Listen to this article
A boy at my school once ran away to Athens with his girlfriend. They were on the run for several days until they ran out of cash and turned themselves in at a British consulate, securing a flight home, some fairly severe school penalties and the unstated admiration of their classmates.
More than 30 years on, as I read details of the young couple who swapped the chill winds of Stonyhurst College for the sun and splendour of the Occidental Grand Hotel in the Dominican Republic, it still seems impossibly cool.
Of course, it does help if – as in the Stonyhurst case – the parents who left you in your foreign boarding school also provided credit cards with a spending limit larger than the GDP of Burundi. This allowed the young lovers to complete their trip in style. Theirs was no shack in the Bangkok backstreets. The Occidental offers a spa, scuba diving and salsa lessons. We do not know if the teens availed themselves of all these but it will have been a comfort to know they were there.
Naturally, I now see the parents’ point of view. But while it is easy to empathise with their worry and downright irritation, one has to recognise that the teens, who were finally apprehended at a beachside café earlier this week, had a touch of style. Any parental qualms I felt were also eased by the fact they were not at risk of anything more serious than sunburn – and that they were armed with enough financial firepower to ensure the minibar was regularly restocked.
It added to the gaiety of the affair that the pair made good their escape from an elite Jesuit boarding school apparently patrolled by security guards (or at least a surly geography master).
I suppose they will now face consequences, maybe even expulsion, on their return to Colditz College. But as one considers the self-possession, nerve, attention to detail and sheer devil-may-care joy, it should be obvious that this is actually the kind of activity one should be putting on a university application form. Indeed, it may say something about today’s box-ticking entry process that kids must now resort to such extreme measures as elopement just to stand out.
Surely this is precisely the spirit of initiative a top college should be seeking. It should really be incorporated into the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, a scheme I’m told is popular with universities. A bronze award might include escaping from the school stalag (extra marks for tunnelling) to the European mainland – but there are no prizes for checking into the local Premier Inn (it lacks imagination).
A week in the Caribbean should be worth at least a silver – although the achievement is diminished if you can put all expenses on your own credit card. A silver award ought to involve at least a little bit of fraud and more imaginative foraging for food than a quick scan of the room-service menu. The gold award would be rare; for this, one would probably need to hook up with Leonardo DiCaprio and discover a beach.
A certain broad-mindedness may be required of parents, since the challenge is to run off with a loved one, but they will surely go along with it to secure an elite university place. Turning elopement into a recognised activity for university application might also disadvantage religious families or kids with alternative sexual orientations. On the upside, schools and parents would be incentivised to play matchmaker for those late-developers struggling to find a partner.
There are, inevitably, risks to this approach. Once everyone is eloping, schools will compete to ensure ever more daring and expensive feats. Where would one draw the line? Snake charming in the bazaars of Delhi to fund a meal may show initiative; muling for a Colombian drug cartel may fall foul of the Health and Safety Executive.
Alas, the couple are unlikely to secure the educational recognition they so obviously merit. But were I a college interviewer, I might see more in a student who bamboozled the school guards and hit the beach with his girlfriend than in yet another worthy teen who spent a fortnight helping out at an old people’s home.
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published