Sunday, 30 December 2012

It's All Uncle Mark's Fault

Finally I get it – all the time the twins were filling out their UCAS forms, it was reminding me of something.  As they wrestled with their personal statements and I coaxed, nagged and threatened by turns, I knew that there was something at the back of my mind that was similar.  Couldn’t quite put my finger on it until today. 

It’s the Christmas thank you letters. 

“Listen, kids, if you don’t bother to thank Uncle Mark for the book tokens he won’t bother to send them next year.”

Rather like,

“Listen, kids, if you don’t hurry up and submit that UCAS form you won’t be getting an offer from Southampton/Bristol/York.”

So now I see where it all went wrong.  It was Uncle Mark’s fault.  Because, in spite of the fact that my procrastinating children quite often failed to thank him promptly, he went on doggedly and faithfully sending the very useful book tokens every year.
Obviously, a more hard-nosed attitude on the part of my relatives would have provided a better preparation for my children when they were writing their university applications – I’ll have to tell Uncle Mark that when I thank him for the nice novel he sent me this Christmas.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Falling Off the End of Time

I’ve been writing dates into my new diary (yes, I do still use paper – how can you faintly pencil things in on digital media?).  I marked in meetings, courses, weekends with friends, then I looked up school holidays. 
The twins’ Spring term starts on 7th January, and so on with February Half Term, Easter and Whitsun.  Then school breaks up on 19th July.  Irritatingly, I couldn’t find a date for returning to school in the Autumn.  I assumed it would be 1st September, so started to mark that in.  Then suddenly I stopped with my pencil in mid-air.  It didn’t matter that I did not know the correct date: after this June, Perran and Carenza would never be returning to school again. 
I felt my stomach twist.   I flicked through my diary – only one more music concert, two more school trips, one more one more dance display.  A whole way of life is grinding to a halt for me.  Sometimes  women who have been deprived of their own baby snatch another from a pram.  Will anybody notice if I steal a teenager so I can go on being proud at school concerts?

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Forgetting about University for Christmas

Perran and Carenza requested I bring back pears as part of my Christmas supermarket shop – I think they are indulging in festive, partridge-themed role play.

I can’t believe it - on Christmas Day we actually managed a board game like a proper middle-class family.  Should I see this Scrabble match as proof of our intellectual attainment, or is it just a reflection on the poor quality of Christmas afternoon TV?


We shan’t need to go outdoors for any more walks this Christmas – it was so muddy that we seem to have brought half a field home with us.


Carenza eats an unfeasibly large Christmas dinner and feels the need to lie supine on a cold floor.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Last School Yule

Already the music concerts are past their best for me: like overblown roses whose scent tells you that their time is nearly done.  Last year I thoroughly enjoyed school performances, knowing I had more to attend this year.  But in Year Thirteen  the picture has changed – for a long time Perran has been first alto sax in the jazz band, but now I see him stand aside for soloists from the years below.  It’s time for him to move on to a larger arena, but am I ready?

Today Perran and Carenza headed off in casual clothes for the last day of term – school charity day.  Once upon a time Carenza’s floor would have been littered with discarded outfits as she searched for something perfect to wear, but now, after so many charity days, the twins are blasĂ©.  As Upper Sixth,  they and their friends are now poised at that delicate balancing point that they have striven for six years to attain – the top of the pile.  I hope they can find time amidst the celebrations and assignments of Year Thirteen to enjoy the fragile equilibrium before the summer arrives and they roll on again.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Losing Your Identity

Perran got an email from UCAS – “Something has changed on your UCAS application; please log in to UCAS Track to view the changes.”

I watch with my husband and Carenza as Perran scuffles through the papers on his desk.  That UCAS ID number that he’d intended to get around to filing later is now nowhere to be found.  He needs it to access Track.

“Of course, it might just be another acknowledgement,” says Carenza. “Sheffield haven’t acknowledged you yet, have they?”

“Yep, yep.  I know!” he flings an empty envelope sideways.

“Or it could be a refusal,” she adds.

“I said, I KNOW!” he growls, shoving an avalanche of prospectuses onto the floor.

The rest of us exchange glances and file silently from the room.

After too long, the door into the kitchen bursts open.  We look up warily, but Perran is beaming,

“Sheffield have offered me AAB!  I wasn’t expecting to get an offer without an interview.”

We stop pretending to wash up and make a celebratory cup of tea. 

“Could I perhaps make a note of your ID number now?” I ask.

“Oh there’s no need,” says Perran happily, “It’s on my desk.”

Friday, 14 December 2012

How to Make a Good Impression

“Stop fussing, Mum  – it’s just a little day out to Manchester.” 

“No it’s not.  It’s an interview. You have to make a good impression.   Do you have your railcard?”

“Of course.  What do you think I am?”

I think you’re the person who, last week, had to pay full fare to London because you forgot your railcard.  I manage not to say so. 

But then I notice,

“You’re wearing yesterday’s shirt!”

“Yep.  That was why, when you were asking me if my shirt needed ironing, I knew it wouldn’t.”

Zip it.  Say nothing.  Do not upset Perran before his interview. 

We live over a mile from the station; Perran’s train leaves in twenty minutes.  He is still barefoot.  I should offer him a lift, but run the risk of chewing his head off if I spend one moment more in his company. 

Instead, as I’m sure he is hoping I will, I drive his sister to school and leave him be.

Mid-morning I get a text to say he got there on time. Mid-afternoon, another saying that the interviewer had assured him that they would make him an offer - he is the kind of person they want.  Presumably, he did manage to get his shoes and socks on then.


Monday, 10 December 2012

The Harry Potter Effect

A postcard arrives for Perran this morning.  The lettering on it is silver.  Carenza and I look at each other - we should not read it, but who could resist?  It is an acknowledgement –  Thank you for choosing the University of Southampton.  
I tilt it so that the silver catches the light – it gleams magically.   Carenza shouts up the stairs,

-Perran, come down.  After all these years, that letter you were expecting from Hogwarts has finally arrived.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Is it an Offer?

When Carenza gets home from school, I tell her that a letter has arrived . 

- An offer? Is it an offer?

In fact it is from her head teacher congratulating her on a talk she gave on open evening.  I thought she’d be happy, but she says, 

- I thought it might be an offer. 

The following day, there is indeed an offer from Birmingham.  It’s their standard offer for history, but she’s as pleased as if they’d asked her for two E’s.  She is free to imagine a future now.  She can begin to see herself walking up to the great domed hall – although hopefully the Biblical flood we encountered on open day will have drained away. 

For the next two days, Perran’s normally excellent posture is slightly slumped.  Then, two mornings later, he bounds into the kitchen grinning - there has been an equaliser – he has an interview at Manchester.  Most universities seem to interview for maths and philosophy rather than straightaway making an offer.  Strange that some of the more introspective candidates get interviewed while gregarious humanities hopefuls receive their offers in silence. 

Just as with Birmingham for his sister, Manchester slips into being a favourite, at least for the time being.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Personal Statement - The Final Chapter

The clouds part, the sun shines, bluebirds flutter across the sky.  The twins have submitted their UCAS forms.

-You’ve both hit the send button?

-Yes.    x2

I can’t believe that I was out of the house at the crucial moment.  My husband confirms that he has added the UCAS fee.  It must be like the watched kettle that never boils.  I went out.  It boiled.

The next day, Carenza receives an acknowledgement from UCAS.  So does Perran.  Then Carenza receives emails  from three universities, two of whom are also on her brother’s list.  They are all pleased to have received her application.

Perran’s dyed black quiff droops visibly.  Over the weekend, Perran still hears nothing. 

-You were applying for different subjects from me,
Carenza points out.

The cold that Perran has been fending off now seizes control.  On Monday, red-eyed and runny nosed, he makes delicate enquiries at school.   In the evening, finally some university acknowledgements ping into his inbox.  The explanation – it took Perran’s referee a couple of days to perfect the delicate soufflĂ© of praise that she was adding to his application, whereas Carenza’s referee had attached her piece at once.  In the words of Delia Smith, it was One That She Had Prepared Earlier.”

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Personal Statement - the Saga Continues

How many times have I criticised a particular phrase or acted as a human thesaurus?  Am I even allowed to mention this in a blog or must we maintain the polite fiction that parents and teachers don’t cast an eye over the children’s Personal Statements?  The idea is that they must write them by themselves or the statement will not reflect their personality.

How come then that the naturally quiet and thoughtful Perran has managed to sound so manically cheerful that if the universities don’t want him, he should be able to land a job at TGI Friday’s? 

“I wouldn’t  say that you ‘love’ something more than three times in a statement,” I mention to him, “And I’d limit the number of ‘enthusiastic’s too.  I think that people who are applying for maths and philosophy are probably allowed to sound a little reticent.”

Carenza is caught in indecision. 

“There are several history books that I never finished.  They say not to put down books you haven’t read thoroughly in case you get an interview and they ask you about them.”

“If you’d spent less long writing your statement,” I snarl, “You could have had them all finished.  Come to that, you might even have had enough time to write your own history book.”

Their heads go down again and silence reigns.  They are still editing.

Monday, 29 October 2012

No More OpenDays for a While

We shan’t go to any more general open days now.  You can’t travel to every university that might just be of interest, particularly in my case as the mother of twins.

“It’s really difficult to decide, because Birmingham was in the rain but Warwick was in the sunshine,” says Carenza. 

She’s right – was the student who showed us round Birmingham actually wearing flippers or is my memory playing tricks? At Warwick, however, the sun warmed us as a butterfly wafted past.

“Do you think open days actually make it harder?” asks Perran.

I don’t answer at once.  It’s true that lists of course modules and photos of accommodation are all on the web now.  Isn’t an open day really something of a show?  Sometimes passing a locked door in a department, I have heard a muffled sound from within and wondered whether that is where they have incarcerated the more shambling members of staff, lured away from manning the displays by the promise of chocolate hob-nobs. 

On the other hand, when you visit, you do get a feeling for that indefinable quality that the internet cannot convey.

“Which one felt more like home to you,” I ask, “Birmingham or Warwick?”

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Getting to University Open Days

Who would ever use SatNav to get to university open days, when they could instead do what I do – rely on a child with a crumpled printout of a Google map.  I am still haunted by the possibility that on the day we thought we were looking round Sheffield University, we were actually in Leeds.

My favourite open day park-and-ride scheme was at Bristol where the university had booked parking at the Cribbs Causeway retail park.  Spotting a huge Marks and Spencer, I said to Carenza,

“Look –they’ve got a sale on. When we get back here, we’ll buy you those shoes you need.” 

As we queued for the bus, a girl was handing out vouchers for a further 20% off sale prices.  Other parents were refusing, somewhat snootily – what was the matter with them?  Carenza grabbed one.  Throughout the day, when we found the sandwich stall nearly bare, when we realised we’d walked the wrong way searching for the maths department, when we had our arms pinned to our sides by the crush of people attending the “Come to Bristol” lecture, the voucher in my purse was emitting a warm glow – by teatime, we would be shoe shopping.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

UCAS Reference

  Carenza is a pillar of the community
“Have you jotted down the list of all the stuff you’ve done so that your teacher can use it to write your reference?”  I look at the twins.  They look at their shoes. 

“Look, you know, all those lunch hours you’ve given up to show prospective pupils round, the nights when you’ve turned out in the rain to play for the school band, the weeks you spent mentoring that year nine boy who would only communicate in grunts…”

“But we only did those things to be helpful,” protests Carenza.

“Yeah, writing them all down looks like, well, like bragging,” agrees Perran.

“I’m afraid that’s what you do – when you apply for a university place, you brag about all the great things you’ve done.”

I see the light change in their young eyes.  Have I just witnessed the death of innocence?  Philosophers sometimes ask whether altruism (or selflessness) can truly exist.  My answer is that, Yes, it did - until just now, when I introduced my children to CV culture.

Carenza’s eyes narrow: “Can I put down all those prefect duties when I had to stop Year Sevens from skipping in the corridor?” 

“Yes,” I reply firmly, “Write them down.”

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Personal Statements - the Saga Begins

I tiptoe through the house as a brooding silence rolls down like gothic mist from the bedrooms.  My twins are writing their personal statements. 

Perran is trying delicately to phrase the semi-achievement of Silver Duke of Edinburgh where he completed a year of ballet and of saxophone and acted as music librarian for his school, but never submitted the paperwork to prove any of these.  Carenza is trying to judge whether her successful feminist campaign to have some of the school Houses named after women will count for or against her. 

But hardest of all is to demonstrate your subject CV.  As a mathematician and philosopher, what is Perran to say – “When my Mum tells me off for not listening to her,  that is when I am thinking most deeply”.  Carenza, wishing to study history, has been volunteering at the museum.  The fact that this has mainly involved painting walls and shifting boxes will surely not matter – in a museum you just absorb history through your skin, don’t you?  At the same time, at school, they are being alert, attentive, diligent and almost manically polite – let’s hope their tutors predict them some good A2 grades.