Last Thursday was a remarkably stressful day, even though I don't have any children.
The first distraught teenager was on the phone at 8.30 am in floods of tears. She knew from the UCAS website that she hadn't got good enough results to get into either of her chosen universities. 'I don't know what to do,' she kept wailing. I managed to calm her down and convince her that she couldn't even start thinking about what to do until got to school and found out what her results were. As it turned out, she'd missed it by a whisker, getting A*, A and C instead of two As and a B, and she soon found a place through clearing at her second choice uni for a similar course to the one she'd originally chosen.
The second teenager was very upset because, despite being a diligent student, she only got a B and two Cs. Luckily this was enough to get her into her first choice of uni so she was easy to console. The third, despite getting two As and a B, wasn't happy because he needed three As for his first choice of uni (Leeds), and is now waiting for a remark on the B because apparently nobody from his school got an A in that subject even though several people were predicted to.
By late afternoon it felt as if I'd been fielding phone calls all day, but by then all necessary decisions had been made, resilient youngsters were coming to terms with their situations, and it seemed I could relax. But then I got the worst phone call of all.
Background: my nephew J didn't have an easy time in education. He is an only child and since he was 8 years old he has been a carer for his mother, my sister, who has a long-term disability and until 5 years ago was a single parent. J was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 11; struggled through his secondary school years with undiagnosed coeliac disease and dyspraxia, both of which were finally diagnosed when he was 16; managed to get three good GCSEs (English, Maths and Chemistry), but couldn't cope with A levels at the same time as coming to terms with the lifestyle changes required by his multiple health problems. He's now nearly 24 and has been working for the last 6 years, the last 4 doing shift work in a video rental shop, and over the last 2 years has done a part-time access course at a local FE college. Earlier this year he got a place at university, with an unconditional offer, and at the beginning of last week he left his shop job to concentrate on work experience and academic preparation for going to uni next month. A room in halls had been reserved for him (he needs one of the larger ones, because he has to have a fridge for his insulin) and his step-father had secured it with a deposit of several hundred pounds.
Then on Thursday, just after he'd received his welcome pack in the post, the university rang to say his unconditional offer had been withdrawn because they'd had too many applicants.
J was devastated, but - luckily - determined to fight. He persuaded the administrator to give him a stay of execution, and wrote her a heartfelt email arguing his case. She said he'd get a definite answer within a week. Then on Friday she emailed him to say a letter was in the post, and on Saturday he got the letter. It said the extended foundation course wasn't running this year so he couldn't attend - but that wasn't the course on which he'd been offered a place.
By this point he was both upset and angry. 'I probably shouldn't be, auntie Queenie,' he said. 'Actually, I rather think you should,' I said, feeling pretty damn upset and angry myself. I suggested it was time to email the college Principal, setting out the whole situation and asking her to intervene. He was reluctant at first, fearing that he could be labelled a nuisance before he even got to uni ('if I ever do get there,' he said), where he knows he will need extra support. (This particular uni is very good at that - one reason he chose it in the first place.) But in the end he agreed, and worked on an email through the weekend, with input from other friends and family, until it was really impressive: mature, enthusiastic and business-like.
He still didn't have much hope, and was getting really stressed out. The email was finally sent at about 7.30 pm on Sunday. Within an hour he had a response from the Principal saying she could see there was a problem and would investigate, and giving him her phone number. That was reassuring - at least she was taking him seriously, and was on the case. But it was another 24 nail-biting hours before he got confirmation that there had been an 'administrative error', a full apology from the Principal and the administrator, and an assurance that the place was there for him after all.
Huge relief all round. But it left me thinking, as these situations so often do: what if he'd just accepted the administrator's word in her phone call last Thursday? A different person might well have done so. The papers were full of tales of people not getting into universities, so it seemed quite plausible that his place could be withdrawn. There was some small print on his offer letter which said 'subject to availability'. We tried to console him by saying 'next year', but he said gloomily (and accurately) that it will be even more competitive next year. He could so easily have given up and spent the rest of his life feeling as if he was a reject, on the scrap heap, worthless. I know he's already struggled with those feelings throughout his education for a whole variety of reasons.
I'm so glad he decided to fight for his place. In fact, his refusal to accept rejection is something of an inspiration to me right now. He has a bright future ahead, and I'm very proud of him.