My future was decided by six words from an English teacher. UCAS applications had leapt upon us weeks earlier like unwelcome visitors and while other Sixth Year pupils invited them in while announcing their grand ambitions and crafting empowering personal statements, I didn’t answer the door. My future was still a thick fog in the distance.
Why would I have wanted to think about university before now anyway? University meant student halls with unknown extroverts and unfamiliar lecture halls swarming with alien people who knew more than me and who wouldn’t understand my Mariah Carey obsession. Sounded nightmarish.
And what would I even study? A less-than-ten-minutes multiple-choice quiz had helped the school careers advisor decide that I had good people skills.
'Human Resources Management. That would be a good fit for you.'
Had I been channelling someone else? Picking answers at random? People skills? Me? I couldn’t even remember the careers advisor’s name. I can’t remember now if it was a man or a woman. My people skills ended at the edge of my two friends and the idea of speaking to anyone I didn’t know was a bizarre and terrifying prospect, like sticking your hand inside a dark box on a TV game show. And what did a Human Resources Manager even do? After shuffling out of the school library, finding a quiet spot in a scabby corridor, and reading a folded-up computer printout, I’d discovered it involved unthinkable acts: recruiting applicants, managing employee wellbeing, appraising staff – all very, you know, people-oriented. My weekend job stacking supermarket shelves and speaking to no one hadn’t quite equipped me with the skills for that.
So I abandoned the world of Human Resources almost as quickly as it had been suggested to me – sorry, careers advisor man/woman. Looking to my friends hadn’t helped either. Their futures in medicine had been diagnosed years earlier. They’d chosen their subjects around that goal and organised work experience in care homes to implant in their UCAS applications. I’d cancelled my work experience in a solicitor’s office – Ally McBeal had made Law seem quirky and colourful – after my induction visit had involved more than three humans and given me a crystal ball glimpse of a claustrophobic future in a drab office.
Deciding on a university course wasn’t like anything else at school. No one would tick or cross my answers and there were no solutions at the back of a textbook. At some point in the process I’d pencilled in vague Business courses at a selection of universities – none too far from home. ‘Business’ could cover lots of things, couldn’t it? Shops, factories, advertising firms, uranium mines, snake-petting zoos, Mariah Carey theme parks. So it wasn’t really making up my mind at all. It was a kid-on choice.
In Advanced Higher English, I thought I’d be able to forget about university for fifty minutes, plotting out another short story based on some vivid dream I’d had. But even there I couldn’t escape the fog that floated closer. My classmates discussed their UCAS choices, boldly naming courses like Environmental Law, Classical Civilisation, and Art History and Visual Culture, while I bowed my head to my jotter to see if I could crawl between the ruled lines.
'Matthew, what are you applying for?'
Our teacher, Miss Horne, was new to the school that year. She wore trainers some days and had taken us on a theatre trip to see something sexy and confusing. She looked at me from her desk, as if knowing someone needed to ask me.
'Some Business and Management courses,' I muttered, shrugging.
'That’s too boring for you.' Another pupil in the class who I’d never spoken to much – surprise, surprise – flicked her hair back with bright fingernails. 'You’re too creative. You should do something exciting.'
The compliment felt like a foreign language and made me sit up straighter. I looked to Miss Horne as she nodded, playing with a pen.
'I think you should do English.'
There was probably more to the conversation. She might have told me some of the books she’d read at uni. Might have explained why English was a good choice for me. But all I remember is that sentence because that was all I needed. Those six words were an incantation, breaking a curse and clearing the fog. I didn’t need to choose a career. I just needed to choose something I loved. For now. When I told my mum, an English teacher herself, she seemed pleased with my epiphany, probably realising then that I’d end up in teaching too.
Four years later, my siblings handed me graduation cards while Italian guitar music played through speakers and waiters passed menus around. Then, between bobbing helium balloons, Miss Horne appeared, walking into the restaurant like déjà vu and sitting at a table behind me. She didn’t spot me and I spent the next couple of hours deciding how to introduce myself and what to call her and whether I should interrupt her before dessert or after she’d asked for the bill. How could I best explain that I had just graduated with an Honours degree from the course she’d told me to apply for? What if she had no idea who I was? Or was annoyed that I’d disturbed her meal with such a pointless anecdote? I realise now, as an English teacher, that a former pupil telling you that you helped make the right decisions about their future will never be a pointless anecdote.
In the end, my worrying became irrelevant. At some point I’d looked up just in time to see the back of her head as she left. My social ineptitude had cost me my chance to say thank you. Good job I hadn’t gone into Human Resources Management. The Mariah theme park staff would be a riot. Maybe Miss Horne is reading this now, though. University didn’t improve my people skills, but it did help me write stories.