The art of waiting

Nancy is 18. She likes her Marlboro Lights, her Bob Marley, her mobile phone. And tomorrow, like thousands of teenagers across Britain, she will get the results that will change her life for ever
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The Independent Online

Nancy Cranham is a child of her time. Like thousands of other teenagers, she likes Macy Gray and Keanu Reeves, enjoys going to parties and seeing her friends. And tomorrow, like thousands of other teenagers, she will get her first taste of adult life. In her flat yesterday Nancy was waiting for her A-level results. There have been eight long weeks between the exams and the fateful day when the results come out. And waiting is not what youth does best.

Nancy Cranham is a child of her time. Like thousands of other teenagers, she likes Macy Gray and Keanu Reeves, enjoys going to parties and seeing her friends. And tomorrow, like thousands of other teenagers, she will get her first taste of adult life. In her flat yesterday Nancy was waiting for her A-level results. There have been eight long weeks between the exams and the fateful day when the results come out. And waiting is not what youth does best.

Partying is a well-tried antidote to uncertainty-induced anxiety, and Nancy has tried, with some success, to fill the void with serious revelry. But yesterday morning, as she once more dropped the empty Heineken bottles and Stella cans into the recycling crate in the middle of the kitchen, the inescapable looming menace surfaced again. "Then the stuff from Ucas started coming through the door, saying what to do if you haven't got the grades you need. About three days ago I really started to worry."

Like the quarter of a million other young students who will get their results at 11am tomorrow, Nancy is a child of her time. That is not a comment on the eclecticism that characterises the style of this 18-year-old - short haircut, fingernails painted purple and toenails in blue, a music collection that ranges from Bob Marley on vinyl to hip-hop on CD, and a flat in Highbury, north London, where posters of Muhammad Ali and Steve McQueen cover the walls, in stark contrast to the ethnic throws over the furniture. Rather, it refers to the modern rite of passage that A-levels have become since they were introduced almost 50 years ago.

For A-levels are how the contemporary teenager enters the world of consequences. "I remember my youth," as Joseph Conrad once put it, "and the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to perils, to love, to vain effort - to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, that glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires too soon, too soon."

Or, in Nancy's more contemporary style: "My GCSE results weren't a problem. I was pretty confident of getting the grades I needed to get into sixth form. But what if I don't get the grades I need to get into university? My English and History exams didn't go too badly. But Theatre Studies is the one I'm really scared will let me down."

Not that Nancy did Conrad. (It was Mansfield Park, Much Ado, John Donne and Hamlet on her A-level syllabus.) But she would recognise the sentiment. A-levels bring most modern teenagers their first intimation of mortality. It is the hour at which the frolic of youth is first checked, momentarily at any rate.

It may hide behind nervous jokes - about not writing on more than one side of the paper at once - or borrowed epithets to the effect that in examinations "the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer". But this is the season in which the dark clouds of failure first appear over the horizon; even if they, this time, hold their rain in check, they have been sighted. And the experience is woven into the youthful vision about the perfection of life, revising things downward.

Some things have changed for ever. The old association of sunshine with carefree relaxation has been irreparably damaged. Henceforth, whenever the sun comes out, Nancy and her fellows will be overcome with an ill-defined sense that they should be revising. But it is more than just that. They have now entered the land of What If?

"History went well. And the questions on the second English paper were better than I could ever have hoped for. But Theatre Studies was pretty difficult, and it was the last exam, by which point I was past caring. [I went completely mad when it was over.] But now I have begun thinking that I should have dropped Theatre Studies when I first realised I didn't like it," she said, sitting in a flat full of last night's party debris of empty fag packets and dirty dishes.

"I wanted to be an actor until a year and a half ago. I was thinking of going to drama school rather than university. I had enjoyed my GCSE Drama a lot," she added. "But A-level was much more academic, a lot of theory about Stanislavski and Brecht, which I knew from my mum had an application to real life in the theatre that was only intermittent." (Her mother is Charlotte Cornwell, a former National Theatre and RSC actress, best known for the TV series Rock Follies.) "Perhaps I should have done politics or philosophy. I like the idea of sitting around, talking about questions that you cannot answer."

Nancy needs two As and a B to take up the place she has been offered to read history at King's College London. She could be one of the 60,000 students who will fail to get the grades they need tomorrow. If so, she will be unlucky. Her teachers predicted 3 A grades for her. While at Parliament Hill School for Girls, one of the better north London comprehensives, she did her best to pay sufficient attention to Bismarck's dictum: "To youth I have but three words of counsel - work, work, work." And, perhaps fortunately, she broke up with her first long-term boyfriend before the time for serious revision began, thus setting aside one of the traditional barriers to adolescent achievement. "It was probably a good thing," she says of the split. "I am easily distracted - by just about anything."

But if things should go wrong for her tomorrow, she has, like the other 250,000 awaiting their results, already begun sub-consciously to prepare herself. The passage from A-level student to undergraduate is the start of the serious decision-making processes of adulthood.

Nancy had set out on that transition with the decision not to apply to Oxbridge. "I thought about it briefly, but I really wanted to stay in a big city," she said. "My mum has just moved to Los Angeles - she has a part in a play about Maria Callas in San Francisco - so I've got her flat. So I only applied for universities in London. You have a much wider choice doing history there - you can take courses in colleges across the capital, doing anything from medieval history to the history of South Africa at the School of Oriental and African Studies. And you don't have to make up your mind which until you get there. The flexibility is part of the attraction."

She and one of her fellows have made a pact to open their results at the same time, standing back-to-back, tomorrow. If she gets the grades? "I'll go to King's and if I enjoy the history as much as I did the A-level, I'll throw myself into it; if not I'll do as much as is necessary and concentrate on having a good time." And after university? "I don't know. I've no idea what I want to do, none at all. That's the point of a humanities degree," she said, self-deprecatingly. "It's for people who can't make their mind up."

And if she doesn't make the grades? "Well I'm taking a year out - I'm going to get a job from next week, to earn some money temping, so I can go to Thailand in February. So if I don't get the grades, I'll just reapply to the same place during my gap year, and if I don't get in I'll get something in clearing."

It is as much a plan as the older generation have a right to expect of her. There will be those who will moan about youth being an ideal state - "if only it came a little later in life" - or brood with the French greybeard: "Si jeunesse savoit; si vieillesse pouvoit. [If only youth knew; if only age could]." But it is only in retrospect that decisions like Nancy's, so blithely made when the A-level results come through, will be seen to be nodal points which can alter life, loves and the very person we become.

Fortunately, the young look only forward. There is, in the lexicon of youth, no such word as failure. One of the 20th century's greatest thinkers in political economy, John Maynard Keynes, when asked why he had performed badly in an exam, replied: "Evidently I knew more about economics than my examiners."

The days of our youth are the days of our glory, untouched by the compromises which are the world of maturity. The options are almost unlimited. Which is why young people like Nancy Cranham will, whatever their A-level results, with the right attitude make a success of any of them.

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