The following guest post is by my lovely wife, Hannah Brown. Long before I met her, just after she finished school, Hannah decided to take a gap year…
As a young’un, I was a bit of a church mouse on the inside – I seemed confident to others, but on the inside, I felt like a phoney. I had frightfully low self-esteem and I had no clue who I was or what I wanted to do with my life. But I knew I wanted adventure (and still do). I needed to conquer something. So I packed up the biggest suitcase known to man, left everything I knew, and choofed off to do a gap year in the UK.
I applied for my gap year job through a not-for-profit organisation that places school leavers in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, etc in the UK in exchange for board, lodging and a small sum of weekly pocket money. Following a train-wreck interview at the British High Commission with three, let’s just politely say ‘senior’, extremely stiff upper-lipped ex-pats, who interrogated me on my ‘less than ideal’ Higher School Certificate score of 70 (I was kissing boys and drinking Passion Pop in my final year of high school, I didn’t have time to study), I remarkably got an offer to work as an assistant house mistress at a girls’ boarding school in a coastal village in southwest England.
Looking back now, the idea of 19 year old me trying to wrangle thirty-odd 15-year-old moody, ego-centric, tantrum-throwing girls is a bit of a joke. But that’s where I found myself. Add to that a freezing cold winter, home sickness, boarding school food, Northern Hemisphere sunsets at 4pm (what the?), and a crabby house mistress, and you have yourself a growing experience—to say the least.
It was my job to supervise the girls in the upper fourth/lower fifth boarding house – ie. wake them up in the mornings, do the morning roll call, supervise them during evening study time, hang out with them on the weekends, sort of like a big sister. Sounds nice eh? Easier said than done. Some of them were right little misses, and I had absolutely no backbone at the beginning of the year.
I lost count of the number of times I had to ‘no more Miss Nice Hannah’ them so they’d turn off the TV, crawl out of bed in the morning, go to bed at night, eat the foul tasting food from the dining hall, go do some homework, TIDY THEIR FLIPPING ROOMS!!! The list never ended (I secretly think I was reaping from all the years I gave my folks hell as a teenager – oops).
Volunteering in the adjoining primary school two days a week was a whole nuther kettle of fish. Did you know that some little Brits are learning French at the age of three? I was regularly corrected during Tuesday French lessons by one little boy called Barnaby on my terrible French pronunciation… I was OK with that, he was cute. And I locked horns with the primary school principle on occasion—she once chastised me for wearing trousers to work. She expected her female staff to always wear long skirts. I thought that was a load of baloney.
In the school holidays, I travelled ‘abroad’ with one of the Aussie girls I worked with (who, incidentally, ended up becoming a great friend of mine). We had a blast. We hostel hopped around Ireland, Scotland and Wales, befriended locals, convinced boys to take us on tours across the countryside, consumed a wee bit too much cider (I’m much more well-behaved these days), and once spent the night in a cemetery after being locked out of a hostel after curfew. In the summer, we travelled to the South of France for two weeks with my aunt and cousins, lazed by a pool surrounded by sunflower fields and devoured far too many chocolate croissants. It was the BEST.
But I also learnt a lot: how to be independent, how to budget my teeny weeny salary, how to get myself out of sticky travel misadventures, how to stand up to an intimidating house mistress, and what to do when you suspect your boyfriend back in Australia is cheating on you (you dump him, that’s what you do). I learnt how to be resilient.
By the end of that trip, those snotty girls I was caring for had wriggled their way into my heart. I learnt that many of them, despite having come from privileged backgrounds, were just a bit insecure, and like me, they were trying to figure out who they were and where they fit into the world. I cried when I had to leave them. I sobbed when I had to leave my Aussie workmate. The bonds you form during experiences like that are for life, I’m sure.
I’m forever thankful I plucked up enough guts to take that trip; it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Through all the challenges I faced—and there were a lot—I became an adult. When I returned to Australia I ended up enrolling in uni, still not exactly sure what on earth to do with my life, but I was never so focussed and determined to do my best. I graduated a few years later with Class One Honours. Not bad for the gal with an apparently substandard HSC result (take that, stuffy interviewing panel!). So if you’re thinking about a gap year, do it. Get saving, aim for something that serves others, and prepare to be stretched beyond belief – you won’t regret it.