Getting arrested as a teenager was the best mistake I ever made

My mistake should be a sign of strength

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When a game of fines starts at pre-drinks, as it inevitably does, I always await one in particular: “fine if you’ve ever been arrested.”

It isn’t the type of fine that everyone drinks to in the faux-sheepish/actually quite proud way that most receive , along with a pointed “fuck you” to the deliverer.  I’m always the only one to admit to it, and it always,  even if only for a few seconds, casts me back to my 14-year-old self.

I made a lot of mistakes as a teenager, and continue to do so on a daily basis. While most of these were things like misjudging my correct shade of Maybelline Dream Matte Mouse foundation, dyeing my hair in my friends back gardens, or thinking I looked cool in Jack Wills clothing, some had bigger potential consequences.

Stealing was fairly commonplace in my secondary school. I don’t really have a story of being swayed into it by scarier girls, nor do I remember the first time I did it. It never really meant much to me, and I have no big reason or justification for why. It was just another thing I did, like drinking coffee, or always handing in my homework late.

Rarely a good thing

Those younger teenage years form a time your life when you think you know better than those older, or more senior to you. I was making more and more mistakes, and advice from my parents, teachers or even friend’s parents had zero effect on me. I didn’t really care if I let anyone else down, so long as I remained unscathed.

The denial of what was happening stretched after I had actually been arrested. I even turned up to the police station to have my picture and DNA taken in a floral tea dress and ballet pumps. I thought I was above what I was doing and where I was, and I wanted to make a point of it. I’m not the type to be here, I thought, and everyone should know it.

Getting arrested and the immediate aftermath did change me though. It certainly changed my relationship with my parents who barely spoke to me for a year, and it changed my relationship with my teachers at school, who all knew because I was arrested in school uniform.

The worst thing of all was the pity I received from my peers, who judged me on a moral level. I was someone in top sets for my subjects, and the people around me just didn’t do things like this. They viewed me as beneath them after that, and it hit hard.

Now I remember the haze of what happened with so much distance it’s as if it happened to someone else. What I remember more clearly was working hard to earn the respect of my sixth-form teachers, trying to be less selfish in my actions towards my friends and family, and generally learning to acknowledge my choices as my own. One of the most satisfying things was going back to school after getting my Cambridge offer and seeing the shock register on my old teacher’s faces.

The price of shame

I watched a TED talk recently that Monica Lewinsky gave on the price of shame. She asked her audience to raise a hand if they didn’t make a mistake at twenty or younger that they regret. Unsurprisingly, no one did. To be able to own your own mistakes and shame is incredibly powerful and liberating. You can’t change your past actions, so why not accept them as part of who you are, learn from them, and move on.

So I’m thankful for being arrested for my mistake. For all I know, without that I would have found no other reason to change, or to strive for any goals – such as Cambridge. The point is that everyone makes mistakes – it’s a fact of life – but not everyone learns from them.

If you do, even those big mistakes shouldn’t be viewed as shameful things to be hidden, but a sign of strength.