All over my Facebook wall the past few weeks have been pictures of young people I know graduating from university. It’s ten years since I graduated and the reason these stellar young people are even appearing on my wall is because ten years ago my life was very different.
In the summer of 2002 I was about to start a job working with teenagers in a small northern town. I loved my teenagers, and I did the best I could to gift them with something positive that would prepare them for adult life.
In life, nothing is wasted.
One of the girls on my Facebook wall sat curled up on an armchair in my house as a 12 year old and declared she was going to be a vet. Most 12 year olds change their minds but not this one. Undeterred we walked with her through her teens through the emotion of GCSE results and then A-level results and gap years and then university applications. I wasn’t there for all of it and it wasn’t a smooth road. But earlier this year she stayed in my flat the night before her interview for vet school and a few weeks later she found out she’d got in. The long held dream was becoming real and I feel honoured to have witnessed her absolute singlemindedness, her work ethic and tenacity. I feel proud of her, and of all the others in the pictures wearing caps and gowns, holding their babies, making their way in the world.
Nothing is wasted. Life materialises in front of us, and pulls strands forward from different places in our pasts.
I worked directly with young people for the best part of five years and when I upped sticks and headed to London as a shiny new journalist, I honestly struggled to make sense of that time. What could I possibly have given them when I barely felt like an adult myself? Was it all games of dodgeball and wet summer camping trips or had it been of any substance, value or worth? Had I learned anything or taught anyone anything? I had a gnawing sense of wasted time and was a little bruised by mishandled relationships and a naive inability to speak up for myself, that I could only fend off by knowing that I had felt a strong sense of vocation to do it. What use was four years of youth work to me as a magazine journalist? Was I so far behind other journalists who’d begun super young as to ever be successful? I struggled not to despise the thing I’d done first, all those lovely young people and the promise they held.
Nothing is wasted. But sometimes it takes a while to work out what the use of something is.
So now in my new job I’m rediscovering what I loved about teenagers. Their wit and humour and slanty perspective. I get to listen to them talk all day, either recorded or in person. I had forgotten in pursuing a career in writing that it’s not the words I love so much as hearing and telling the stories. I had forgotten what a pleasure it is to cheer someone on, call the best out of them, and help them set out to shape the story of their own life.
The past few weeks I’ve spoken to around fifty students about their hopes and aspirations to become journalists. I look them in the eye and tell them they can do it. They look back at me and dare to believe I might be right. That is the privilege of working with the young, and it’s an additional honour when you get to see them do it.