The year I didn't expect
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
I went back to school less than 2 months after my brain haemorrhage in July 2015 and entered year 11 (my GCSE year) attending on a part-time basis, due to my fatigue and hospital appointments. It was, nonetheless, exhausting! The same academic year I took my GCSEs, perhaps out of sheer stubbornness more than anything else insisting on sitting exams for all my subjects.
In September 2016, just over a year on from my haemorrhage, I entered 6th form to begin studying for my A-levels. I decided to attend school full time, after having been in school for no more than 50% of the time the previous year. With my fatigue this was a huge challenge and, although it was wonderful to be able to spend more time with my peers, it was a struggle to study all 3 of my subjects. A few months in to my Lower 6th (/Y12/1st year of A-levels) my Head of 6th form suggested to me that I study for my A-levels over 3 years. I am enormously grateful he made such a suggestion – I simply could not have effectively continued my studies compressed into 2 years.
I decided to phase my exams over the 3 years, sitting history in 2018 then English and Biology in 2019. This summer I completed my history A-level, so I have 1 qualification down and 2 to go!
This extended period of study brings with it an eclectic mixture of emotions. I am very grateful to have been allowed to study in this way; after all, it has allowed me to better manage my fatigue and make the most of my time at school, as well as achieving better academically than I would have been otherwise able to do. Crucially, it has allowed me to have some form of social life – something which I would not have been otherwise able to do in between constant studying and recovering from fatigue.
Extended study also has its difficulties. For me, these do not outweigh the benefits – I think of my 3 year A-levels as a necessity, rather than a luxury, given the effects of my brain haemorrhage – but these difficulties are just that. Bloody difficult. As my friends and peers prepared to leave 6th form for university, apprenticeships, gap years and beyond, I was very conscious that this was not the case for me. Not yet, at least. I had to remain at 6th form, watching my peers, as they left to go on to different things.
For anyone else undertaking extended study, the best way to approach it is the way that feels right for you. For me, this was to get involved in all the rituals and celebrations of the leavers’ – whether it was fancy dress, prom and whatever else. That’s not to say, though, that it wasn’t painful at times. I think, like so many of the difficult emotions that have come out of my experiences since my haemorrhage, the upset relates to a feeling of loss: loss of that normal progression through life, loss of being able to leave school when I thought I would, loss of being able to go through that experience with my friends and peers.
This September I began my 3rd and final year of 6th form, this time without my year group. Quite frankly, it’s been immensely challenging. I’ve got stuck in as best I can, trying to meet my new year group and even, after a generous invite, having my inaugural clubbing experience at Birmingham’s wonderful Nightingale’s! But it’s nonetheless been hard. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve realised that the heavy knot I’ve been feeling in my gut for the last 2 months is loneliness – I miss my year group. I understand they’re all having to meet new people too, whether that’s at university, in employment or when travelling, but I’m also aware that it’s different for them – it’s a more conventional progression, they’re going through it together. I keep doing double-takes in the corridor as I think I’ve seen a familiar face, only to realise I haven’t; I walk around school unable to stop the conjuration of vivid memories from my last 7 years there; I get gratuitous questions of “How are you?”, leading me on to an “I’m good, thanks”.
That’s not at all to say I’ve wallowed, or floundered, or anything else. I’ve been doing my best to meet new people, study hard, and whatever else. The hardest thing is trying to do a bit less doing and a bit more feeling of those tough emotions – that, after all, is the only way to really deal with them!
These feelings have been brought to a crescendo in the lead-up to the annual A-level awards ceremony at my school, where my year group will return to be presented with their A-level certificates. It’ll be a wonderful opportunity to see my year group again, one which I’m very much looking forward to. I’m aware most people will be very glad to return to school for the evening and to have that familiarity, of the environment and of their friends. For me, it’s also a challenge – it’s not really a return to my old school so much an evening visit to my daily place of education. I’ve been adeptly burying that feeling for the last 2 months, but I’m trying to articulate it now and process it a little more.
This year will certainly be a hard and enjoyable one. It was crucial that I could study my for my exams over 3 years, but that’s brought with it it’s own difficulties. It’s great to be able to see friends and peers return for their A-levels, but that too bring with it its own strange mixture of emotion.
For the moment, I’m aiming to get a little better at feeling those difficult feelings and working out how to approach this 3rd year.
Some things I’ve found helpful
Taking studies over an extended period is hard. Yes, it’s great to be able to have such an adaption – but that adaptation is there because it’s necessary and fair.
When dealing with these difficulties, what one person might find useful might not be helpful at all for another, and the most important thing is doing what feels right for you. If you feel overwhelmed by the emotion of it all, that’s fine. It’s tough – to be angry, upset, crying, shouting etc. isn’t ‘wallowing’, that’s processing the emotion, and, for me, I know that’s something I could be better at.
Below are a few ideas of some of the things I’ve found helpful and/or am aiming to do.
An important point is that I certainly don’t do all of these things all of the time, and I’m by no means perfect at any of them. If they don’t work for you, you do things differently, or you don’t feel like any of them, that’s fine.
It might sound outstandingly wishy-washy, but our feelings are there to tell us what’s important to us – they’re great guides in our life.
Group chats: these can be really handy ways of staying in contact with friends and peers after they’ve left to go to uni, work etc.
Visiting friends: it can be great to visit friends when they’re off at uni – it’s a lovely way to stay in touch and have a bit of familiarity for you and them! Whether it’s just for the day or a few nights, it can be a lovely way to see people.
Working out a timetable: This year I’m doing English & biology A-levels. I’ve already done part of the courses, so it’s been really helpful to make a list of what I’ve got left to do as well as making a timetable of the lessons I can go to – I’ve been dropping into lower & upper 6th lessons, so knowing when they are is very helpful!
Clubs & societies: If your school or college has any clubs or societies attending 1 of these can be a useful way to meet people in other year groups. There might not be anything you’re especially interested in but going along to something can be a useful way to meet people.
Attending lessons: Although I’ve done most of my English course, I’ve found it really useful dropping into lessons here and there. It’s a really good way to meet people (as well as the revision benefits) and has been a really useful place to talk to others.
I'll try to add to this list as time goes on and if any of you have ideas you'd like to share please email at firstname.lastname@example.org!