On Thursday the 13th August, thousands of students across the country received the most important results in their academic lives. I was one of these students. I remember struggling to sleep the night before, perturbed by what daylight would bring. And in a year like no other, this results day would be like no other.
Due to COVID-19, we went into Lockdown with the assurance that, when it came to it, our previous performance would determine our grades. This was the crux of the issue. My academic performance in year 12 was atrocious. I was getting Ds and Cs in nearly every assessment. Despite this, I was able to scrape an A in my AS Geography exam. Meanwhile, in my end of year 12 mocks, I got an ADE in Maths, Physics, and Further Maths, respectively. The issue was Further Maths. You see in Secondary School; I lured myself into a false sense of security that I was a talented mathematician. Maths came easy to me, and I would often rank in the top 5 in my year. When it came to my GCSE exams, I managed to get a nine and was the first student in my school to sit the GCSE Further Maths exam and got an A*. A-levels was a different story. Starting at a new school in the heart of London with some of the brightest students from across the city, I quickly realised that I was not the genius I believed I was. I also learned that my heart was not in the STEM subjects I had chosen but was instead in humanities. I enjoyed spending my free time learning about Geopolitics and International Relations.
So, after a year of revelations about myself, I decided to drop Further Maths and take on an EPQ (Extended Project Query). This was the best decision I ever made. My EPQ, titled “Is CPEC good for Pakistan?”, allowed me to explore my interests and led me to apply to study a joint degree of Economics and Politics through UCAS despite never studying either subject in a formal educational setting. Furthermore, by dropping Further Maths, I was able to free up time for my other subjects leading to significant improvements in my grades. I managed to achieve predicted grades of A*AAB (EPQ, Geography, Maths, Physics) with offers from Birmingham, Bristol, Bath and Durham for deferred entry. Unfortunately, I did not quite make the cut for my dream university of Warwick. Throughout year 13, I consistently got A*AAB in my reports, even getting A*AAA at the start of the year. And so, I went into Lockdown with the self-assurance that I had done everything I could to prove I was capable of achieving my predicted grades. Then results day happened.
Results day itself had a melancholy feel to it. I remember walking into school. Not greeted by the cheers of happy students like my last results day but instead by the solemn faces of students hard done by either by the government’s algorithm or the school’s CAGs (Centre Assessed Grades). When I walked into the hall and received my white envelope, I honestly did not know what to expect. I peeled off the opening and slid out the contents to find that I had been given an A*ABC. And while these grades were decent, they fell short of both my firm and insurance offers. I immediately went into panic mode. I didn’t know what to do. Thankfully, a kind member of staff took me to the side and explained that I should try and contact my universities to see if they would still allow me to join in 2021 as planned. I called multiple times and, unfortunately, I could not get through, so in the meantime, I decided to do some investigating. I came to find out that the grades I was given were not given to me by the government but were instead the same grades the school had sent off. I felt betrayed. It was not an unfair algorithm that stopped me from going to university, but the school I had tried so hard to prove myself to. It was at this point that I was at my lowest over the last two years. I tried again to see if I could get through to my universities but still no answer. Hopeless and helpless, I decided to give up. I know; not the most heroic thing to do but that is the truth. I felt as though I was being swallowed up from within, and I needed an escape. I needed to do something other than calling universities to no avail. Luckily, that is where my friends came in.
Gordan Ramsey had announced on twitter the day before that he would be giving out free pizza at his restaurants. Naturally, sniffing out a bargain, myself, and a group of five of my closest friends decided to make the trek to Gordan Ramsey Street Pizza. We arrived at a queue of dozens of students waiting to take advantage of the free pizza. Upon further enquiry, we discovered that those ahead of us in the line had been waiting close to thirty minutes. It was at this point a few of my friends had to start heading home. Eventually, we just forgot about Gordan’s free pizza and had Sainsbury’s meal deals instead. A lacklustre meal for a lacklustre day, I suppose. Following this, I decided that I too would return home and face the proverbial music as they say.
It was during this journey home that I reflected on my Sixth Form experience. The past two years, while academically challenging, were by far the best years of my life. I had met some of the most amazing people, built lifelong friendships and went from the quiet bitter introverted boy I was in secondary school to the positive extroverted young man I am today. Had I stayed in my previous school’s Sixth Form; I highly doubt I would have undergone such personal growth. This for reasons that are too long to go into right now as they would make what is already going to be a long post even longer. So while I may not have left Sixth Form with the grades and the university place of my dreams, I am happy that I was able to leave knowing that I am a much more well-rounded individual than when I started. Despite the bitter ending, I am glad the last two years happened. And this can serve as a neat segue to a video I made at the start of Lockdown of some of the highlights from my time in Sixth Form:
When I arrived home, I shifted gears and spent the evening with my sister calling up various universities to see if they would offer me a place through Clearing. I managed to get several Clearing offers; however, none of them would allow me to defer and take a gap year. I was faced with two options:
Option 1 – Accept a Clearing offer and start in 2020 with a guaranteed place. (Low-risk manoeuvre)
Option 2 – Decline the offers, sit the exams in October, and reapply in 2021. Thereby allowing me to take my desired gap year but with no guarantee of a university place. (High-risk manoeuvre)
It is at this point in the blog post that you, the reader, require a bit of context. You see, while I do have a particular interest in global affairs, my true passions lie in storytelling. For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by stories. Whether it be film, TV, books, comics or video games, the power of a good story always kept me mesmerised. The way stories on screen, and paper, were able to tug on the strings of one’s emotional harp to leave a lasting melody on the soul is what drew me to storytelling. The telling of stories, whether fictional or not, is intrinsic to the human experience. Since the beginning of recorded time, human’s have been telling stories. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Star Wars saga, stories have served to entertain, teach, spread ideas, enact change, critique the status quo, and much more. To truly understand a society, one must look to its stories. Even the divine places particular emphasis on stories: Throughout the Qur’an, Allah teaches us righteousness through the stories of the prophets. It is through stories that we interact with the world and the world with us. And when you combine my passion for storytelling with my innate desire for attention, you get someone who dreams of being an actor.
You can imagine the nightmare this has been for my Pakistani parents. When your academically capable son says he would rather be an actor than something safe like a doctor or engineer, it can come as quite a shock. I remember when I tried to pick Drama for GCSE, my dad laughed at me saying I should do something more useful. I chose Computer Science instead like every typical Desi Munda. I guess my father assumed I was going through a phase and would eventually see sense as I got older. This did not happen. At Sixth Form, I wanted to take A-level drama but fooled myself into thinking Further Maths would be a better fit. More practical, more useful. Bad idea. I decided early on in my Sixth Form career that after my A-levels, I was going to take a year out to pursue acting with maybe a little travelling and entrepreneurship here and there. But first, I had to convince my father.
This was a gruelling process. Many a time, we would debate long into the night. No one in my family had taken a voluntary gap year, and there was a negative stigma attached to it: “You’ll end up wasting a year of your life doing nothing.” As a child of immigrants, you’re taught that the safest life path is as follows: school, then a good university, then a good job, then marriage, then children, then grandchildren and, then if you lucky enough to live that long, great-grandchildren. Surprisingly, one day out of nowhere, my dad did a full-on U-turn. For one reason or another, he agreed that a gap year was a great idea and the best course of action. And here is the thing about my dad, he is stubborn as hell and will stick to his guns but once you convince him of something it becomes one of his guns and he’ll stand by it until the day he dies. Now, I think my dad is more enthusiastic about me taking a gap year than I am. I happily selected deferred entry on my UCAS application back in November. This brings us back to results day.
I had two options: the easy route and the harder route. After a lot of deliberation, I picked the risker option – no risk, no reward after all. I decided I would sit Physics and try to get that C up to a B, maybe even an A. Then go on my gap year and pursue my dream. But first, a bit of grassroots activism.
Following the mess that was results day, protests took place across the UK condemning the government’s use of an algorithm that unfairly downgraded students from poorer backgrounds. The demonstrations proved successful and, by the following Monday, the government, just like my father, pulled a massive U-turn. Students would now receive their CAGs rather than their government moderated grades. This helped a lot of students get the places they deserved but still left many others, such as myself, with no hope. Naturally, I took to twitter:
For the next few days, various students from my school, who were in the same position as me and even some who were not, approached me asking what we could do. The only plausible option was to get the school to do something on our behalf. I decided to contact the student senate, who had more experience with this kind of thing, to come up with ideas. It was agreed that we would put together an open letter to the school with student testimonies. I got to work. On Snapchat, I asked people to each send a paragraph detailing their situation and why they believed their CAGs were inaccurate. Then I collated them together and wrote up the first draft. It was time for review. I sent the letter off to a good friend of mine who is a far better writer than me and was the same friend that inspired me to start this blog. In response, she gave me a long list of improvements which I used to put together a second draft which she then edited until we got our finalised letter (https://t.co/w1ZmXcYpSo?amp=1). By the end of the week, we had enough signatures to send the letter off to the school’s senior leadership team. Following this, I arranged a meeting with my headteacher to speak in person. This meeting proved futile. He simply was not willing to be cooperative instead arguing that he had more important things to deal with than the concerns of ex-students. I asked him whether he saw the letter. He replied: “I did, but I don’t reply to petitions.” Never have I lost respect for a person so quickly. Unfortunately, nothing came of that letter.
This experience taught me a lot of things. One being the importance of gratitude. Throughout my life, I have been a lone wolf, sometimes even an outcast. While in recent years, I have become more sociable and outgoing, still, I’m not too fond of it when other people try to help me. This probably stems from a place of mistrust. There are very few people I trust to have my best interests at heart. Or maybe a place of pride. I do not want to let others help me because it may make me seem weak or dependent. Ultimately, whatever it is, I had to accept that this was something I could not do alone. In this regard, I will forever remain grateful to those that assisted me along the way with this endeavour. I will try my best to make it up to you lot.
Even though we did not get the result we wanted, I was moved by the outpouring of support from my classmates. Never in my life, did I expect to get so many kind messages from people thanking me for putting together the letter. A week ago, it was someone’s birthday. Upon wishing him happy birthday, he responded with a voice note saying how the tweets, snaps and letter helped him personally cope with the whole CAGs situation. An action I took had a direct and meaningful impact on someone’s life. This was when it dawned on me, maybe life is not about success but is instead about the parts we play in each other’s stories. The impact we have on those around us. After all, we will not be remembered for the degree we got or the job we did. Instead, we will be remembered by those who knew us. Those people whose stories we played a part in. I played a small role in this person’s story. And if that is the case, maybe the letter was not a complete failure. Or perhaps I’m just on one big ego trip right now.
I have also learned that I need to take on a more active role in my own life. For perhaps the first time, I feel as I am genuinely being tested. This could be a blessing or a punishment, depending on how you look at it. And while I am finding revision a very arduous task – I hate Physics with a passion – I know that “Allah does not charge a soul except [with that within] its capacity.” (2:286). Ultimately, this whole ordeal is supposed to help me become the man I am supposed to be. In the past six weeks, I have learned more about myself than I have in my entire life. It is funny how that works. I learned more in the space of six weeks than eighteen years. And this brings us today.
Right now, I feel as though I am in a place of limbo. In the coming weeks, my friends will be heading off to Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick, UCL, Imperial and many other outstanding institutions while I am going to be stuck doing exams I should have done months ago. It is a weird feeling as though I am being left behind with my future hanging in the balance. Like the world is moving around me while I am standing still. Nonetheless, I do feel as though this could be THE turning point in my life – the moment where I really see what type of man I will be. Will I work hard and get the grades I deserve, or will I crumble and fumble? I do hope it’s the former.
Do I feel like a failure? Most definitely. But like a phoenix from the ashes, I hope to rise and shine brighter than I ever have before.