Gap year misgivings

This is my time of year. Walk-ing into the orchard and picking an apple, the juice dripping on my hand at the first chomp. Michaelmas daisies making their surprise appearance. Pumpkins emerging from their leafy bed like golden eggs. What I like best about autumn is the feeling of a New Beginning, the smell of new pencils, fat reams of blank paper, new socks in industrial quantities, and the leathery smell of shoes and football boots untouched by human feet. Only this year, none of this except the apples is happening. No new pencils; no soul-cleansing sort-out of last year’s detritus from the general impedimenta, the Remove’s chattels from the Leaver’s goods. This is the Year of the Gap.

I never voted for the Gap Year party. In my defence, I would like to say that Kate and James Scott are close friends. You remember them: the attractive, articulate couple who live in the rambling house in Clapham, the couple whose son Matthew was kidnapped in Columbia on his gap year. He escaped by jumping down a ravine, spent 10 days wandering around the jungle, slept at night in the rain under a small square of plastic, ate worms and licked the rainwater off leaves. He miraculously pitched up in an indian village, and, a few weeks later, went off to Oxford, oblivious to the cameras that followed him to his classes. I figured after Matthew, the gap year would be consigned to oblivion.

Gap years, like boarding schools, are an English thing. In America, the idea of letting your 18 year old roam around Australia/ Thailand/South America with a school-friend is on a par with throwing pennies into the swimming pool and telling your toddler to jump in and find them. It seems cruelly derelict. Also, the cost of university education in America is gargantuan compared to here (£22,000-plus a year for tuition, room and board). The idea of funding a prolonged holiday, even one that includes a stint with orphans, doesn’t compute. More common is the ‘Junior Year Abroad’, when, in the third year (American universities, like Scottish universities, are four years), students can attend university in another country. Once a ‘girl thing’Jackie Kennedy acquired her fluency and sophistication on her junior year in Paris it is now unisex.

It makes sense. For a start, there isn’t the break in the rhythm of working. If you add up the months a student is in residence at an English university, you soon see that there’s plenty of time for travel. Finally, when you spend a university year in another country, you benefit far more than you can as a mere tourist. But now, the gap year is entrenched, bolstered by an industry aimed at the sense of entitlement of our golden youth. Only when our universities embrace the four-year Scottish system, and employers give preference to graduates who spent their junior year at the University of Beijing or Barcelona over those who spent their gap year bone fishing in Cuba/skiing in Canada/teaching English in Guatemala, will the junket of the gap year fade.

Meanwhile, I’ve got to get back to the Logis site, where I’m looking at flats in Paris. Sam is enrolled in the Civilisation Française course at the Sorbonne. Then, as soon as he is fluentish in French, he’s off to Mississippi to set up a library for prisoners on Death Row in Parchman, the prison that looms large in John Grisham’s novels. As I said, I miss the smell of new pencils, the safety of new boots.