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Pity the poor gappers in their menial jobs

xams are here again, and many sixth-formers are now sitting hunched over tiny plastic desks in big halls, hoping that sweat does not drip on to their essays about the role of women in The Merchant of Venice.

Doubtless many of them are looking forward to being pitched out of secondary education for their big summer holiday. Maybe some of them are even planning on a gap year before advancing onwards to the mythical vodka-and-Voltaire world of university.

It seems a lovely prospect - a year of gentle, mindless work, long lie-ins and a few months sunning themselves on Thai beaches. But as someone who is now reaching the end of her year out, I can only look pityingly on the poor little chickens with the idea that a gap year will be a long holiday of alcopops and lovely little foreign trips.

Nine months ago, I had the same cheery optimism. Now the real world of the gap year has changed my mind somewhat.

Now that years out are no longer an exclusively hooray-Henry activity, the year generally tends to pan out like this. Summer is spent ostensibly working behind a bar, but is actually mostly used for experimenting with Kerosene Martinis and kipping in wheelie-bins.

The autumn and winter are spent doing a series of degrading and menial jobs which principally involve wearing a shiny name badge andor wallowing in animal fat.

The cash acquired during this period is then spent on a three-month trip round Thailand or Australia, from which the gapper returns tanned, spiritually enlightened and broke. The remainder of the year is spent recouping financial losses through more menial work and having a stab at the university reading-list.

The thing which no one expects is how emotionally jarring it all is.

A gapper is neither one thing nor the other. During A-levels everyone tiptoes round because you are working hard. At university you are a student. But a gapper is just that; a gap in the universe, a human void.

Take me. I left my happy school life triumphantly in July, ready to unleash myself enthusiastically on the world. As a sparky student with a valid provisional driving licence, I felt sure that this big wide world would welcome me with open arms and substantial pay cheques.

Well, two months of working behind a yacht club bar, being shrieked at by people called Rodney and mopping up gin with my T-shirt soon put paid to that idea.

Then, despite a complete lack of non-academic skills and qualifications, I found a job working for one day a week sticking press cuttings on to pieces of paper for the History Channel. If that had lasted, I would have had the ineffable pleasure of mounting this very cutting, and placing it lovingly between a review from the Sheerness Telegraph of the Biography Channel's latest documentary on Kris Kristofferson, and the listings page of the Maidstone Evening News.

But I was one of the lucky ones. At least I got my own Pritt Stick.

Contemporaries landed far worse jobs. Grade-A students with blue and trembling fingers picked potatoes. The coolest boy in school is now packing sprouts into boxes. And, unlike a holiday job which you know will end with the start of term, you feel that there is no reason why you will not be doing this in 40 years' time.

And all this for the promise of a few months with luggage strapped to your back, and the ability to feel slightly worldly as you roll up at university next September.

I have just limped around Europe being propositioned, robbed, and forced to sleep in youth hostels in the Nuremberg red-light area. I have spent 13-hour stretches in stationary trains outside Barcelona listening to piped flamenco music, and have gone for three days eating only fig rolls to save enough money to avoid the more rancid hostels in Granada.

You lot in the education world do not realise how bleak life is out here. I miss school so much that I have just signed up again, as a volunteer classroom assistant at my old primary.

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