It really gets my goat when I hear people who ought to know better advising 18 year olds not to go on gap years. Instead, they should concentrate on getting work experience and extra training. Balls.
Going on a gap year was the best decision I have ever made - apart from hitching myself to Mr Simmons, of course.
I spent my gap year in Germany, mainly because the following September I would start my German degree course at UEA. It seemed a good idea to gain a greater degree of fluency in the language before I started. By the time I came back I was virtually fluent and had a far better grasp of the language, which meant that I was able to sail through the first year.
But there was something more important than that. I grew up during that year. I became an adult. I no longer had my parents and family to rely on. I was on my own. Independent. I well remember the day my parents took me to Harwich to get the ferry to the Hook of Holland. I remember going up the escalator and losing sight of my mother, who was in floods of tears. To be honest so was I. She told me a few years ago that she at that moment she thought she genuinely wouldn’t ever see me again.
I duly arrived in Bad Wildungen, a small spa town in Hessen, close to the Edersee of Dambusters fame, to which I had been twice before on school exchanges. It took me several weeks to find a job.
I had only gone out there with about £100 (it was 1980, after all!) and was about to run out. But the Werner Wicker Klinik came to the rescue and I got a job as a nursing assistant in the swimming pool area. I had no lifeguard qualifications and certainly knew nothing about nursing. But it was a job. And it paid. DM1650 a month - a huge amount to me.
The next thing to do was to get my own room. Up to that point I had been staying with my penfriend’s family. It was the first time I would live on my own. And I didn’t like it at all. Although I had made quite a few friends, it was always soul destroying to spend an evening in a solitary room watching an old black and white TV. And believe me, German TV was dreadful. Dubbed episodes of Dallas proved to be the highlight of the week. “Sue Ellen, bist du schon wieder besoffen?” “JR, ich hasse dich”. It wasn’t quite the same, somehow.
But I lived above a bar in the Brunnenallee, so life was never particularly quiet. And the work was incredibly rewarding. I ended up doing a lot of physiotherapy and hyrotherapy on the patients, again with no training. Most had suffered spinal injuries in motorcycle accidents, or had spinal conditions associted with skoliosis. I spent the first few days wandering around in a bit of a daze, just feeling sorry for everyone. I can’t remember who, but someone said the secret of being able to work in a hospital like that was to take the emotion out of it and never feel sorry for the patients. Once I had got my brain around that, it was fine.
It was in that year that I became a man. Now, that sounds an odd thing to say, but I would not have missed it for the world. And if 18 year olds are now being discouraged by some bureaucrat from UCAS from having the same life enhancing experience as I did, then things have reached a pretty pass.
So if you are a teenager reading this, follow your instincts. If you think a gap year is what you need, move heaven and earth to make it happen. I’ve never regretted it for a minute.