I can still completely recreate that new book smell that only comes from schoolbooks, and it still fills me with the same combination of excitement and fear.
A new wardrobe would be in place which consisted of 20-30 new items that were actually old and smelly items otherwise known as “vintage” or “Mom’s from the ‘80s.” A new haircut or style, and new method of applying too much eyeliner would be rehearsed to perfection.
New books, new stationery (tons and tons of stationery) and new plans for how all of this newness would catapult me to success and fame. That was the exciting part. The new beginning, the promise, the hope, the adventure!
What was more pressing was the fear of failure.
In school, this was a mere bubble. A small, albeit fragile thing that sat somewhere near our hearts and remained untroubled by the real world.
We were focused on one set of exams, one set of friends, one family we had always known. There had been no great turbulent change, challenge or shock to the system. At least, not yet.
With each passing year of college, the bubble grew bigger and its surrounding membrane stretched thinner. For me, and a lot of students doing four year courses, the first two years don’t count towards your final grade. At all.
Obviously you cannot fail, but you can scrape by on the bare minimum until third year which counts for 40 percent and then final year which takes 60 percent. So, third year is the first year where it really counts.
You’ve spent the last two messing about and yes, learning and yes, taking and passing (hopefully) exams, but realistically it’s all been building up to these final two years where you will show off your best work yet.
I began my third year of college with a bang that was the death of my friend. Technically my ex-boyfriend, but more importantly a bright and shining member of our beautiful group of friends from home.
He was robbed from us on the first morning of his fresher’s week and he had just turned 21. What took him was Sudden Adult Death Syndrome – known as SADS.
Last weekend was the fifth annual charity cycle that takes place in my hometown, organized by his heroic parents to raise money for the CRY foundation which offers support to families who have to cope with these losses. It completely terrifies me that it has been five years and it is still an astoundingly clear memory for all of us.
We were all 20 or 21, all going into our third year of university which for most of us meant the first year that we had to knuckle down and start taking this thing seriously. As I was the only one from my hometown at university in Dublin, and everyone else was in Cork, I felt the tight pangs of isolation as I moved back to the city feeling weird.
Feeling lots of emotions and thinking lots of thoughts, but mostly weirdness, oddness, strangeness. Young people are not supposed to die, especially not in September, especially not on the first day of school, especially not for no apparent reason other than luck of the draw. It was completely jarring.
I don’t doubt for a second that none of us dealt with it well. There are no guidelines for dealing with something like that, anywhere.
I launched into a year of total debauchery riddled with poor life decisions, several almost-fails and regular visits with my year-head requesting letters of excusal from the countless lectures and tutorials that I missed due to hangovers and overwhelming apathy. To say that I scraped by – academically and personally -- is an understatement.
And it was not entirely because of the nature of the tragedy, the grief or the age that we were, but the timing. The time that he went, and the time that we lost him.
And of course, there is no good time to lose someone, but for a life to end when it is just supposed to be begin is a sad and unbearable irony. I can only speak for myself, but it felt that the privilege we all had to continue and to begin that year was wasted on me. I knew that I was wasting it, and it left a lasting sensation of guilt.
When my final year began, I was aware of the damage control that needed to be done. I didn’t want to be the person who let bad things happen as a result of another bad thing happening – that felt weak and I knew I was better than that.
I had just gotten through my exams but was gutted at how badly I had done. I hadn’t been placed in rooms with my two best friends and was facing a year of living alone in the oldest building on campus in the top left room that was quite literally a turret that resembled Rapunzel’s castle.
There was no Internet up there, and no company. And it was the best thing that could have happened.
I didn’t start that year excited, or scared. I hadn’t started the previous year excited, or scared. I was numb and tired and bored. And I was alone.
So I did what I could to amuse mysef. I put pen to paper, I put my head down, and I wrote like a maniac. I did shockingly well academically and brought my average grade up high.
I wrote a play. I filled several journals with explosive thoughts and energetic nonsense. By isolating myself from the noise and clamour of the year before, I managed to rebuild what I had broken down.
I still say that it was the best year of college. I don’t mean to say that I was a total hermit – I still had the same great friends, I had a great boyfriend, I went out regularly and had a great time. But when I was home, I was completely alone which for university is almost unheard of.
Now, when September sneaks up on me again and again – as it tends to do – and I don’t have the fall-back of my cozy hidden room with no Internet (a true blessing), or of the snug structure of the academic year, I still try and get back into that mind-set.
I remember the tragedy -- I even took part in the cycle (once) -- and then I steer myself away from the sadness of it and into beginning that it always marks. Another year since, another year ahead.
This September is the same again, but with each passing year the shock inevitably fades. It has been replaced by fundraising and coming together and putting energy into something that moves forward. It has become a great way to start the year.
I didn’t go home for it this year, and I was away last year, and I’m increasingly aware of the physical distance that some of us are taking from the event. For one thing, I am so unfit that if I got on a bike for longer than 10 minutes I would simply collapse.
But my parents (cycling fanatics) still take part, and I love seeing all the photos of the smiling young men who are his closest friends bonded forever together. It will never leave and it will never go away and we would never want it to.
And it’s not because of the nature of the tragedy, the grief or the age that we are, but the timing.
September is for new beginnings, now more than ever. So while I moaned and whined all summer about the weather and the boredom and the limbo-life of an indecisive 25-year-old, when September rolls around it reminds me to shake that negativity off. To be grateful for the chance to start again and to take full advantage of the privilege.