In almost two weeks’ time, I will have officially finished my last term at Oxford. After three years of feeling excited, anxious, angry and even bored with the dreaming spires, and, like a caffeine-inspired magician, not quite knowing how I managed to pull essays out of the bag, I’m naturally feeling a bit mixed about it all being over. Perhaps it’s because, no matter how mixed I’ve been feeling, Oxford has always been the sort of place that keeps going. Excitement passes into boredom, and boredom passes back into excitement. The peace of an essay crisis resolved passes back into the terror of an impending one for next week. And now that it’s all coming to a halt, I don’t quite know how to feel.
Luckily, however, as an English finalist who finished their exams in fourth week, I have plenty of spare time to dwell on the fantastic train wreck of my Oxford experience, and the unconfirmed destination it’s finally arrived at. Some of the words finalists like me might be hearing are the well-meaning praise of family and friends not at Oxford, words that go something to the joyful, honeyed tune of “what a great experience”, ‘“you’re so privileged to have gone there,” “you must be feeling so happy.”
For me, the ‘you’ in those words feels faintly remote and, well, sort of but not exactly ‘me’. I know in my heart of hearts that Oxford was a great experience. I also know deep down that I was privileged to experience it. And I know that there is a part of me, a very big part of me, that’s happy. But there is another part of me that feels it could have been greater, that I could feel more privileged, that I could be happier. It’s the possibility that it all could have been something more that jars with the concrete, impregnable words of people who I care about dearly and who have supported me more than I could ever have asked for, but who don’t know, and might never know, what Oxford meant to me.
Before I came to Oxford, I thought I was great at English. No, actually, I thought I was the bees-knees at it. It didn’t take me long to find out that I had a lot to learn. And I don’t say that lightly. Very soon into my time here, I began to feel that I was at the bottom of my class in college. I didn’t show it and I carried on with the work pretending with the idea that I might still be the greatest. But I was aware that my tutors weren’t fantastically enthusiastic about my essays, and I certainly knew that there were no 25/25 essays here, no very goods, or comments telling me that they wouldn’t change a thing. I got the feeling I could change a lot. It took me a while to make any significant change to my academic work, and I would mark the event of that change in my final year, and, even then, things were far from perfect. The worst part about it was that I couldn’t say that I was an Oxford Blue, or an extracurricular superstar. I was never in a play during my time in Oxford, and my musical talents were powerful only insofar as they might severely rupture someone’s ear drums. My mental health was good. I did quite a bit of running. My academic work was okay, and possibly quite good. I wasn’t a failure, I wasn’t a success. Everything was fine. Oxford was fine.
But a privilege? A great experience? Somehow, Oxford didn’t have the box-office happy ending I had anticipated when I first arrived. But I don’t mean to make Oxford sound more enigmatic than it merits. In any case, closure, and, therefore, the idea of having to ‘crack’ Oxford, isn’t a priority. And feeling I could have done better is not a bad feeling. To me, it’s the one valuable lesson Oxford taught me. The work load might be tougher than other universities and certain people might make you feel that they’ve got a fast-track pass to their career successes before they’ve even turned twenty. It’s tough, and it can be tough in different ways for different people. Nevertheless, the reality of Oxford is far from a puzzle crafted for the born-genius and the naturally-gifted. Personally, I don’t believe that those people exist. People who get good results work hard. By the same token, some people work hard and don’t get good results. Some people here might work hard in unique and subtle ways, but they work hard nonetheless.
The fact is, Oxford has been achievable and achieved by everyone who comes here. It doesn’t have any less of an ending because you feel you could have tightened the structure of this chapter, or filled that chapter with more interesting content. Those thoughts only reinforce the sense of an ending. The ending that can look forwards, that refuses to be closed is a defiant, strong-willed ending that puts its author in a position from which they can go anywhere and do anything. I think that ending is the only truly meaningful one, and it’s a pretty damn good one, exactly because it refuses to end.
As a saucer-eyed, bushy-tailed prospective student, I read in that year’s prospectus that Oxford attracts the ‘brightest and the best’. I disagree. If Oxford works, it is because it can teach people to be brighter and better. Because no one is the brightest, and no one is the best. There will always be things everyone could have done better. That’s not Oxford. That’s life. And if Oxford can tell us this at its ending and make us feel okay about that, that’s the greatest ending of all. Tell yourself you can do better, sure, but know that you’ve already done fantastically by telling yourself that.