Graduating Cambridge: girl to woman

Today, I began a massive undertaking. I started to take down my wall (pictured above.) I created the wall when I was 13, a collection of photos, posters, tickets and cards that formed the basis of my teenage identity. I stopped adding to it several years ago. Yet every year at Cambridge, I have replicated it with my new life: with hall menus, race numbers, ADC tickets and birthday cards from new friends. Every year, I have taken those items down and stored them carefully. I now have three bags of them in my room, one for each year. Finally, the time has come for me to do the same to my childhood room, which is still decorated as it was when I was a girl.

Why am I doing this? Partly it’s because I will be moving out in the autumn, and feel like I should leave my room in a passable state for my parents. More importantly than that, however, is the shifting of my identity, and the need I have felt since graduating several weeks ago to consolidate it. The items that 13, 14, 15 year old Sarah decorated the walls with are telling. There are anti-bullying posters and declarations of self-esteem; ill-fated attempts to reclaim ownership of my body and mind which would fail for years to come. There are gay rights slogans and the flag I waved at my first pride parade; evidence of the stirrings of my activism and sense of social justice that have shaped so much of my life since.

There are pictures of young men, actors mainly, that teenage Sarah found attractive. There are movie tickets, neat and lined up in a vertical column. They are a testament to hours spent traipsing round the nearest town with a girl I no longer talk to, whiling away our adolescence by absorbing ourselves into someone else’s life. There are tickets to plays and concerts: a particular favourite being The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I first saw when I was 15 (with my Dad, not knowing the contents of the play. My conservative father was, it goes without saying, less than impressed.)

There are pictures drawn by friends, of jokes long since forgotten. Satirical cartoons, cut from copies of Private Eye, evidence of a burgeoning interest in politics that would eventually lead me to Cambridge. There is the personal statement I wrote when I was seventeen: in which I, ironically, express an interest in both Middle Eastern and gender politics (both of which I specialised in during my final year.)

Since graduating, I’ve been trying as hard as possible to keep myself busy. I have gone to the pub with my friends, met up with my boyfriend’s friends, cooked dinner for my family and spent more hours in the kitchen (already) than I would care to admit to. I even cleaned house (without being asked) the other day. I have also started sorting through my bedroom, a task of considerable effort. Part of this has been taking old clothes to charity shops, sorting through my family’s extensive video collection (including no less than three copies of Pocahontas.) In amongst this, I have been thinking about who I am now I’ve graduated.

Cambridge has been such a huge part of my life for three years, and it’s daunting to consider who I am without it. I will have to find a new identity, one that can move forward while still holding on to who I am. Some things will not change. I will still love cooking. I will still be a feminist. I will still love Disney movies, and dancing to Taylor Swift, and I plan to find a new rowing club. Some things will change, however. I won’t be a politics student; I will be a professional woman. Outside of Cambridge and my hometown, my name will be meaningless. There is some comfort in that.

Caitlin Moran once wrote that other people are mirrors; you see who you are reflected in them. If the mirror is distorted or broken, however, then you will see a false picture. For so many years, I have seen myself reflected in the hometown that I grew up in. As hard as I have tried to shake it, the words fat, ugly, bitch, go kill yourself, no one would care have still reverberated around my mind. When I walk down the high street here, I forget sometimes that I am a graduate of Cambridge University, that I am smart and funny and sexy. I remember being followed home from school, the time a group of boys threw rocks at me, and I feel once again eleven and scared and alone.

Leaving my hometown is a huge step for that very reason. I hate running into people I knew from school; and in a town this small, it is a weekly occurrence. Here, I hate the sound of my surname; the bullies at school would always call me by my full name, denying me the humanity of simply being “Sarah.” Here, I avert my eyes in Sainsbury’s, wary of being roped into a conversation with someone who called me a freak at school.

I have written before about exercising to reclaim my body. The coming months are about finding a new identity to reclaim my mind. I will find new mirrors, ones that reflect truly. Clearing out my childhood room is just part of that. As I look through my memories, I see moments of friendship and happiness, something new to build myself on. Thirteen year old Sarah needed self-esteem slogans painted across the walls. Eight years later, I will finally carry them in my head.

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