Gap Year

There is an Aussie rite of passage that is not really part of American culture. This rite is also shared by the Kiwis, Brits, Irish and even the South Africans.

It is the ‘gap year’, where young adults leave their home country and go on grand adventures. They almost always end by moving back home with their parents, because the are spent – financially, often physically, and sometimes emotionally. For many (myself included) the only thing better than the gap year, is coming home from the gap year.

So, what are the Americans doing when the English, Irish, Kiwi and Aussie youth are gallivanting around the globe, tending bars in London, backpacking through Scandinavia, volunteering at refugee camps in Haiti or getting blindingly drunk with other intrepid gap yearers? Many of them go to college – an American rite of passage, some join the workforce, and some do take advantage of their youth, their savings account and the best wishes of their loved ones, and go on a gap year adventure.

When I left high school, I did not go to college – or uni, as we call it – right away. I had blown my final exams, because at seventeen I was essentially burnt out from 2 years of 4-6 hours a night of study. When I announced about 3 weeks before the final exams that I wouldn’t be sitting them, my parents informed me that I would. Fine, I thought, but I won’t study. And in a rare act of defiance, I didn’t. I did okay on these exams, and was accepted into the University of Western Australia. But I didn’t go. Instead, I lounged around on my dad’s couch with my unemployed best friend, cashing fortnightly dole checks.

My dad’s tolerance for this behavior wore thin after a surprising 8 months (I would have kicked me off the couch in 8 weeks!), and I went out and got a job. At a grocery store. As a ‘checkout chick’. I do not know how my parents felt about that at the time. I was a bright girl, and working in a supermarket wasn’t exactly my dream job, but, I was only 18. I didn’t know what my dream job was, and so I settled for something easy and close to home. I quickly rose through the ranks, and by my 19th birthday, I was the manager of the checkout chicks (and guys). It went to my head a little, but the power put shine on a job that was otherwise quite dull.  By that time I had also locked onto the dream of going to college in the U.S. so, I was saving frantically to move there.

By the end of that year I was living in LA – with my aunt and uncle.  And so began my gap year.

My aunt and uncle are only 10 years older, so the living situation was actually much cooler than it first sounds. Even though I was under-aged, we would have fun nights out at bars and pubs. I never got carded like I do now; people cared less, or the laws were less stringent, but for whatever reason my 19-year old butt sat on many a bar-stool that year.

I got a job at the local AMC cinema, where I met my boyfriend and a gang of best friends. I added two other jobs to the mix, as I needed to save cash for tuition. I worked in an auto parts store and a Blockbuster. The worst of my jobs was Blockbuster. My manager was the same age as me and a complete tool. Had I known anything about karma at the time, I may have understood the irony of the situation.

My best job was at AMC – all the free movies, popcorn and diet Coke a girl could want! Plus, my boyfriend and best friends were there.

The auto parts store was kind of smelly and often boring, but I learned a shitload about cars. Men can be real assholes to a pretty girl who works behind the parts counter, so I learned my stuff fast. “You do not need new jets for your carburetor because your car is fuel injected. You’re just being a jerk and trying to trick me. Next!” Booyah!

I worked seven days a week, and took little time off. Amongst all the shifts – some of them back-to-back, I found time to go to Rosarito Beach, Mexico, Big Bear, and to Palm Springs. I was only 19 so I thought that these were exotic locations. Life was seriously fun.

I did eventually get to college after a year of working three jobs, and having fun with my friends and boyfriend. I did a semester at BYU (yes, that BYU) which was both amazingly great and completely depressing.

Amazingly great:

  • My oldest friend, Jules, was also at BYU, and we have a lot of fun – even now
  • I lived in the dorms and adored my roommate
  • My girlfriends and I went dancing two or three times a week. (Provo is not like the town in Footloose, even though the original film was shot there.)
  • I had French class 5 days a week and j’aime Francais!
  • I got good grades with little effort

Completely depressing:

  • My boyfriend lived in California
  • I was very poor, so would accept dates just to go to a movie (see point #1)
  • After three dates, most guys would propose
  • It was cold and snowy (winter semester)
  • I was so poor I would do my roommate’s laundry if she paid and I could throw my clothes in with hers
  • My non-French classes were ridiculously boring
  • Did I mention that I was poor?

The semester came to a close, and I was destitute. My time in the dorms had come to an end, I had no money and no job, and my boy in California broke things off. If I’d had a dog, he would have been hit by a car. Things were grim. I talked my way into a job – and an advance on my paycheck, and crashed at a friend’s place for about 6 weeks.  Aside from the dancing, which continued 3 nights a week (the Ivy Tower: Wednesday, ladies night, free entry, Friday, free entry before 8, and Saturday, $1 entry), I was miserable.

It was time to admit to myself that my little adventure was over. Jules was heading home to Perth, Australia, and so would I.

I called my mum. Collect. “Hi mum!” “Hello, sweetheart.” “I want to come home.” “Oh that’s wonderful!” and then because she knew me well, “How much money do you have?” “$5.” There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Okay, well I will call your dad and we will work something out.”

And she did, and we did, and Jules and I flew home together in August 1990. She moved back in with her parents, and I moved back in with mine (my dad and step-mum’s place). And so ended my gap year.

Perhaps I was not as intrepid as today’s 19 year-olds. But in mine I went to two countries, learned French, lost the 30 pounds I had gained sitting on my dad’s couch, lost my virginity, learned to drive on the LA freeways, found out the difference between an alternator and a starter motor, refused several proposals, and survived being homeless and unemployed.

I did okay. ; )

In fact, I am proud of my 19-year-old self. She was gutsy and passionate. I remind myself to tap into her when I am feeling scared or indifferent.

And just because they make me giggle, have a look at this series of videos entitled “Gap Yah“.

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