When we were young

Dear me,

This is another of those letters I’m writing from the future. I wrote to you previously, but it seems I didn’t go back far enough. I feel like the Terminator, going after Sarah Connor when she’s a fully autonomous adult, instead of a foolish girl just finding her feet. So here we go again.

I last wrote to you at the age of 38. I’m now a week off 45, and I’m afraid I’m still dealing with the fallout of all that nonsense you’re just about to do. Would you believe, nearly 30 years later, I still shudder at the thought of it? I mostly call you an idiot, but sometimes feel compelled to use stronger terms. It’s got so bad that in the past few weeks I’ve felt the need to dispatch apologies on your behalf to everyone you managed to wind up.

So you’re done with school. That didn’t go too well, did it? I did contemplate writing to my fourteen year-old self, but then I remembered you never listened to anyone at that point at all, neither your teachers, your parents nor your siblings. Here’s hoping I can reach you now.

You have a blank canvas upon which to paint anew. Only two other people from your old school are going onto college. One’s a Goth and the other you never got on with (to your credit, you decide to bury the hatchet — nice one). You have a chance of a clean break, a fresh start.

Like the T-800 Terminator in Terminator 2, I’m here to tell you that you’re about to seriously screw everything up, and it will change your life forever. It’s not quite nuclear armageddon, but, well, it might as well be. If you think school was bad, just wait until this one’s hit you.

There are some things you can’t change. You’re a very gaunt boy with sallow skin, looking much younger than your age. You’re extremely shy, rather miserable and a tad paranoid. What nobody has told you, and what you won’t learn for another decade, is that this is your biology. Treatment is available, but unfortunately you’re just going to have to ride this one out, as everyone around you is too busy with work to notice you look like Skeletor from He-Man.

There are some things you could change. Your hair, for example. Get a decent haircut. Er, but, no, don’t get a bald-cut, which with your bomber jacket will make you look like a racist skinhead. Oh no, well you do that anyway. Actually, it’s worse than that. You’ll mostly wear your two older brothers’ hand-me-downs, which will mean you have the fashion-sense of the late ’80s. Retro is very on-trend today, but no, not three years into the ’90s. Your Joshua Tree Bono impression is interesting, but not half as interesting as your green jeans.

You’ve just come home from a Christian youth festival on the Isle of Iona. You’ve engaged in some challenging workshops. In one, a South African volunteer explained his belief that all white people are racist. This is a logical conclusion for one who has only just seen the end of Apartheid, but please: pause. That’s his opinion. He’s entitled to his opinion, but he’s wrong. Just park that thought and recall that racism wasn’t part of your upbringing. Your mother’s youngest sister married into an Indian family. Don’t listen to that voice in your head which says, “Prove him wrong.” Just be yourself, and carry on as normal.

Okay, so I admit it: bad news, you do exactly that. You decide you’re going prove him wrong by curating a diverse fraternity, overcompensating in the opposite direction. Yep, so we’re going to witness behaviour which is quite simply embarrassing. Trigger warning: mega-cringe ahead. No, on second thoughts, I can’t bring myself to say it. Even after all these years, my skin still tightens, pricked by paraesthesia, and I have heart palpitations. Seriously, get a grip. 

You’ve just quit private school. You live in a great big house in the suburbs. Your dad drives a seven-series BMW with a carphone. You look about fourteen. Your skin is whiter than Andrex bog roll. Your fashion-sense is “all the clothes my mum bought for my older brothers five years ago, which they refused to wear.” And you’re just about to reinvent yourself as the cultured cool kid who listens to some South African reggae dude nobody in England has heard of.  

I don’t need to tell you that you’re about to make a complete fool of yourself. Okay, so I do. On your first day of college, you’re going to nervously wander into reception completely alone. You’ll sit down on chairs there and wait for your tutor to meet and greet you. While you’re sitting there, a Bengali lad is going to sit down beside you. You’ll be friendly, polite, say hello. Good. Congratulations, you’re a human being. You did well.

But now walk away and don’t look back. He’s not in any of your classes, he’s not doing the same courses as you. Just because he was the first person who smiled at you at college, it doesn’t mean you have to make him your best mate. Ah, but you do anyway, because he’s the first brick in your diverse fraternity, which will prove to the South African youth worker that he’s mistaken about the white man.

From here on, it’s all downhill. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with your new best mate. He’s outgoing, friendly and popular. Actually, he’s a great guy. It’s just that he’s not quite on the same page as you. Just listen to his conversations. He will introduce you to Chaka Demus & Pliers, a crime against humanity in itself, and indeed will imagine himself to be one half of that duo. He has visions of creating a Boy Band; you have visions of just making it through the day. He will take you to the pub at lunchtime; you have the feeling, “I really shouldn’t be here.”

You have a choice in the early weeks of college. To put your head down and study, or to make up for five years of misery by making friends with the first person who seems to be nice to you. Admittedly, option 2 seems appealing to someone as miserable as you, but believe me, that’s nothing to the misery to come. I suggest you choose option 1. You’ll hang around with some fellow nerds in your down-time, but you’ll be anonymous, free, and will head off to university a happy young man.

The alternative, I’m sorry to inform you, is a mega screw-up of mammoth proportions which will lead on into some of the worst days of your life. Take my advice, as someone who knows your own self better than you do, be content with that small band of friends from your tutor group. Don’t try to accelerate history with plots and plans of your own, guided by a fool with only one thing on his mind.

In the weeks to come, you’ll take notice of a girl who walks home in the same direction as you every single day. She’ll always set off from college just before you and walk about ten metres ahead of you. You’ll see her in the canteen too, always on the outer periphery of a group of friends, just like you. Naturally you’ll conclude that she’s another Billy Nomates like you, feeling out of place, the world passing you both by, as all the cool kids dominate the conversation.

It’s fine for you to think that, but keep those thoughts to yourself. Be content to be Billy Nomates outside your circle of friends. Let her be Billy Nomates on the periphery of hers. For what you’re about to do is epic. Epically stupid. Your best mate is just about to give you some really bad advice and you, my friend, are about to act on it. None except you can be blamed for how you execute his advice — penning a childish letter filled with self-pity and paranoia — you alone are to blame for that monstrosity, and you rightfully deserve the mockery that awaits you.

But unbeknownst to you, while you’re reeling from your absolute humiliation, a whole other set of events have been set in motion. You have no idea what your best mate has said on your behalf, but in years to come you’ll have to conclude that it can’t have been what you had in mind. Unbeknownst to you, your mate is not a fount of wisdom. Nope, you’ve just wandered into a world you didn’t even know existed. That girl now has protectors, looking out for her. Never again will you see her sitting on the periphery.

I’m sorry, my friend. None knows that you’re from a strict, religious home. None knows that your mother is a priest. None knows that your father is a successful solicitor by day and a respected preacher at the weekend. None knows the morality you were raised on. None knows that you’re timid and shy. None knows that you were just trying to make friends with one who walked home the same way as you, who you erroneously believed was lonely like you.

Nope, for your friend has spoken — who knows what came out of his mouth? — and now the honour of every single non-white girl in college will be defended against you. From here on, your life will be made a misery. Your tutor will ask you to help two Bosnian refugees access college computers; you’ll do so anyway, because why would you not? But, for that, you will be castigated, your intentions found wanting. Soon enough you’ll have a second epithet to accompany geek kid: dirty gora. This is what awaits you, oh enlightened one, so desperate to show some misguided youth worker you’re cultured and wise.

This is your life at college now. Your detractors will warn every Asian student away from you, until nobody will want to hang around with you at all. The remainder of your friends will drop you one by one, with no explanation. Every day, there will be an attack on you. Whenever you walk into the canteen at college for months on end, you’ll just hear an eternal assault. Whenever someone new sits with you, they will be told not to talk to you. You’re beyond the pale.

All of this because you’re determined to prove that you’re enlightened and progressive in your outlook as you paint on your new canvas. You have good intentions, but good intentions without knowledge are dangerous. Your cultural awareness is virtually non-existent. You know nothing about Islam or Sikhism, and know nothing of the beliefs and cultural expectations of those brought up within these traditions. You’re completely ignorant of the unspoken rules which govern gender interactions. So are your companions, despite their Muslim names. 

While you’ll set out with the best of intentions, embracing the message of anti-racism, you’ll end up winding everyone up the wrong way. You may think you’re living in enlightened times, but you’ll soon discover that you’re the unenlightened, trying too hard to make friends with people who don’t want to know you at all.

I’ll admit that it took me years to make sense of those events. I didn’t understand them at all at the time. I just felt victimised by everyone. I believed in treating others as I’d like to be treated, but found it repaid with total contempt and scorn. True, some of the critiques of me were completely fair. Some of what was said about me was true too. Yes, but only about ten percent of it. But that’s your fault for attempting to completely reinvent yourself.

If only you’d just be yourself. Your culture isn’t very different from that of your detractors. If anything, you’ve had the stricter upbringing, raised in a religious home. Many of the accusations levelled at you are simply preposterous. Still, you could be wiser. The serious go to college to study, not to inflate their ego. That’s what you should focus on. Stop gazing all around you. Be content to be a nerd, ignored by all. A better future then lies ahead.

Ah, but alas, no man has ever been able to put back time. And even if we could, you still wouldn’t listen. These are mistakes you’re destined to make. You were always destined to make a humongous fool of yourself, then and now.

So tragically for you, four more years of pain lie ahead. But relax, it’s not the end; this is just the beginning. True, you’re just about to fall into a great big hole, consumed by the heaviest despair. But then what? You will finally conclude that something has to change. And that’s when you’ll decide to set about fixing your life, pursuing the One who alone can mend your broken heart. If you were not broken, you would not seek to be fixed.

So go ahead, Tim: screw everything up. These mistakes will make you. Seriously. Everybody is capable of reform. Even you.

Yours faithfully,

Your middle-aged self

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