The platforms of the London Underground are soulless places. Tired shells of human bodies trudge from work to the bars that will bring them company, or the homes that will bring them comfort. People don’t really talk to each other (unless they are already with friends, in which case, quiet conversation is tolerated) and so the voice announcing the arrival of the next train and advising passengers to “mind the gap” always brings a welcome shattering of the silence.
I’d just landed at Heathrow airport after my gap year in Sri Lanka spent helping elephants that had been orphaned by land mines or the violence of angry farmers (for a scarily accurate depiction of upper-class English people’s ‘gap yahs’ see the following video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKFjWR7X5dU). As I waited for the tube to central London to meet my friends for a ‘welcome home beer’, the irony of the soft, female voice advising me to “mind the gap” was not lost on me. It was exactly the message my parents had vigorously fired at me before I left. My parents couldn’t comprehend why I wouldn’t want to go straight to university. The furthest anyone from my village had travelled before was Tabby Tippin, who goes to an all-inclusive resort in Alicante every summer and comes back with a 7-day hangover and skin the colour a sunburnt lobster covered in tomato ketchup would be proud of. Why would I want to go to Sri Lanka? What if I never came back? How could I expect to study at university if I never came back?
The following is a much-abbreviated list of reasons my parents gave me as to why I should “mind the gap”…year.
1) “Your university will look down on you because you didn’t go straight away.”
BS. By the time I’d finished sixth form, I was sick to the back teeth of being stuck in one place, especially considering that ‘one place’ was school; I just wanted to explore the world. Having time to experience weird and wonderful things helped reignite my passion for learning and knowledge. I’m sure I would have become jaded and restless very early in university life if I hadn’t had time to get a few things off my chest first. Many universities report that they find students who have taken time out before attending university, actually get better results and are more involved in campus life.
2) “You’re too young.”
BS. When else are you going to be 18 years old with no mortgage payments, no spouse, no kids, no employment ladder to climb, no exams or essays, no worries. Never. Never ever. Never ever ever.
3) “University is where you learn things.”
BS. Well partly BS. University is not the only place where you learn things. Personally, I feel I learnt far more on my gap year in Sri Lanka than I did in all of my school/university years combined. University is amazingly fun and awesome and incredible and…the list of superlatives is endless. However, university is also small. It is very easy to get caught up in your world and think that your fraternity or friendship group is the centre of the universe. Thus, any problem can easily turn into a crisis of such epic proportions, that the world seems to stop turning and everyone slides round the edges of it to look at you and your problem in full HD glory. A year out to find a little perspective is not a bad thing.
4) “You’ll miss out on all the things your friends are doing.”
BS. You’re doing cooler things. And you’ll get a chance to do all the things your friends are doing if you want to next year. You’ll also be an expert at adapting to new places and situations, meaning you’ll be better at making new friends during Freshers’ week and have more to talk about after the awesome project you helped with or amazing places you visited.
5) “You’re just bumming around. You’re taking a gap year because you’re lazy!”
BS. I did far less during my first year of university (when I had four lectures a week and lived within easy walking distance of the university, the library and the pub). To be honest, I was very busy during my gap year, but even the times when I wasn’t rushed off my feet, weren’t ‘wasted time’. You need time to think. It’s amazing how, when you wander, your mind also wonders. A 22 hour bus journey, or a stroll from village to village looking for the person you’re supposed to interview for your project, provide plenty of time to think. Life’s fast. Let your mind breathe. Much as your chest expands when you breathe, your mind expands when you wander.
Not all people who wander are lost. I’d safely travelled and returned home to sunny England. I boarded the tube carriage and listened to the voice advising the passengers behind me to “mind the gap”. I chuckled and told myself how glad I was that I hadn’t listened to my parents’ advice. My gap year was the best decision I had ever made; I had changed so much and grown as a person. I then realised that I looked mental as I was chuckling and talking to myself; I spent the rest of the journey on the London Underground in silence, pretending to listen to my headphones so I didn’t have to talk to anyone. Obviously I hadn’t changed that much.
By Tim Hancock