Storytime. Long one. Feel free to skip it.
Once upon a time, when I was 17, I managed to sneak my way into scholarship-only boarding school. It was just as well, really: my lifestyle had evolved in ways that were neither wise nor safe. I was personally mostly well behaved, within a given value of “well” and “behaved”… However, I was running with people who were routinely engaging in activities that were both unsafe and illegal, and not being clever about it either. I was also increasingly under pressure to become financially independent from my family.
Let’s rewind it a bit. When I was 11, I realised that I had to leave home asap. I also realised that I did not want to run away from home. Running away when you’re underage makes you a fugitive, not unlike a medieval outlaw. Not only you have to fend for yourself and stop bad people from hurting you, but you have to do so while being completely invisible from all of society’s formal structures and services. You can’t go to school. You can’t go to hospital. You can’t go to the police. You can’t be even seen by the police being out and about at odd times. If you are found, you will be caught and shipped back home. The services designed to help citizens are traps for underage runaways. They are left with only illegal recourses to income and support, all of which invariably carry high costs and/or risks.
I grew up in an area that gave me the opportunity of witnessing high doses of reality happening at people. I knew I didn’t have the skills to live in the wild (not that there’s much wilderness in my parts for anyone to live in), and I didn’t fancy the life of the urban outlaw. Running away only to be constantly hunted didn’t sound like freedom. Even at an age when my greatest aspiration was still to be a Jedi knight, I knew that I didn’t want to put myself in a position that risky unless I absolutely had to. So I packed and hid a go-bag (the stupidest, least useful go-bag ever packed by any human, I swear), and filed that as option B.
Option A meant waiting until I was 14, and then wrangling things so I could leave home to study. I wasn’t running: I was allowed to leave. That kept me safely within society’s fold, so I still had the benefit of all our services and institutions, and even then it was still a shock to the system. I was quite simply unprepared to manage everything on my own, without help or guidance. I had to accept that although I was academically intelligent, I didn’t in fact know shit about life. Not a damn thing. I went from childhood to adulthood without any prior preparation, and discovered that being a grown-up is actually rather involved. I still don’t feel as if I’ve caught up.
The main shock to the system, though, was realising that I was on my own. Although I was largely financially dependent on my family until my majority for the simple reason that I could not get a job without their permission, that wasn’t going to last long. I needed to sort myself out. In no time at all I’d be <<drumroll>> independent! So many people think independence is all freedom and self-expression, and those are the people who’ve never actually been independent – self-supporting; unsupported; self-responsible; on your own. Free to mess up and starve or freeze.
By more luck than judgement I managed to make it all the way to 17, and found myself suddenly staring at 18. 18, if I got there, would be the game changer: I would be an actual person under the law, able to self-determine, but that would only be a reality if I could be self-supporting, and opportunities did not look abundant. I didn’t have any marketable skills – well, no, I had a ton, but no legal ones. Not being allowed to work, I had no income, hence no savings. In fact, I couldn’t have official savings if I wanted to, because I needed my family’s permission to open a personal bank account. I did have personal connections, so I was getting a lot of unofficial job offers, but all of them involved activities which, although quite lucrative, didn’t look like healthy long-term options. I was incredibly reluctant to do anything that may cause me to lose my freedom or die a violent death, but it was starting to look like my only option.
Just in the nick of time, out of the blue, I got a two-year free ride at an all-paid school, and a damn good school to boot. When I’d first put the application in I felt I didn’t stand a chance, but somehow I got in. Nobody there ever got to know it, but it’s very possible that that scholarship saved my life. It definitely changed my life, as it gave me the opportunity to get a tuition waiver to go to university afterwards. Ok, I had to work for my grades, but compared to my other options it was hardly a chore. It was interesting, indoor work with no heavy lifting and no risk of getting killed, raped, or sent to jail… Yeah, I could get behind that, no bother.
So I partied hard, because the company was excellent, but I worked damn hard, too. I’m not entirely sure that the majority of classmates ever understood why I was so driven. In fact, I’m pretty confident that they don’t understand why I kept being so driven for so long afterwards. It turns out that although the school was scholarship-only, it’s a lot easier to get a scholarship if you come from a good family – not necessarily a rich family, mind you, but definitely a supportive one, or at least a functional one. Although some of the kids made a huge song-and-dance about how they didn’t get on with their families, they could all go home. I couldn’t.
I couldn’t go home, and I couldn’t get help; if I fucked up, I would have to deal with the consequences on my own. And yes, it was a personal choice, because my folk would have had me back; but it was a choice derived from knowing that absolutely any other option would be preferable. I would rather sleep on a park bench than go home, and I know about sleeping on benches. I would rather go hungry, and I know about hunger. In fact, the list of things I wouldn’t rather do is pretty damn slim, and not altogether pleasant to contemplate.
That school opened a whole world of opportunities for me. Still, the road hasn’t always been easy: I have lived in some veritable crapholes and eaten mostly shit for a number of years for the simple reason that I couldn’t afford anything better. It took me four years after university to earn enough to be able to reliably meet my basic needs – and I’m talking roof-over-head and food, not smart phones and nights out. Four years living below the breadline might not sound like much, but at the time I didn’t know how long it was going to be like that. I didn’t know if thing were ever going to get better, let alone when. At one of my lowest points, I was staying in a house that didn’t have a kitchen because that entire room had fallen into the floor below. I lived on peanut butter sandwiches until the weather got colder. Then I had to stop eating those because the peanut butter froze in the jar and I couldn’t warm it up enough to spread it. I am already starting to pay for it health-wise, but at the time I did not have a better option.
Aside from a few bumps in the road, though, my situation has improved all the way. I now am in a position where I’m relatively financially secure, and can afford everything I need. I can’t afford everything I want, though, not by a long shot. I cannot be financially reckless, because the cost of fucking up is too great. I have no cushioning, no parachutes, no room for error, other than those I provide for myself.
Most of my schoolmates, who are highly intelligent and very open-minded people, fail to get it. Why don’t I ever attend the school reunions? Why don’t I ever make an effort to go visit them? And I constantly have to explain to people that I can’t afford it. And no, it’s not that I don’t physically have the money. I could rustle it up at a push, but I can’t spend it on whatever it is they are planning to do because there is always something else that needs to be prioritised. Food. Bills. Building repairs. Vehicle maintenance. Saving for emergencies. Which of this should I be willing to give up for a jolly?
For instance, I got invited for drinks in London last summer – a do that I strongly suspect was a covert fundraiser. The person doing the organising was kind, but rather insistent. They would so like to see me… They haven’t seen me in years… Surely I could make the time to see them? And she had no idea of what she was asking of me, or rather of how her request got translated in my head.
Drinks in London on a weekday night. That means:
- 2 days’ work lost (I’m self-employed): circa £200
- Train tickets there and back: between £60 and £150 (no, I’m not insane: British train prices are time-dependant).
- A night in a hotel or B&B (although I’ve spent plenty of nights sleeping outside in London, I’m getting a bit superannuated for that sort of thing): £40 as a minimum.
Let’s be conservative and call it £300. That’s a lot of money to spend for the privilege of going for drinkie-poos – and doesn’t include the drinkies themselves. On its own, though, that figure doesn’t mean much. The issue isn’t the value per se, but what it means in my world. That’s a month of bills. That’s three months’ worth of food. That’s close to the cost of my last van (£350, I kid you not). That’s money that, if I need it and don’t have it, would cost me a lot to borrow, because borrowing money is expensive for people in my financial bracket. That’s money that, if I was desperate for it and absolutely couldn’t get it, could really mess my life up. Late payments snowball on you. I know people who lost their cars, which lost them their jobs, which lost them their homes, which lost them most of what they owned, because of a £30 parking ticket.
But my schoolmates don’t get it. The ones who can process the information seem to treat it as a kind of aberration: what’s wrong with me, that I have no money? They have no idea of how hard it is to start from nothing or very little (I didn’t, by the way. I had a couple of very unpleasant and unmissable relatives die on me along the way, or I’d never, ever have managed to become a homeowner. I could have never saved enough for a deposit while paying rent). They have no idea of what it’s like to have no support net: to know that if you fail, however temporarily, you could lose everything you’ve managed to accrue so far. They don’t know what it’s like when the Bank of Mom and Dad just isn’t there and, with nobody to bankroll you and no collaterals, real banks won’t touch you either. They don’t know how it feels to know that if your grades drop, or your boss gets spiteful, or your business doesn’t thrive, or you hurt yourself too much to work, or you get sick, or you and your partner split up, you may end up on the road. They might understand it conceptually, but they have never felt it. They’ve never felt the pressure of living without a financial parachute.
They don’t get it, and I can’t explain it in a way that would make any sense to them. So they’ll keep inviting me to drinks in London, or weekends in Berlin, or concerts in Geneva, and I have to remind myself that they are trying to be kind, to be inclusive. I have to remind myself that there are no intended slights in those invitations, only those I choose to read in them. And if they sound condescending or pitying when I decline, I have to understand that, ultimately, we have always lived in different worlds. Although we walked side-by-side for a little while, we have always had different points of views and priorities, and we will probably do so until the day we die.