The lessons showcase the core of my identity Dominic Caddick

Being the soppy, sentimental soul, and prolific list-maker that I am, from day dot at uni, when I wrote a tweet documenting lesson one: “If you look lost and confused, someone will offer to help you, if you look like you know what you’re doing, you can get away with anything”, I have been compiling a list of the lessons I’ve learnt here at uni. They’re about myself, my relationships with other people, about growing up and my experience of Cambridge. I wrote them to share, and the Letters to Freshers series seems to be the perfect opportunity.

Looking back at the lessons now, they showcase the core of my identity. I can see my journey from scared and overwhelmed at 19, to independent and brave at 20. Michaelmas starts with a sudden sense of imposter syndrome; as a state-educated, working class person who took a year out of education to focus on her mental health, I found stepping into an environment as results-focused as Cambridge to be undeniably intimidating.

I can see my journey from scared and overwhelmed at 19, to independent and brave at 20

People were using words I didn’t understand; lessons were given by native speakers, in French, a language I’d never heard spoken outside of my A Level classroom (by a tiny and wonderful englishwoman), since we’d never had the money to go abroad. Lessons seven and eight: “No one knows what they’re doing, but they’re good at hiding it” and “‎You know how little you know, but you don’t know how little everyone else knows” were fundamental to my realisation that I am worthy of being here and smart enough to hold my own.

The start of Lent term was a really transformative time for me. I was settled in, and started seeing the huge cracks in the foundations of this institution which is still incredibly problematic. What had started as imposter syndrome, became a deep anger towards the institutionalised bias that Cambridge seems to hold, which benefits straight, white, cis, upper-class men.

The lesson “It’s okay to say no!” appears three times

I was endlessly frustrated by this, and my attempts to change anything repeatedly came up against resistance. I felt powerless, doubting myself and the validity of my experience and my ability to change anything at all. In a response to this, came lesson thirty six: “One day there will be no doubt in my mind that I am brilliant and strong and capable”, a mantra that I still repeat to myself when faced with doubt today.

Lessons such as twenty-four: “Pick your battles and fight them hard” and twenty-one: “My education is a privilege. Some people are fighting just to create a safe space for them to learn in and I should be working harder to fight with them” were inspired by conversations with people with experiences that are so different to mine, and the protests which took place throughout Lent. These are just some of the many reasons why I ran for Welfare Officer at my college, which prompted lesson thirty-one: “‎I love Newnham and the people who live here with all my welfairy heart”.

My favourite on the list is twenty-five: “If he’s telling you how good he is in bed, he’s probably not”, written after an encounter with somebody who, following the worst sex of my life to date, iconically asked, “Did you come?” To which the only response I could think of was, “Do you think I came?” Maybe the real lesson here was that no fresher is ever going to be good in bed (except me, obviously) and bad sex is an inevitable aspect of the casual sex many of us have at uni.

What had started as imposter syndrome, became a deep anger towards the institutionalised bias that Cambridge seems to hold

Despite my favourite being a little crude, the most important lessons I learned were also about relationships, in lessons thirty-two and thirty-three. These were written at the start of Lent, then deleted (probably because they hit a little too close to home) and re-added at the end: “People don’t always feel what I expect them to feel” and “‎Self care doesn’t mean disregarding other people’s thoughts, feelings and wants for the sake of my own”. When I look at these again now, I feel a little for the people I know I hurt in order to learn these; but I know that they are lessons which will stay with me forever and be fundamental in how I approach my relationships with others, both at present and in the future.


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The list ends with lessons which seem more like affirmations, perhaps because I haven’t entirely learned them yet. The lesson “It’s okay to say no!” appears three times, which I feel demonstrates my continuing inability to give myself a break, fearing that to say “no” is to let people down. This one isn’t so much a lesson learned, rather, something I very much am still working on. There are less of them for Easter Term, because I was so busy, but the ones I did find the time to jot down seem deeper and more reflective, such as thirty-eight and thirty-nine: “Let go of other people’s emotions, and instead focus on your reactions to them” and “You are stronger and more resilient than you give yourself credit for”.

In full Charley's forty lessons

Here it is, funny, candid, and a little bit sexy, and I hope it can inspire you to start one of your own.

Michaelmas

1. If you look lost and confused, someone will offer to help you, if you look like you know what you're doing, you can get away with anything

2. Everyone is lonely af and people just need a cuddle

3. Sometimes, the nice boys you kiss have girlfriends back home

4. ‎Memes??????

5. Northerners are lovely but they all take the p*ss when it's 10°C and you have a coat on while they're still in a t shirt

6. In Cambridge, time is money

7. No one knows what they're doing, but they're good at hiding it

8. ‎You know how little you know, but you don't know how little everyone else knows

9. ‎It is always preferable to be honest about how you're feeling, even if it makes you feel vulnerable. You always feel better afterwards.

10. ‎The fact you're calling your parents less probably means you've got a healthy support system set up, and you need them less

11. You thought going home would make you feel better, but actually it just made you realise that uni is the right place for you

12. ‎Not all tories are w*nkers and not everyone who went to private school is a tory

13. ‎It is possible to survive 8 weeks without ANY crisps (with the exception of two stolen hula hoops in week 7)

14. The friends you make will argue over how to best carve a Thanksgiving chicken and you will love them infinitely for it

15. ‎You can't keep sweeping your trauma under the rug. You need to address it.

16. ‎Don't change yourself to be what other people want. Be unapologetically yourself.

17. ‎I'm not at Cambridge to meet someone who will one day be rich and powerful and do great things, I'm here to give myself the tools to one day be rich and powerful and do great things

18. ‎Home isn't where your stuff is, it's where you feel safe, happy and comfortable

19. ‎Life is tough but I am tougher

Lent:

20. ‎It's okay to f*ck up as long as I realise and work towards making amends and being better

21. ‎My education is a privilege. Some people are fighting just to create a safe space for them to learn in and I should be working harder to fight with them.

22. ‎Three glasses of wine is too many

23. ‎Writing is my favourite thing

24. Pick your battles and fight them hard

25. ‎If he's telling you how good he is in bed, he's probably not

26. Tea breaks are a human need

27. ‎I am the person that cracks and does everyone's washing up if it's left for long enough (but I am also guilty of leaving the washing up)

28. ‎I can't do everything, it's okay to say no

29. ‎IT'S OKAY TO SAY NO

30. ‎It's okay to say no

31. ‎I love Newnham and the people who live here with all my welfairy heart

32. ‎People don't always feel what I expect them to feel

33. Self care doesn't mean disregarding other people's thoughts, feelings and wants for the sake of my own

34. ‎If you need a break, ask for one

35. ‎Eating toast in bed is always regrettable

36. ‎One day there will be no doubt in my mind that I am brilliant and strong and capable

Easter:

37. If you're too goal-oriented, you won't enjoy the journey (this is about sex)

38. Let go of other people's emotions, and instead focus on your reactions to them

39. You are stronger and more resilient than you give yourself credit for

40. Be malleable, but don't be a pushover

Click to show

I think the point of compiling and sharing these lessons, from funny, to rude, to empowering, to painful, is to show that we all make mistakes. We’re all learning, growing and changing, and that’s partly what uni is about. It’s a space to become who you are. I’m looking forward to the list I write next year, if only because the addition of every lesson signifies the personal growth and enrichment I experience every day at uni.

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