Finalists have made it. They are the kings and queens of the jungle, expert players in the Oxford game. They are old hands at tutorials; they have faced the dreaded exam season and survived. Every finalist I have ever met has been disarmingly friendly and perfectly polite. Frankly, I find them terrifying.
In my mind there are two major reasons for this. The first is verging on tribal: they are higher up on the food chain than I am. Prelims fade into insignificance when compared to the life-changing exams that finalists have to take. A confused mingling of respect and shyness mean that I would rather leap from the Bridge of Sighs than be shushed in the library, rather miss chocolate cake night in college than disturb someone’s concentration by being too rowdy on the way home from Hassan’s. Given the amount of work and dedication it takes to get to this stage in their lives, they’ve earned my admiration and so I try to keep a (borderline-reverential) distance.
The second reason is subtler, and far more telling. It is due to the fact that finalists are ‘adults’, and not just in the legal, older-than-18 way, but in a real, surviving-on-food-that-isn’t-pot-noodles-and-toast way. They seem like the type who have credit cards and can make important phone calls without crying afterwards. I bet none of them have managed to grow mould in coffee cups in recent months, nor forgotten to put detergent in the washing machine and then wondered why their clothes weren’t clean. These are the kinds of people I might trust with important matters, or turn to for advice.
And soon, that will be me. Or rather, that should be me. In a few short years I will be expected, by myself and by society, to have my life more or less sorted out. I will need to understand the concept of a ‘mortgage’ beyond the vague idea I’ve formed by playing Monopoly. I envision having to spend my weekends being responsible, perhaps paying bills or at a networking brunch, instead of holding hung-over Netflix pyjama pity parties for myself. In other words, it will become less and less acceptable for me to curl up in a ball on the floor and ignore my problems when I don’t feel like dealing with the real world. Worst of all, I will be expected to have an answer to the following, truly horrific question: “What are you going to do next?”
Graduation seemed a long way away when I arrived in October but time passes differently in Oxford and I am starting to realise just how quickly these next few years will go. It’s hard to imagine ever being fully prepared for what’s ahead, but by the time Finals roll around we will all be flung headfirst into reality whether we’re ready for it or not.
Finalists represent a deep fear of the unknown and of the future. As I blunder, directionless, through the first year of my degree, these creatures seem to swan past, riding the waves of stress and responsibility with an elegance and calm that I do not possess. I have no idea how they manage it. Are they truly as in control as they look, or are they paddling away furiously underneath the surface? Either way, it is my dream to one day be just as intimidating.