How I got to university by harassing the history department


I was nervous when I was waiting to get my results, but I wasn't in tears of panic like some of my friends. I was assured that I would get the two Bs and a C I needed to get into Queen Mary and Westfield College, London University. An A grade was virtually guaranteed in English because I had a high coursework mark. Even if I just put my name on the paper and then left, the least I would score was a B.

But I sweated blood over that paper, and was satisfied with my work when the exam was over. For all my exams I spent frantic hours of revising, almost trainspotter-ish, with carefully indexed card-files, recordings of history essays on tape and near-total avoidance of the pub.

Waiting in line, I couldn't even lie "I'm going to fail" because I knew that wasn't true. I totally believed that I had done well. I really wanted to be the first member of my family to go to university.

The piece of paper my results came on was small considering its significance. I kept checking the name at the top of the paper, feeling sicker and sicker. I felt my face begin to burn. I kept saying to myself, "I mustn't cry, I can't cry in front of everybody", and kept glancing around for smirking faces, ready to yell "Fooled you!" and present my real results - two Cs and a D.

You could tell by the looks on people's faces whether they'd passed or failed. My best friend was ecstatic, gaining four straight As. I had to drive home with her, an exercise in self-control on both our parts as I tried not to cry and she tried to be sad for my benefit.

As soon as I'd shut the front door, I burst into not just tears, but screaming hysterics. It was everybody's fault but mine; then it was all my fault for being such a loser. My mum must have had a sixth sense, and came home to try to calm me down with hugs and sweet tea. I didn't know what to do. Everything had been planned, and I'd even started buying books for my university course.

I wanted a re-mark - my results couldn't possibly be right. But after talking to my uncle (a headmaster), I dismissed this idea. My papers had already been marked twice, and I risked ending up with marks lower than the ones I already had.

I decided to give up. I dismissed telephoning the college, but my mum insisted, only to be told "wrong grades - no entry". There was no point in crying any longer, but I just couldn't accept that I wasn't going to university.

Later that afternoon, when the college was deserted, I returned to see the careers officer, who looked as if he'd dealt with hundreds of people in my predicament that day. He remembered that I had once been interested in nursing, and handed me a few brochures. Faced with this or living out my days on the check-out in Sainsbury's, I went into self-sacrifice mode. Why not? If I was too stupid to do what I wanted, I might as well help others.

Back home, there was nothing to do except mope and look at nursing brochures. That night I had to go to a celebration party for A-level students. I'd have preferred to nail my bedroom door shut, but I had to face everyone sooner or later. What made it harder, I think, was that four close friends scored straight As. I convinced myself that there were thousands like me throughout the country and that I had to just get on with it.

It still smarts thinking about that night, answering all those "So, what did you get then?" questions with, "Well, I completely stuffed up and now my life is ruined," and generally wallowing in self-pity. It was only a few days later, after copious amounts of chocolate, that I finally decided I didn't want to kill myself and I didn't really want to be a nurse (no offence).

I decided to harass the history department of QMW. I wasn't going to let a little thing like results stop me from going to university. It was what I wanted, and I wasn't going down without a fight. After about three weeks of telephoning, letter-writing and doorstepping, they acquiesced. But on certain conditions: a submission of my A-level coursework, and a letter from my old history teacher singing my praises. The head of department was also to keep a check on me for the first three months of the course.

The relief when they said yes was enormous. I couldn't believe that I had been so lucky. I felt a sense of triumph, as if I had been in a Hollywood film where all the bad guys had been killed and the world had been saved. My world, at least.

I am now entering my final year at university, and the prospects result- wise are good. But I'm not taking anything for granted, even though I have undertaken courses in my second year that are normally reserved for finalists and post-graduate students. I appreciate QMW much more for the struggle I had to get there

Victoria Barrett

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