This time last year, I was nobody.
Of course, that’s not entirely true. I was getting by, so to speak, minding my own business whilst coasting along in my own little fantasy world. Think of a cloud: drifting way up in the sky, no anchors or weights holding it in one place. Gravity is a stranger up there, so it would seem. What I am trying to say is that, in many ways, I was that cloud once upon a time. The funny thing about clouds is that they are so much bigger, so much more significant, than they originally appear; apparently the average cumulonimbus is about 1000 feet thick. And to think: before NCS, I didn’t even know that clouds had names! This cloud had a name, too. Emily. In fact, that might be the only thing about me that hasn’t changed, because this time last year I was preparing for the biggest, most life-changing opportunity which has ever found itself lying on my doorstep. NCS: The Challenge.
My experience with the National Citizen Service has been, in many ways, the key to the locked door labelled “FUTURE” which I had been vacantly gawping at for so much of my adolescent life. It’s not that I wasn’t trying to get through; it was more like I had been brainwashed into thinking that life was easy, and that any door in the world would eventually open up for me given enough time. I could mutter Alohomora under my breath a million times and counting, though. That door needed a key, and that only came with experience. At that point in time, I only associated “experience” with work. Ah, work experience. By the time you reach my age, even the thought of the term work experience begins to tickle your nerves. Everybody wants it! Employers, Universities, UCAS: in fact, I have heard that godforsaken word so many times that I wish I could lock it inside Room 101 for all of eternity. Ah!
All of a sudden, during one of those dreary Year 11 assemblies we used to have, a virtuous symphony of fanfares exploded upon us. The sky, previously murky and grey, was blanketed in a warm ray of light, and from the heavens above fell my guardian angel. An NCS worker by the name of “Pete” stood before us, singing a divine chorus about experiences and challenges far beyond the likes of anything our normal lives could offer. NCS: The Challenge. Of course, Pete wasn’t really an angel, but oh how much I wanted to get involved with this so-called “NCS” business. I practically ran home that evening – a miraculous feat in itself, considering my particular dislike of all things active – and forced my mum to sign the consent form. Before that day, I hadn’t even thought about the summer following my GCSE exams, but from then on my experience with NCS was all that I could think about for months.
On the morning of August 11th, 2016, I felt more sick-to-my-stomach with anxiety than I had when coming out for the first time. I remember my alarm screaming obscenities at me for the fourth or fifth time that morning, promising an endless, terrifying wrath upon everything I loved if I didn’t get my lazy self out of bed, for the last time, woman! Well, something like that. It was stupid o’clock in the morning; the sun had barely risen above the line of conifer trees at the end of my back-garden, and both of my eyes were plastered shut with sleep. I sat up, and at once my ears erupted with a sharp, drilling pain, like a pair of needles were being shoved through them. Ear infection. Brilliant.
Looking back now, I can’t help but laugh at my last-minute aversion towards the whole thing. On that morning, I just didn’t want anything to do with NCS! “I’M NOT GOING!” I would scream at my poor mother as she hammered on my bedroom door, fighting with all the strength she had to get me to cooperate. The thing about my pre-NCS self is that, unlike now, I had next to no control over my mental health. I was riddled with anxiety, with generous helpings of depression, PTSD, and OCD mixed in. My brain at that point was like a cocktail of negativity, garnished with whipped cream and a scattering of rainbow-coloured sprinkles. Meeting new people was one of my biggest fears, succeeding my crippling phobia of judgement, and so I was practically drowning in the proposal of meeting an entire wave of complete strangers.
What did I think would happen? I have no clue. Whatever it was, however, it couldn’t have been further from the reality. I stepped foot through those doors, both hands shaking as I hauled behind me the most tragic offense of overpacking known to man, and I found myself greeted by the most sympathetically sweet smile I had ever seen. That smile belonged to an equally sweet woman, who took that stupid yellow suitcase of mine and led me to my group.
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Before me sat the most incredible group of people I have ever had the honour to meet. No monsters. No ruffians or thugs. Just real, INCREDIBLE people. People who wanted to get to know me, who cared about me and the constant film references I make. People who would grow to be my fiercest friends, who in the next few weeks would learn more about me than I knew about myself at that point in time. People who, for the first time in my life, I could connect with.
I have spent hours deliberating the best way to tell this story. NCS really was the best experience of my life; even now, a year on, I can’t stress that enough. Of all the places I’ve been, all the memories I’ve made, nothing quite compares to the independence and sense of worth that The Challenge gave me. In fact, I have so many priceless memories thanks to NCS that I can’t possibly share them all. This blog would be infinite! Instead, I have tortured myself by coming up with a Top 3, a decision which was incomprehensibly difficult to make. My chosen three are not just stories: they are anecdote ROYALTY. They are nostalgic, filled to the brim with banter, affection, and cringe-worthy soppiness which my NCS team will probably curse me for sharing. But first, here’s a little context.
NCS: The Challenge is an experience like no other, and I don’t mean that in the horrifically clichéd way. What I mean is that, unlike anything else in this big ol’ world, NCS actually gave me the motivation to stop bingeing Netflix in the sun-free zone that is my bedroom, and instead put on a pair of trainers and DO SOMETHING. The course is split into three phases: adventure, skills, and social action. Phase 1 is exactly what it says on the tin: an adventure. They ship you all off to Wonderland – South Wales, in my case – to take part in death-defying challenges, by which I mean a series of perfectly safe activities such as rock-climbing and coasteering, all of which are run by trained and experienced practitioners. In Phase 2 we stayed in accommodation at Reading University, where we spent a few days learning our chosen skill – photography – to present to a dauntingly-large audience of parents at the Showcase. Finally, in Phase 3, we took to Reading town centre to raise awareness of an amazing local mental health charity, Compass Opportunities, who work with adults in Reading to help improve their mental wellbeing. Our plan was to run a dramatic flash mob in town, but you’ll hear more about that later.
At the end of all this, we graduated NCS with an impressive skillset appealing to any good employer, an INCREDIBLE addition to our CVs and UCAS applications, and a set of friends to last a lifetime. But you don’t really care about that, do you? I promised you my top three NCS memories. So, without further ado…
3: THE LAST DAY™
Alas, the last day. It seems weird, really, that the day which put an end to this magical adventure would find itself in my top three best-days-ever. But hey, not all finales are as dreadfully disappointing as the final episode of ‘Pretty Little Liars’. No, this was a finale for the Gods. Think of the ‘Friends’ finale, with its soppy goodbyes and happy sadness galore. I had never seen any of my new friends cry until that last day. They’d all seen my ugly, Kim K cry-face plenty of times, of course; I am nothing if not an emotional wreck. It had taken until that last day for us to process that, after all this was finished, there was a chance that we would never see each other again. That, of course, was a load of rubbish: NCS had made us inseparable, a band of warriors sworn to protect one another from the big bad world. We barely go a day without talking to at least one other Team SPICYyyy member (our team name was one of a selection of wonderfully wacky nicknames which have somehow stuck after all these months).
But the Last Day™ was also quite possibly the most hectic, stress-inducing PANDEMONIUM to ever hit our busy little lives. Why, you ask? Well, cast your minds back a couple of paragraphs to when I mentioned our social-action project. Why we ever thought we would be able to pull off a flash mob was beyond me, but heck, we did it anyway. The plan was fairly simple: we would scatter ourselves around town dressed in hoodies and eerie facepaint, all surrounding our leading lady Ashley, who was dancing to grab people’s attention. Slowly, we would close in on her until she was completely overwhelmed by hooded figured, representing different mental health conditions and the effect they can have on the most innocent of people. After the demonstration, we would talk about the importance of Compass Opportunities and hand out leaflets.
The problems started with the weather. Rain. Lots of it. I guess we should have planned for a downpour, really – we live in England, after all. This, however, was as though Mother Nature was performing a flash mob of her own, namely a modern rendition of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. By the time we even arrived in town, the whole lot of us were soaked through from head-to-toe. To make matters worse, I had broken my toe a couple of days prior in a freak makeup accident, rendering me useless, our “loudspeaker” wasn’t exactly very loud, and our spot in town had been high-jacked by a friendly busker named Jack. Yikes. Team SPICYyyy, however, are no quitters, and so we spent the majority of the day singing acapella with Jack, helping him raise money whilst promoting Compass Opportunities at the same time. Success!
To find out more about Compass Opportunities and the incredible work they do, please click here.
2: THE VERY STRANGE EASTER EGG HUNT
Imagine this: you are a normal person, minding your own business as you make your way through the bustle of your local high-street. It is coming up to midday, the sun is blazing, and you have just left MacDonald’s with a fist full of Big Mac when you see it. Right in front of you, barreling down the road, is a technicoloured Leviathan! You choke on your Big Mac, for you have never seen such insanity in your life. You blink: once, then twice, until you FINALLY realise that Leviathans do not exist, and the entity charging towards you is, in fact, a team of hyperactive young hooligans dressed in onesies.
Yeah, we were the hooligans. Now, believe me, in normal circumstances I in no way condone the heinous act that is public onesie-wearing. Never. That is a privilege awarded only to the most special of occasions: Pride, pyjama parties, pretty much anything beginning with the letter ‘P’. However, when NCS threw a very strange Easter-Egg Hunt at us, Team SPICYyyy went all out. The challenge was simple, really: each team was given 100 tasks, and we had the rest of the day to complete them. Let the games begin!
I could sit here listing every ridiculous thing we did that day, but as Fred R. Barnard said: a picture is worth ten thousand words!
1: THE METAPHORICAL CAMPFIRE
I adore metaphors. My writing, by nature, is full of them; a trick for dealing with anxiety that I learned on NCS, in fact, is to turn all of your negative thoughts or experiences into metaphors and create stories out of them. My favourite metaphor of all, however, was born on the night of August 13th, 2016, two days after I had met the people who would change my life forever. Team SPICYyyy had spent the day rock-climbing and abseiling, which for me had been a metaphor for life in itself, leading to the discovery that I am much better at falling down than climbing up. I also found myself pretty badly sunburned, which was odd as I had become obsessed with a bottle of glittery sunscreen which transformed its wearer into a real-life Edward Cullen. Anyhow, by the end of the day, I had become such a scratching post for the claws of the cliff-edge that my fingerprints had been scraped off. The last thing I needed was a night in a muddy Welsh field, but that was exactly what I got.
I hated camping. Actually, I despised it. The single other time I had slept outside had been on my Year 6 Residential trip to, wait for it, SOUTH WALES. Renowned for its sheep overpopulation and consequent poop-minefields. So, forgive me for being a little apprehensive when being told that I would be spending the night in a two-person tent with three other girls, a blanket of clouds threatening to burst over our heads at any moment. As it happened, however, our little camping trip became the mother of a million memories. We weren’t allowed to light a fire as the campsite didn’t allow it, but we quickly made our substitute. Shoving a torch inside an empty water bottle and dubbing it our metaphorical campfire, we sang and joked and laughed the night away. It was in this beautiful moment, all of us sat in our little circle with a ball of light at our heart, that I realised how special our connection was. The other teams were close – my twin sister was even in one of them, not that we spoke much – but not one of them had what we had. In two days, we had become family. No metaphor is needed to express that.
The funny thing about NCS is that, for me at least, it never seems to end. It’s like going to Disneyland, only for the magic to return home with you and slip into your mundane life, opening up doors to fantastic opportunities which you would have only dreamed of before. Since graduating, I have had my first part-time job, helped The Challenge to choose this years’ batch of Senior Mentors, and even begun to launch my writing career. It astonishes me that, a year ago, I was one of the shyest kids I knew – a cloud with no destination – and now I am on my way to publishing my first novel and getting my A-Levels! Now, free of the shackles of my mental health, I am able to pass through that door into a world of possibilities, and NCS: The Challenge was my key.