Lessons learned at the end of my second year

Armed with no more than a bagel and a cold nose, Eleanor Doughty reflects on the meaning of two years at university

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The Independent Online

The English language has this mysterious ‘they’ presence about itself. ‘They’ say lots of things – sometimes helpful, usually not but always with an air of shrewd knowingness. Andy Warhol, for instance, said that ‘they always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself’. That’s all very well, but who are they?

I’d like to meet them and give them a good slap. But for all we know, ‘they’ don’t exist. ‘They’ are the friend of your boyfriend’s cousin’s best friend’s sister: fictional. Reflecting on the past year, I sat down and questioned what I’d tell a student going to university this year and what the great ‘they’ missed out before I arrived.

Yawn, ‘high school is the best days of your life’, yawn. You can’t even drive or drink wine; that’s the first lie pumped into the adolescent atmosphere. But university is the key to this: you still might not drive, but you can drink as much wine as you like because no one will be there to watch you do it. Except the people you made friends with the night before. But if I had to pick the best day of my life, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I thought it might have been a birthday at some point or the day I opened my A-level results. Or perhaps when I signed for my flat, or last week’s reunion with an old friend. These barely made the cut, so I added essay completion day to the shortlist.

The weekend of discontent – as these 72 hours became known – found me alone in my flat, pining my social life and any indication that it might return. But as the 15,000 words were finished and final drafts saved, my immediate reaction was to walk. A trip into the freezing outdoors evolved into a tour of Spitalfields on a celebratory bagel hunt. I am lucky enough to live in close proximity to London’s best – as affirmed by Adrian Edmonson – takeaway, fully stocked with as much salt beef as one can consume. In the glow of Bangla City’s continental supermarket sign, I felt reflective. It’s funny how inspiration strikes.

But I didn’t expect to be honouring second year with a £1.20 spend. And far less, on a bench outside Patisserie Valerie. This isn’t how life is supposed to be, I noted as I scribbled baby parts of this week’s column out with freezing hands. Secluded celebration wasn’t on the list of prescribed pre-university knowledge. Nor was the absence of flatmates – cohabitation was supposed to be a hoot! Not so hooty. It’s up there with the mysteries of chromosome X boiler relighting – they don’t teach that in Home Economics, a class I wrote off on the premise that I’d just marry a man who could change a fuse. Incidentally, I am still none the wiser. ‘They’ also don’t let on that it’s okay not to be okay, but Jessie J did that anyway. Instead, you leave home armed with images of pizza-in-the-library all-nighters and foam parties. Who even goes to foam parties, anyway?

My learning has been less than academic this year. In February I made my first spontaneous hairdressers appointment, got a fringe and didn’t tell anyone until it was too late. It was then that I learn how your judgement can override all else. It looked great, by the way. Various banal lists of further-educational-institution-spouted tripe include generic kitchen packing information. Before I left home, I was more concerned about exactly which crockery to buy than what I’d be faced with when I got there.

Perplexingly, those ‘in the know’ miss out helpful things like ‘learn how to live alone’. This is handy as a girl because sometimes you break things like curtain rails – ahem – or buy flatpack furniture too tricky to master alone. And once I pulled the front of my knicker drawer off in a rush and we all went flying across the room, so knowledge of superglue stockists helps too. All of that ought to be in the upper school curriculum. Never mind personal statements, the best way to change a bin bag without getting your hands dirty ought to be in a guidebook somewhere. I am proud to say I’ve finally perfected that.

A footnote about loo roll would have been useful too: so many types, so much money! You are also left uninformed about how sometimes everything is in its right place, because you wouldn’t believe them anyway. But I’m glad I was in the dark because otherwise this year would have been more like the Squirrel Nutkin ride at Alton Towers than Oblivion. There aren’t student handbooks for this stuff; you have to work it out alone. And that, I guess, is growing up.

Eleanor Doughty is a second-year student at Queen Mary, University of London. Follow her on Twitter here. She probably won't follow you back.