Fourth year started. I was feeling happy. I had good hours working a job I loved that paid well and also enabled me to study while working. I worked on the newspaper stand in Freshers Week when I wasn’t working, encouraging new first years to join us. I had a group of people I loved working with at university, and a group of people I loved working with at the theatre.
But it was also time to get serious. I may have neglected my studies in third year, but I wanted to get a first. I needed to get a first. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I wanted to show I had thrived there.
At the end of third year I had signed up to do a course in the modern novel and a course in Jane Austen. I had done all the required reading. I had even, possibly for the first time since Atonement in Freshers’ Week, enjoyed it.
But I needed a first. And one of the course leaders had given me a low 2.1 in first year; the other a low 2.1 in second year. I needed to be strategic. I swapped onto two courses with course leaders I’d never had before, but which were topics I had got firsts in previously – Shakespeare, and Old English. And I really did love those courses. We had optional essays for the Shakespeare course, one a week; I completed every single one and got a first for all of them. None of the marks counted towards my final year marks, but it seemed like a good trajectory.
I was balancing three jobs now: the theatre most of the time, teaching weekly drama and creative writing classes, and occasional waitressing at a sports stadium. I was also balancing my commitments to the newspaper and other university societies. I put everything into everything. I studied between customers at the theatre, where I worked with some of my favourite people I had yet met in Dublin. I ran between lectures and the newspaper office. I burned the midnight oil in the library. I was working so much I didn’t need money for anything but three meals a day; for lunches I could finally afford a proper sandwich with any filling I chose. Life was glorious.
There were low points. If you throw yourself into ‘public’ life (or, the public life of the amateur stage that is university), you are a target to be shot at. Plenty of people wrote letters to the editor about how awful my writing was. One person took umbrage at a column I’d written about life after university, alleging I’d been born ‘with a silver spoon’ in my mouth and ‘could rely on Mummy and Daddy’ to bail me out after my degree, which could not have been further from the truth. One person stood up at a society AGM and called me a fraud and a hypocrite. One person stood up at another society AGM and said I had abused society funds for my own personal advancement, when of course I had done no such thing. An email was circulated to the whole English class about me, the content deeply personal and clearly vindictive. When I complained to the university officials, they said they would investigate it if I halted an ongoing newspaper investigation into dodgy aspects of the university administration they did not want being made public. It was my first experience of officials using their position so dishonestly. I refused to pull the investigation, and the writer of the malicious email went unpunished.
I remember the day results came out. I had arranged for the day off work so I could prepare myself. I longed for a first.