety of visitors, guests and members who also use the facility, although I also relish the rare occasions when I have the pool to myself. I swim for pleasure, but still yearn for invisibility.

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