I became increasingly homesick during my first term, wondering how I was going to fit in. The ancient walls were recalcitrant when asked about the question: admission is not the same as acceptance, they advised. Upon arrival it was obvious who felt at home and who was just passing through. The canvas holdalls dragged to the station were no match for the hard, heavy trunks with initials engraved on them, symbols of certainty. A conversation during Freshers’ Week stuck in my mind. The topic was Gap Yah (so many conversations revolved around bloody gap years, a concept never brought up in my school, where there wasn’t even the smell of an inter-rail ticket, let alone an expedition fully fledged in the Himalayas). It was truly bizarre to witness the panoply of outfits brought home as souvenirs from those foreign climates and paraded through the city: Peruvian ponchos, Chinese cheongsam, Kolhapuri chappals. No one had heard of cultural appropriation then, I suppose. So when someone asked me what I had done in my hole, I told him that I had worked. In Iceland.
“Oh, fabulous. I love Reykjavik. What were you doing there? Have you tried the fermented shark?
“No I said. “Not exactly. I stacked fish sticks in a freezer and dragged carts around a car park for £2.50 an hour. Perplexity ensued.
Quickly, I learned a new language. Scouts (translation: people who clean your room), sub fusc (translation: weird outfit you wear to register and take exams), tutes and pidges, quads and collections. To state the obvious, Oxbridge is a small world unto itself. At first I was charmed by these quirks and traditions and any nervousness was eased by the fact that my college was, by Oxford standards, diverse; there were a few Scousers, Scots with real Scottish accents, a few Geordies, a Mackem, a student or two from Northern Ireland. I remember one boy’s laughter in particular, a gleeful bellow of Liverpudlian irreverence that echoed around the quads and tutorials.
The regional diversity of my college meant it was not a reflection of the absurd Bullingdon club tof chart that has been seared into our retinas courtesy of Cameron, Johnson et al. But what is perhaps more interesting is the other secret society. The nameless one. I had spent the last few years before Oxford enjoying the Madchester phenomenon, sneaking into the Juvenile Hacienda and rebelling slightly like a normal teenager. They were all hideous hoodies and overalls bought second-hand at Afflecks Palace. These wallies galloping in their jodhpurs and pearls had experienced something different: they had been told all their lives that they were good – not better, the best. That’s not to say I didn’t think I was good enough too. I had benefited from the Pygmalion effect: someone somewhere along the line decided I was smart and told me to go for it and rise to meet those high expectations. Until I reach my ceiling. Until my potential turns out to be nothing more than base metal. Apparently I was missing the class chemistry.