A Reflection on Loneliness and How to Punch

Two weeks ago, I received my Autumn physics exams results. I am happy to report that your boy bagged an A; thus concluding the whole A-level predicament. Alhamdulillah!

The stress plaguing me these last few months has finally been lifted from my shoulders, leaving room for the next load of stress that life’s going to throw at me. And so, it is in this moment of respite that I can sit back, relax, and reflect for a minute.

This past year has been a rough one. I’m sure you’re more than acquainted with why that’s the case. The way I see it, my life has been on pause since March. Unlike most of my peers, I did not start university this year, so I’ve virtually been stuck at home these last nine months.

During this time, I’ve learned things about myself as I’m sure you have as well. The key thing I have learned – the subject of this post – is that I’m not able to cope with loneliness as well as I used to. To understand why we must delve into my past. That’s right. It’s time for my ORIGIN STORY!

In primary school, I was very much a loner. I struggled a lot with making friends because my interests were very different from my peers. I wasn’t into sports. To this day, I’ve yet to sit down and watch an entire ninety-minute football match. Considering I’ve lived my whole life in England, this is borderline blasphemy. The most I do is watch cricket when its India vs Pakistan but that’s more for the culture than anything else.

Neither did I have Cartoon Network or Disney XD, like the other kids, so I couldn’t relate to any of the shows they talked about. Even during playtime, I used to prefer staying in class playing with Lego, drawing, or reading than outside playing with the other kids. I was a bit of an oddball.

This isn’t to say I was sad, I was actually pleased to spend my playtimes alone because as far as I was concerned playing with Lego was way more fun than playing football. Nonetheless, the result was that I was very socially awkward and only had a tiny group of friends.

When I started secondary, I lacked the social skills that my peers had. My few friends from primary had started at different schools. So I was alone without the skills needed to make new friends. This meant that for much of my secondary school career, I was a social outcast. It also didn’t help that my school was set up in a very odd way.

My school had four houses (we called them Ties because we were differentiated by our ties’ colour). I was in Green Tie. Coincidently, I was also in Green House in primary school and Wilberforce House (also denoted by the colour green) in Sixth Form. I guess the magical sorting hat known as fate decided that I was a Slytherin at heart despite my inclination to the unseriousness of Hufflepuff.

These four houses were then divided into two bands: X and Y. In the X band you had Red and Blue Tie students, and in the Y band you had Green and Yellow Tie students. For the first two years of school, our classes were determined by our band. This meant that you didn’t even get a real chance to socialise with half your year group, thus limiting your potential pool of candidates for friendship. From year 9 to 11, the bands were finally mixed for our optional classes, but by that time, secondary school’s social circles were set in stone, and I was left adrift.

I did make one friend in year 7, though. He was an immigrant from Bangladesh – something I was surprised to find out given he spoke with an almost Canadian-like accent – and had just started school in the UK. We used to spend our break times playing Pokémon cards or discussing video games. Unfortunately, this friendship wouldn’t last long due to a very stupid yet humorous sequence of events.

This friend and I would often be singled out and picked on due to our different interests. It also didn’t help that we were both brown and Muslim. The other kids used to call him “Big Aqil” because he was taller than me at the time. One day, we were leaving through the school gates when another student started verbally abusing us. My friend decided that he had enough and began to swing for the bully.

I would now like to take a pause in this story to deliver a PSA on punching techniques. When you deliver a punch, there’s a particular technique you must follow to maximise damage done to your opponent while minimising damage dealt to you.

The first, and arguably most important, step is to make a fist. Now a lot of people surprisingly get this wrong and end up injuring themselves so listen up. To make a fist, you must first open your hand, stretching out your fingers and thumb. Then curl in your fingers at which point you’ll be left with a thumbs up. Your thumb is then secured onto the outside of the middle phalanges of your fingers.

Many people end up connecting their thumb to the proximal phalanx of their index finger or, even worse, underneath their fingers. This will inevitably lead to a broken thumb when you land a punch, so please don’t do it. Your wrist must be kept straight at all times. This ensures that the fist is reinforced allowing you to put more power behind your punch.

The second step is to get into your resting stance. Different martial arts have slightly different stance variations for different reasons. Muay Thai fighters like to keep their arms highs with their elbows flared out and shoulders square-on to allow for easier elbow strikes and kicks. But for the purpose of this post, we will be looking at the traditional boxing stance.

Tuck in your chin by slightly lowering your head and place your fists in front – not too far and not too close. Your elbows should be kept close to your sides to defend your ribcage. Your legs should be kept apart with your less dominant side at the front and a slight bend in the knees. Your shoulders should face your opponent side-on with your less dominant side in front.

For example, if you are right-handed, your left leg should be in front with your left shoulder angled towards your opponent. To keep things simple, we’ll assume everyone is right-handed – sorry left-handed folks. Whenever you’re not throwing a punch, you should be in this position. All punches start and end here.

Now we move onto the actual punches. There are different types of punches, such as hooks and uppercuts, but we will just be looking at a basic jab and cross to keep this post short.

To throw a jab, simply rotate your waist clockwise. As you do this, extend your left arm rapidly outwards, leading with your fist in a straight line towards your opponent. Your jab should be shoulder height, so don’t aim too high or too low; aim straight ahead. Of course, if your opponent is a different height to you then adjust accordingly. Once your arm is fully extended, it should immediately be brought back into the rest position.

Similarly, to throw a cross, rotate your waist anti-clockwise extending your right arm. As before, do not aim too high or too low. However, this time you should also pivot your back foot to get more power behind the punch. Once again, the arm should immediately be brought back to the rest position once fully extended.

The aim is to hit your opponent hard and fast with your knuckles. Think of yourself as an oscillating system. Equilibrium is the rest position with the peaks and troughs being your jabs and crosses. At no point should one of your arms be left sticking out.

Before we get back to the story, I’d like to cover a few things to keep an eye out for. If your unsure whether your opponent is in range just throw a jab. Your jab is your measuring tool so use it wisely. If you find you are out of range then simply move closer to your opponent. Don’t overextend your punches lest you be punished with a volley of punches throwing you off balance. Your legs should be providing a stable base at all times. As a general rule: Move your legs first before you move your arms. Fleet footwork is key.

It is imperative that you keep your knuckles in line with your forearm and wrist. This is because you will be hitting your opponent with them and so it’s a good idea to keep them reinforced otherwise you risk injuring yourself. Lastly, do not flare out your elbows when you punch. Remember the punch is lead by the fist, so you do not need to raise your elbows out to the side before extending your arm. The punch should be a fluid straight-line motion.

When my friend swung for the bully, he ignored all of the rules mentioned above. Instead, he decided that he’d like to charge up his punch by swinging his arm all the way behind him before going for the bully. Unfortunately, I was standing behind him. It didn’t end well.

A few moments later, I woke up in the medical room. My friend was standing by the door; the colour drained from his face. I was more embarrassed than I was angry at him. Within a few days, word had travelled around the school, and kids began taunting me, but the worst part of it all was that my father was picking me up that day. He had brought me some wings and chips from my favourite chicken shop, and by the time I left the medical room, they were cold. After this, I stopped talking to my friend; the embarrassment was too much. He was also in Red Tie, so I didn’t have any classes with him until year 9 making it easier to avoid him.

For the next few years, I just drifted between different social groups, never really part of any of them. In almost all of them, I was ridiculed for my differences in the name of banter. Kids would talk about me behind my back, and I was rarely invited to hang out outside of school. More often than not, people would tear me down than build me up. At the time, I didn’t think this was a problem because I had just assumed that this is what fitting in was supposed to be like. This, of course, destroyed a lot of my already dwindling self-confidence.

On the flip side, when you don’t have a lot going for you socially, you find it a lot easier to spend time by yourself. I would spend a lot of my free time playing video games to the point that I was clocking 30 hours a week on Team Fortress 2. Other than video games, I would also read a lot of comic books. Loneliness wasn’t a significant concern for me because I had resigned myself to the fact that kids were just naturally unkind. The time I spent alone was way more fun and emotionally fulfilling than the time I spent with others.

Luckily, by the end of year 11, I reconnected with my friend from year 7. Things were awkward at first but seeing as we were going to be starting at the same Sixth Form, it seemed appropriate that we just forget about the past. Through him, I met two other students from X band that were also going to the same Sixth Form.

On the whole, my secondary school experience was pretty bad socially. I would often pretend to be ill to avoid going into school. However, academically it was going very well. I would usually rank amongst the top of my class and was the first student to sit the GCSE further maths exam. When you didn’t have friends, you’d have a lot more focus in class. And while I did meet some decent people in secondary school, I wouldn’t call them friends per se save for the three that joined me in Sixth Form.

It wasn’t until I took part in the National Citizen Service (NCS) when I fully came out of my shell. For those unaware, NCS is a four-week program where teenagers get together and participate in activities before undertaking a project for their local community. It’s not mandatory but is highly encouraged by schools. Nearly everyone I’ve talked to said their wave was quote “dead” – meaning dull – so my wave (Bromley Wave 8) was certainly an anomaly.

For the first time, I was surrounded by genuinely kind people. Before this, I was often greeted with animosity by my peers. Instead, at NCS, people celebrated me and my differences. People built me up instead of tearing me down, giving me a much-needed confidence boost. I will forever remain grateful to those I met at NCS for giving me the chance to socially thrive and come out of my shell. They essentially changed me from a bitter introvert sceptical of others to an enthusiastic extrovert who actively goes out of his way to meet new people.

With my new found confidence, I was able to socially thrive in Sixth Form. I made a lot of friends from different walks of life. I took part in social events; something I would’ve never dreamed of at secondary. I also grew very close with my friend who knocked me out in year 7, to the point I consider him my brother. The truth is, I feel as though I found my community in Sixth Form. And by finding my community, I ultimately found myself.

Unfortunately, too much of a good thing can be harmful. I had essentially become dependent on social interaction with others. This meant that when lockdown started, I had a lot of adjusting to do. Without my community, I struggled a lot, which brings us back to the whole point of this post. I can’t cope with loneliness as well as I used to.

When the lockdowns first started, I found myself with a lot of free time but hardly anything to do. Physically cut off from my peers, I began to miss the little things. The ramblings we used to have on our train journeys. The daily shenanigans we got up to in room 10 – our weekly games of Cards Against Humanity. The philosophical discussions I used to have in the canteen during my free periods. The chicken and beef burgers I used to get from Wrap City located just outside Victoria Station (Highly recommend). All of this was brought to an abrupt end on the 20th March.

I needed things to occupy myself with at home, so I took up reading more seriously – something I’d begun to neglect. I even revisited comics again, which I had stopped reading in year 12. My video game consumption ultimately skyrocketed yet again. Anything to keep me occupied lest my mind wanders to unpleasant places. I also took up writing which culminated in the establishment of this very blog. That being said, I still missed my friends greatly and yearned for social interaction. There is only so much time one can spend cooped up with family before going insane.

This feeling of loneliness was new to me. As mentioned before, prior to NCS, I had learned to enjoy the time I spent alone. In many ways, I was my own best friend. Since NCS, if I ever felt lonely, I could just meet up with friends. With the new lockdown restrictions, this was impossible. Lockdown was the introvert’s paradise, yet I was no longer an introvert.

Fortunately, thanks to the wonders of technology, I could still communicate with my friends via social media. Had social media not existed, I’m sure I would have gone insane. Then again, one could make the convincing argument that it is social media itself that is driving us insane. Alas, that is a topic for another day.

With one of my friendship groups, which we dub “Brown Society” due to the majority of members being of South Asian descent, we began hosting weekly intellectual discussions. Our very own Oxford Union, you could say. This eventually evolved into weekly games of Among Us. Unfortunately, these discussions and gaming sessions only lasted a few months as everyone was slowly preparing for their new lives at university – something I’ve yet to experience.

As sad as it may be, I need to come to terms with the fact that people are moving on with their lives and I should too. The friendships that are meant to last will do so and those that aren’t, won’t. The sense of community I felt at Sixth Form is gone and, from what I’ve heard from my peers at university, it probably won’t ever come back. I’ll try my best to hold onto the friendships I’ve forged these past three years. Still, I must also remember that people outgrow each other and move onto greater things – ‘tis natural.

And so I venture into 2021, with the acceptance that, for better or for worse, things will never be the same again. Happy new year to all those reading, I hope you all fulfil your ambitions for the next year. For myself, I hope to come to terms with this new feeling of loneliness. Perhaps maybe reach an equilibrium between my current extroverted and past introverted selves.

That’s it from me this year. See y’all in 2021!

Peace be with you.

Aqil Ghani’s Gap Year Goals

On Wednesday, I completed my final A-level Physics exam. The exams themselves went far better than I anticipated. Paper 1 and 2 were smooth sailing with paper 3 posing the most significant challenge yet still tameable. I think its safe to say that I did not crumble and fumble (see my previous post). Of course, we will not know for sure until my second results day on the 17th December. In the meantime, though, I find myself presented with a lot of freedom.

It is strange to find myself free of academic responsibility: no more exams, no more classes, no more homework, no more timetables. And while we have been in Lockdown for the past eight months (wow!), this time it feels different. I no longer have the uncertainty of A-levels casting a shadow over my daily life. It’s done and dusted. Never again will I have to do Physics in my life, and in this, I take immense pleasure. But now I feel a kind of emptiness. A-levels had been the primary concern of my life for the past two years. Before that, it was GCSEs. Day in day out, Monday to Friday (and even some Saturdays) I was in school. For the next year, I will have no such commitments. My long-coveted gap year is finally underway, and I have a lot of time on my hands now. The question is: What to do with this time?

Believe me; I would love to spend the next year just kicking back and playing video games. However, this would be a complete waste of time. Not because I would not enjoy it but because I would have nothing to show for it – I am nowhere near skilled enough to be a professional esports player. I want to able to look back in a year and say: “Yo, that gap year was actually lit you know, I did X, Y and Z” as opposed to “Man, I sure could’ve used that time way better instead of just playing League all day.” So instead, I have decided to dedicate my time to the following endeavours.

I now present to you: Aqil Ghani’s Gap Year Goals! (This post is more for myself than anyone else to act as a record I can review at the end of my gap year). So, without further ado, in no particular order, let us begin:


Acting

For those who know me (and those who have read my last post), it is no surprise that I aspire to be an actor. It was my sole motivation for taking a gap year after all. A year to pursue acting. The main thing you need as a professional actor is an agent. Agents are what get you acting work after all. Now, this is no small feat, especially with the effect COVID-19 has had on the acting industry. Small acting agencies are going through financial difficulty, and a lot of the larger ones are not admitting any new actors in what was already quite a hard industry to get into. Nonetheless, this will not deter me from doing what I can to get the prerequisites covered.

The main thing you need to get an agent in the UK is a Spotlight CV (And this will be what I am going to work towards over the next year). There are two ways to do this 1) Go to drama school and graduate with a degree and 2) Have at least four professional credits in featured speaking roles. Unfortunately, I will not be able to go to drama school, and so I am left with the second option. Alas, we have the old “chicken and the egg” predicament. You see to get acting roles you need an agent, but to get an agent you need to have done some acting roles. This is very much the first of many mountains one must climb to become a successful actor. Fortunately, in the modern age, we have the internet. There are many sites online that one can use to find available casting calls, such as Backstage and StarNow, so I will be using said sites to find work. Once I’ve done this, I just need to put together a showreel showcasing my talent, get some headshots taken, and I’m good to go. Of course, this is all easier said than done.

The actual process of getting an agent once you’ve met the prerequisites is a long one. It took my acting coach a whole year to get an agent, and he had the added advantage of going to drama school in South Africa. It is going to be a process fraught with rejection. Even once I get an agent, this won’t change. The life of an actor is very much one of sacrifice, uncertainty and financial insecurity. There is no set path when it comes to becoming an actor like there is for doctors, lawyers or engineers. A drama degree and an agent doesn’t guarantee that’ll you will get work the same way medicine or law degrees do. This isn’t to say that treading those paths are easy – I know some doctors, lawyers and engineers who can tell you just how hard it is – but they are most definitely paths that have been trodden before with a set roadmap to follow. For an actor, there is no road map. Just a bunch of objectives hidden in a dense jungle that you need to find and even once you’ve found them you still need a massive dose of luck to get admitted into the temple filled with the treasures. A far cry from the well-paved highways with signposts that tell you where you need to go and what you need to do to get the keys required to enter the hospital, courtroom or construction site. That being said, I know that in front of the camera is where I want to be. Nothing else can quite match the thrill of tapping into one’s deep-seated courage to deliver a line to a captivated audience. And so if that requires me having to forge my path, away from the beaten track and into the dense jungle, then so be it.


Fitness

For my entire life, I’ve always been the scrawny kid who was never particularly good at sports. Not because I don’t like playing sports – I do – it’s just that my enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily translate into skill as I’m sure my friends who played cricket with me at Lord’s are well aware. And while I may not look it, I consider myself quite physically fit having done several martial arts over the years from Karate to Muay Thai and even a little bit of Jiu-Jitsu. However, when you look at my skinny frame, you wouldn’t think I’m that athletic. It’s no secret that when it comes to acting, one needs to maintain a particular physique – you know the chiselled jawline, bulging biceps and six-pack that is all too familiar amongst Hollywood stars today. Furthermore, let’s not pretend that when it comes to finding a romantic partner that your physique doesn’t play a part. And so over the next year, I aim to significantly change my skinny frame into one that is more “swole”.

This is not the first time I’ve tried to do this. As someone who has struggled with body image issues – yes, men can also have body image issues – Its always been a dream of mine to one day become “dench”. Unfortunately, this desire has led me to take on board advice that in hindsight wasn’t the best. For example, when I was fifteen, I got the awful idea that drinking a gallon of milk a day would somehow magically turn me into the next Hrithik Roshan. As you can imagine, this ended horribly, I kept it up for about three weeks, and then my bowels turned against me. Now my body can’t even handle a single glass of milk, let alone a gallon. Even though now I’m a lot more cautious having learned that online advice isn’t necessarily the most reliable – what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for the next – I still want to attain that so-sought-after figure of an ancient Greek statue. Fortunately for me, I have a friend I met in Sixth Form who used to be skinny like me. Now he is one of the “denchest” people I know. He’s offered to help guide me in my quest, and I most definitely will be taking advantage of his guidance.


YouTube

One thing that people often say to me is: “Aqil you should start a YouTube channel”. The truth is, I did have a YouTube channel from when I was about eleven to fifteen. It wasn’t anything special: Just another kid with a high-pitched voice making Minecraft videos in an age when everyone was making Minecraft videos. I’ve since had it deleted. Now I suddenly find myself with an abundance of time, I thought, why not give it another try. However, I will be doing things differently. Instead, I will be tailoring it more towards acting rather than gaming. It will serve as a kind of portfolio of my work. I aim to write, direct and act in short films that I can share with potential collaborators in the future. I may even upload vlogs and make documentaries on topics that interest me. In many ways, it will be like this blog – just another way to spurt out my endless stream of thought into the universe.


Blog

Speaking of blogs, I started this site back in June as a way to occupy myself during Lockdown. Since then, I’ve only made a measly seven posts. This is something I want to change. I want to expand this into something I do more regularly. I want to make it something I can point to whenever anyone asks me: “So Aqil, what are you about?”. And so, I aim to post more regularly on more wide-ranging topics, and I may even expand this site to include some of my acting work with maybe even some occasional photography. So far, I’ve only really covered historical topics. While I still aim to complete my series on Jinnah’s Pakistan, I do wish to cover more issues relating to pop culture, society and politics in the future. Right now, I have an idea concerning everyone’s favourite brown girl from New Jersey (wink wink to my fellow Marvel fans). Furthermore, my last post and this one, which have essentially consisted of me waffling about my life, have proven to be a very therapeutic experience for me. So I also want to do more posts just talking about me, myself and I (the site is named after me after all).


4U Tutors

Last but not least, I have an exciting project to share with you. A group of friends and I have decided to create and sell online GCSE courses. So far, we are still in the early stages as the courses are still in production, but you can still follow us on Instagram to stay updated. I will be making the Geography course which I am currently a third of the way through. Each course will consist of videos, worksheets, quizzes and tests that you will have lifetime access to. So if you know any current GCSE students, sharing this with them will be much appreciated. I aim to get the Geography course completed by the end of this year.


Alongside these primary goals, I also have secondary goals, that while not imperative for the next year, would be nice to accomplish. These include: doing some form of work experience, writing an article for a newspaper/magazine, begin writing a novel, learning how to cook biryani, develop a cure for cancer, and maybe even some travelling when/if COVID-19 calms down.

Alas, this concludes today’s post. I was going to end with an inspirational quote or something, but instead, I have decided to leave a message for my future self:

Your greatest blessing is an overactive mind that’s filled to the brim with ideas, yet you often fail to bring them to fruition. Instead of daydreaming about future possibilities, turn them into your reality. Live a life you can be proud of.

Limbo

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.

Insha Allah.