My life has been full of asking myself “do I fit in here?” and not knowing quite how to answer. Sometimes I do, other times less so. School was full of realisations that I’d never be “popular”. Like most young girls looking for an identity – or someone I could at least identify with – I looked up to people, probably the wrong kind of people for all the reasons I shouldn’t. In my work with young people today, I know that girls in particular seek out this identity and are often influenced by others around them, but if you are in anyway perceived as awkward or vulnerable you feel incredibly lost and are often left behind. I know that being part of a group gives you a sense of power and belonging. I also know most of us want that.
My personal statement for university was easy to write, I’d hand written four pages in no time. The teacher who was tasked with cutting it down, was clearly amused and we spent hours in the 6th form common room working out how I could cut my life down to 400 characters. “NO, you don’t need to name drop the MP’S you’ve met,” she’d say. I was going to study politics. My personal statement was different to most people’s. I wasn’t an allrounder. I wasn’t head girl. I didn’t do sport and was never in any of the school productions or musicals. I was never invited to the mysterious prizegiving that seemed to be an exclusive “invitation only event.” (It only became clear what actually happened behind the prizegiving closed doors when my younger sister was invited a few years ago and I watched her receive a prize.) I couldn’t ride a horse. And I left swimming and gymnastics in primary school. I have vivid memories of girls in my year riding their horses to school, a sign of the kind of school I went to. I did however play an instrument, and after years of tying got into the local youth orchestra. My fiddle playing and more accurately my fascination with folk music formed half of those four hand written pages. It was a time, when if you weren’t going to go to music college or pass your grade 8 by age twelve – the music department apparently forgot you existed. Although folk music was the opposite and helped me to fit in, the belonging that I spent years looking for.
My personal statement was made easier to write by the values that came through and that I really did feel proud of everything I had achieved. So the MPs names really did need to go in. A teacher once wrote in my report “She has a great sense of justice and fairness”. I was brought up to stand up for what I believed in, and for the rights of others. To shout about things when they don’t go well and with a background of feeling that I wasn’t listened to, I spent my teenage years preparing for a life where I was going to change the world. Taking an “unauthorised” day out of school to attend a “don’t attack Iraq” protest was careful preparation for this. Or at least that is what I thought university would bring me. I wanted to study history because my history teacher believed in me, but I wanted to study politics because for a moment I believed in myself, that I could stand up for others who struggled to find a voice. I was surrounded by socialist ideologies growing up, with Guardians, Radio Four and Woodcraft Folk not too far away. A world where at the best of times we were listened to and worked towards a better world, and at worst were so liberal and often turned a blind eye to some situations, that would horrify my middle class secondary school. I spent my summers camping in fields, singing around campfires, trying not to fall into open trenches and talking to people who really thought they had the answer to the worlds problems. Maybe if all world leaders spent a week at a Woodcraft Folk camp, the world would be a better place. This is what we all believed. I’d go back to school wishing that society could be one massive woodies camp (later that turned into folk festivals) and assumed that I could talk to people about the same issues I discussed in my woodies bubble. It was a bubble, a bubble that made not fitting in anywhere else seem not so bad. I debated with people about my vegetarianism and why I boycotted Nestle. I spent RE lessons arguing with anyone who held views that worried me. I made it clear that I was up for a debate and whilst I thought this was a good thing at first, I quickly became the butt of everyones jokes. They began to laugh at me, and I became known as the clumsy, hippy, vegetarian. If you ever want to fit in anywhere, don’t decide to put up “Baby Milk Action” posters around your school or set up an environmental club. I did everything in my power not to fit in with the popular girls. On starting university, I quickly realised that people don’t always study politics because they want to make things better as I did, they also do it because their dad is mates with David Cameron and someone at a Tory party conference said they should study it. I also discovered that you’ll meet friends, who like you don’t quite fit in, but will suddenly disappear, I wasn’t even dropped, she literally vanished. I’m glad that happened at that time in my life, because now I’d probably overthink it until there was nothing left to think about. Anyone disappearing from my life now without a trace, immediately makes me think the worst. So please don’t do that.
Recently I had a discussion with a friend about the pressure young people are under these days, I’m of the generation when social media was around but was only a small part of our life. I remember using a landline to phone friends, and spending hours chatting crap because that was how we did things then. I had Myspace, and some prehistoric thing called Beebo. Facebook had only just come on the scene and if you wanted to chat to anyone instantly you’d wait forever for MSN to load (on the family PC) or pick up the landline. Now if you are socially awkward, quiet or a bit different – you are also all of those things at home, online. The one place where I’m sure you want a break from not fitting in.
Schools expectations made me so naive that I thought going to university will get me a good job. That somehow it will all fall into place when you get a degree certificate. It didn’t and it probably won’t for most people, unless you have rich parents with “connections” who can get you contacts and a job in the city. I’m 30 this year, something that I’m trying not to think about until I have to because I know I’ll have to mark it in some way and I’m useless at being responsible for other people having a good time, who probably won’t know each other as that’s just how my friendship groups work out. I digress, but the point is at almost 30 I’m “just” on the cusp of working out what I want to do and moving on (or forward.) It’s taken me a decade to realise that things won’t just come to me over night, my degree won’t “open doors” on its own and it will take years of failed jobs, periods of signing on, education and different friendships for things to finally start to fall into place. A few months ago I found out that I was offered two part time jobs, in fields that are so important to me and make everything I’ve worked towards worthwhile. One job would have been quite enough, but being offered two at practically the same time was quite something to get my head around. Having two come along at once has been overwhelming, exhausting but brilliant all at the same time. I felt like I had status again, that I had something to work for and that I fitted in. I’ve mentioned before my limiting options, which has meant retraining several times and a few jobs that didn’t suit me or the way my brain works, not everyone has these kind of setbacks and without them I would probably have got here much earlier than almost 30. Ten years ago I didn’t want to be here (physically and emotionally) but a lot can happen in a decade, some things don’t seem as important and we learn to pick our battles. I fit in now more so than I have ever done before, which is a brill thing in itself. I’m privileged that I have had the luxury of education and time to deal with life’s difficulties, so I can work out what I want to do. Most people don’t have these opportunities which results in years in a career that’s not right for them, with little guidance. I still stand by what I said in my personal statement when I was 18; to speak for others who find it difficult to find a voice, so they can be listened to. All things considered, I’m doing just that, although in a very different way to how I imagined back then.
During a late night, alcohol fuelled chat, a friend once said: “I’m Scared of the future, but it will all be okay.” I wish I could develop that kind of optimism.