On Monday 9th January, I turned 17. It went unnoticed by most people at school – and let’s be honest, who wants to have their birthday on officially the second most depressing day of the year, when everyone gives up on their New Year’s Resolutions, and realises that in less than two weeks Trump will be President? Not me. I wished that at least it would snow on my birthday, as the forecast had once predicted, so that I would be able to get a day off school, and do the things that I love doing (i.e. having a massive lie in and eating lots of chocolate).
But it didn’t snow on my Birthday. It rained. And that was pretty much how I felt too. I had spent my weekend in Liverpool and suddenly it was Monday, my Birthday. But somehow I didn’t want it to be that day. Liverpool was still casting a shadow over me. A tiny part of me wanted to be 4 again, and having a jungle party, with friends and cake and playing pass the parcel and musical chairs. But 99% of me wanted to forget about the whole Birthday thing, and just have a normal Monday. Because I believed that Birthdays don’t really signal excitement when you get older, like a new year, it was just another day. And if anything, birthdays are a reminder that you’re growing up, and you’re not a child anymore. You have to make big decisions, work hard, get the grades, and find a career. At 17 you can’t stand in a swimming costume in the Church hall and play ‘beach’ volleyball (yes, when I was 7 I wanted a beach party. In January.) because it feels like any spare time you have you should be reading around your subjects, working on and refining essays or playing scale upon scale upon scale. You’re staring at the whiteboard, the clock is ticking, and the pixels merge into one, as you have an acute sense that time is passing. You’re not 16, you’re 17. You’re grown up now, and life has to go on. It felt like being 17 comes with a lot of pressure. You need to succeed in everything. You need to work out what you want to do. You need to plan your life.
And don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t enjoy my Birthday this year, opening presents from family, and eating cake (made by my Dad – seemingly a real saga as he had never made a cake since he tried to make Mum’s birthday cake in 1992 and it had exploded all over the oven…of which the upshot was that I didn’t know whether on returning home, I would receive a cake or not. The answer was that I did, although it had taken all day to make, and he’d had to practice his design several times. It was chocolate (he knows the way to please a girl) and with rich chocolate icing piped into the shape of a steering wheel (it took me a while to realise it was a steering wheel – I thought it was a tree). But he need not have worried because it was perfect – and what was better was that no one else liked the chocolate icing, so for the rest of the week the cake was mine to eat).
It was just different this year, because I felt the pressure that I am actually growing up and I need to start being an adult with a plan. This time next year, I will have received my university offers. This next year is crunch time. And I didn’t want everyone at school to know its my Birthday, because I just wanted to get on with work while I’m there. I wanted to do my usual thing of practising at lunch time, and singing in choir after school. I didn’t want to get up at some ungodly hour in the morning to open presents, and then feel exhausted for the rest of the day. I would have rather have a normal day, get home, do my prep, eat dinner, and then open presents and watch half an hour of TV as a Birthday treat and get a good night’s sleep. Because then Birthday and normal Monday worked simultaneously. Everything I needed to get done was done, and Birthday happened on the side.
But that wasn’t really me. That 1% of me, that was me. I am a people person, and I enjoy having fun. But the 1% of party me was being lost by over-pressured 99% boring me.
I’ve been 17 for two weeks. And to be honest, they’ve been two long weeks. Jam-packed full of lessons, music lessons, homework, practise, rehearsals and safeguarding talks (I told you that you grow up at 17). January is the time that everyone comes to the realisation that A level mocks are approaching, and by Easter the syllabus needs to be finished, so we can prepare for actual exams in the summer. Everything seems to be approaching a bit too fast, and everyone seems to be juggling a bit too much. And it’s so easy to think of all the things that I should be doing, all the things that I could be doing. The reading, the essays, the revision, the vocab, the listenings, the competitions, the debates. But at the same time, something I realised when I was doing my GCSEs was that I need to breathe. And that breathing space is something I’ve increasingly realised that I can’t forfeit, but I have been forfeiting again this past term. So often I have things on at break times, and at lunch, and after school. So I needed give myself time before school, in a quiet space, to think.
So, sitting in Chapel yesterday, I made a promise to my 17 year-old self that 17 would change me. I wouldn’t sit by and ignore my Birthday as just another Monday, even though that’s how I saw it on the day – because I saw that the pressure was creeping in at me again. I was becoming lost in boring over-pressurised me. I saw that I was close to breaking again. And so I decided that I would use 17 to change me to be a better person. I would take what I’ve learnt and once and for all I wouldn’t carry on working for the sake of working in itself. I would be me. And thankfully, working hard comes with being me. But I would be me first. I would prioritise that space to think. I wouldn’t break with the pressure, I would cope with it, and use it to propel me forward. I would get through this pressurising crunch time in my life with a smile. I would use my gifts to help others, to work hard and to be kind. And perhaps there my vocation in life would truly call to me, and I wouldn’t have to pressurise myself into deciding exactly what I want to do, when and where. Because I don’t think most adults do have a life plan. I think their goal in life is to be happy, and to feel fulfilled. And giving into pressure isn’t going to do that for them.
I came to the realisation that this is the happiest I’ve been at school since about 2011. I’ve re-found who I am again, after all these years. And that’s what a bit of breathing space can do. And this person is the adult I want to be – even though I don’t know what my life plan is, I’m happy. And there’ll be tears in the future, but I know that I’m going to try more than anything to be me. And me means more smiles, more laughter, more joy, and less stress and tears. It means listening and thinking, and letting my vocation come to me. And I hope that when I’m happy and breathing, I’ll take life in my stride, and my footsteps will write my life story, wherever it goes with no plan at all. And that’s just fine with me.