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Miranda R Waterton
I felt preposterous in my black and white plumage. My silly little pretend mortar board, my velvet length of ribbon looped over my shirt collar, dark tights already slipping down, the gown that came down to my waist. I had walked the streets for ages gathering the courage to go into the shop to purchase it. There had been no handout, no typed sheet sent in advance to warn of its purpose, necessity and cost. If you didn’t know, if you had to worry about the expense, you didn’t belong. If you belonged, you asked no questions. But I had many. and lacked only the courage to tell my truth, that a streak of skepticism born in the terraces of Lancashire wanted to snort with laughter at the whole idea of dressing up like this.
The only thing I could cling onto on this surreal morning of Matriculation was that for once everyone would be on foot. I wouldn’t have to walk alone because I couldn’t ride a bike. God knows I’d tried, all through that summer, but my hands and feet stubbornly went their separate ways, and my lack of balance on two wheels excluded me from far more than my accent. Today, for the first time in the last ten days, I would appear to fit into the crowd. And appearance was all I asked. Nobody needed to know about the reality, that I was floating in a helium balloon far above all this, dizzy from all the meals I’d been unable to face, watching it happen to someone other than myself.
As we crocodiled down the Banbury Road we were joined by chattering penguins from other colleges, gradually becoming louder and more pompous as we neared Broad Street. Eventually we became numerous enough to constitute our own reality, part of the glass bubble that surrounded Oxford in my mind. Two feelings tugged me apart - one that there had to be more to this glittering prize than a cold room in a spartan hall with oilcloth on the floor and a bathroom where rusty water came out of the pipes, and one that all this was far too grand and refined a place for a provincial Northerner like me, that there had been some mistake, that my silence in social situations would be noted any day now and mark me out as an interloper, who had no conception of years of boarding school and a world where parents provided things like smart shoes. Others could effortlessly unravel the linguistic code that called exams Collections and a silly little robe “sub fusc”. What they didn’t know, they would dare to ask, from generations of fathers and elder brothers. It seemed to me that the facade was deliberate, designed to frighten and silence the uninitiated. In many ways I already loathed the place, found its customs ridiculous, felt no desire to be a part of it. But I remembered my English teacher throwing her arms around me after the news reached my school, and talking about the lovely years ahead of me, as if there would be no work, no anxiety, no throwing up in the morning after breakfast, just an idyll of punting and champagne. It never occurred to me at the time that my instinct was right, and hers was wrong.