At other schools, they had options for foreign exchange, ski trips, Duke of Edinburgh Awards, kayaking, bungee jumping, and studying abroad.
We went to Dawlish Warren for the day. We were studying erosion and coastal something-or-other in geography (this is twenty-some years ago, so I won’t reproach myself too much for forgetting what it was about).
Just about the best memory from that whole period in my life was a t-shirt on sale at a local, touristy shop, emblazoned with the slogan – Good Girls Go To Heaven, Bad Girls Go To Dawlish Warren.
My best friend’s mother used to take in teenagers from all over the world who would go and study in Sidmouth; we had a handful of foreign exchange students in my school across the years, terribly polite and beautifully presented – they wore their uniforms with pride and made the rest of us looked like the shambles we undoubtedly were at that age. None of my lot went anywhere until after college.
Then, they went everywhere. Like a kind-hearted virus, they went global. One of the lads I was at school with has worked out the perfect system. He works like a lunatic, every hour he possibly can, for six months. Then, he takes off and travels, backpack and water canteen, for the next six months.
Making memories. Living.
Man’s a genius. He’s had the same system since he left education and he’s been everywhere. Only ever carrying enough money for a hotel room for the night and a postcard for his mother.
It became rather more shocking when the kids I trained at the shop went and discovered the world as well. One of them moved to Australia. Another did voluntary work in Ethiopia. Yet another is now a doctor.
Travel broadens the horizons, without question.
For the sake of dignity, I’ll change some details. I got a panicked phone message from the States some years back, from Tilly. Tilly’s daughter, Marshmallow, had been on a student exchange for the previous month. Something had clearly gone very wrong, because Tilly sounded wounded and adrift. I called her back.
Marshmallow had been to France, a wonderful experience for any fifteen year old, and had been living with a very nice family somewhere in the countryside.
On the first night, Marshmallow had called her mother in the States and complained. The line had been rather bad, but from what Tilly could gather, Marshmallow was having to share a bedroom with the French girl, Josette.
Marshmallow and Josette had been pen pals for some months beforehand, and had been put together by their schools.
Tilly wondered if her daughter could really be so entitled as to believe she should have a wing of the chateau, told Marshmallow to buckle down and have a nice month. Undoubtedly, Tilly must have sobbed her heart out after she hung up.
I can only imagine it must have been similar to the first day of school, transporting the cherubic little child at the school gates, and watching them skip away, quite happily, while the mother realises a milestone has been crossed. A time of exhausting simplicity ended. A new era of exhaustion begun.
The month had gone as most months do, and Marshmallow appeared at the arrival gate with Josette in tow. It was then she was able to clarify what she had actually said: not that she was having to share a bedroom with Josette, but in fact, she was having to share a bed with her.
Tilly was apoplectic. With France being that bit closer to England, where I found myself, Tilly fancied I would know to whom she should complain. In fact, she might sue. Maybe she would get onto the school board. Perhaps she should call Oprah.
It transpired that, yes they had had to share a bed and alright, they had slept on the same bed sheets, however they had separate duvets. They weren’t cuddling. Nothing actually happened.
It got worse: the bed linens hadn’t been washed for the whole month.
Tilly was close to a need for heavy meds and liver-drowning alcohol.
After approximately two hours of not terribly helpful telephonic reassurance, I asked Tilly to put Marshmallow on the phone.
“Marshmallow,” I began. If it needs saying, that’s not her real name, and if she’s reading this – I’m sorry, kid.
“Yeah,” she sounded a little flat, as if she’d had to hear about herself for quite some time already.
I was reassured. “So, you slept with a Frenchwoman.”
She sighed and started to explain.
“Most of us save an experience or two for our retirement, what exactly are you planning on doing?”
I suspect, if I’d been closer, Tilly would have given me a look. Marshmallow flipped the conversation to how things were going with my boss. Clever girl. So followed another hour of chitchat and back-biting.
When the phone bill arrived, half of it was that call.