The night that the schools closed we lit a fire in a field and danced like it was the end of the world, dizzy on diet lemonade and vodka.
I had had two days to say goodbye to the people I had seen five days a week for seven years – people I had grown up with, people who had shaped me. For two years I had seen my life as “the time before exams” and “the time after”, so now I had to work out what to do when suddenly the structure in my life had been taken away, when the destination I had been running towards suddenly disappeared.
Under lockdown, I feared that I wasn’t doing enough reading or writing, or anything. Would a future Cambridge student just sit and watch Netflix all day? Isolation taught me how much of myself was simply an extension of my friends, and how that was a great thing. It taught me about how much I loved them and needed them in my life. At a time when I wanted to tell them this, when I wanted to touch them and cling to them, I couldn’t.
Before lockdown, my mam worked full time, and I would be at school till late. We were “like two ships in the night”, she used to say. We then became two little rubber dinghies tied together and bobbing along. It was a big change, seeing each other all the time. We are so similar it was like an experiment into what it would be like to live with myself.
I was raised primarily by my mam, gran and sister, and I would not have it any other way. I think single mother and daughter relationships distinguish themselves from other familial relationships. For me, there is something beautiful and completely natural about the shared energy. When we argue, we have the force of two volcanoes erupting at the same time. Our relationship has changed, in that I have started to see her not just as a mother but as another woman. As a friend.
I wrote a journal every night from 20 March through to 14 June. At the time it felt like a useful coping method, and it was for a while, until it turned into more of a compulsion. Looking back at it, it reads like something from a post–apocalyptic movie, each entry starting with “day x of lockdown”. Some days I wrote pages and pages, writing about how I felt, questioning who I would be when this ended. Other days the entries were sad and short: “a nothing day”, the term that came to represent the days I could not leave my bed.
Then there were the moments of much wider significance: Boris Johnson catching coronavirus, Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle, the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed. All of these large events are woven in alongside seemingly more mundane teenage things – missing my friends and my social life. A recurring character in my journal is results day. I think I began to see that as The End. My ramblings almost describe 13 August as a finishing line.
I was never confident about how the results would be handled – how was I supposed to feel safe with my future in the hands of a government run by a party that had systematically underfunded my childhood? As 13 August got closer, and more information became available about how results would be awarded, I felt more and more detached.
After Scotland’s results day, which resembled a postcode lottery, my friends and I stopped describing our forthcoming results as something we had earned and instead as something we had been given. To the government and Ofqual, we were not individuals but statistics. It came as no surprise to us that private schools had done better under the algorithm that was used. The confusing morning of 13 August was spent mostly comparing the grades our teachers had given us with Ofqual’s. I was fortunate in that I came from a state school with a history of good results – others were not so lucky. In the end, the government was forced to U-turn.
We are the generation who are about to venture into adulthood during the biggest recession in this country’s history. The generation who will try to be young and carefree during a global pandemic, clutching grades awarded for exams we did not sit. But when I see the headlines telling me my generation is cursed or ruined – that our mental health is on the decline and the future is horrific – I will remember these curious months when time slowed down.
The road trips. The walks through the park, light breaking through the leaves. The marches through town, placards in hand, demanding a fairer world. The cold, early-morning trips to the sea to watch the sunrise. My generation has shown itself to be resilient, robust and ready to make change. And that, in itself, is enough.
Sarah Mulgrew will be a first-year undergraduate at Cambridge University in October.