Courtesy of K. T. Bowes.
I don’t know many people who enjoyed much of their teenage years. I didn’t, I don’t think my children have and the people I talk to don’t rate it particularly highly. I’m not sure what it is about those years, but my memories don’t extend very far beyond the sight of the back of my own wooden bedroom door. I don’t recall being continually ‘sent’ there and now I come to think of it, it was more of a self-imposed exile. I didn’t like my parents, tried very hard to avoid my sister, had only a few good friends and for some odd reason, chose to dwell mainly in a space not much bigger than Harry Potter’s broom cupboard. The wallpaper was brown flowers, which I had loved at age ten and have to admit I chose myself, but which at fifteen, I frantically covered up with posters of heartthrobs and idols that I was never likely to meet (thank goodness for small mercies, because I had fuzzy hair and glasses and knew that pity was worse than being ignored.)
School was something to be endured, not enjoyed. I wrote about it in my first teen novel, Free From the Tracks, but had to tone it down as I didn’t think anyone would believe how bad our school really was. The psychological damage done to a teenager’s brain through school is able to be measured on a CT scan, surely. I would be astounded if the experience didn’t leave great pockmarks and dents, a bit like the surface of the moon. I’ve certainly met enough people over the course of my life that attribute self-esteem issues, fear of crowds, a need to know where the nearest toilet or exit is, a problem with authority, and an odd propensity to stand with their back safely to the wall, to know that the damage of the teen years is incredibly real. I used to truly believe adults just didn’t care what was going on under their noses; the bullying and the harassment, the stealing, the smoking and that ‘other’ whole education that goes on in the toilets, the lunch queue, and on the long walk home.
But you know what? I spent six years working in a primary school in England and six in a high school in New Zealand and I have realized something important. It’s not that the adults don’t know or care what’s going on, because they do, they just struggle to catch anyone at it.
There seems to be a line that a person crosses into adulthood, which completely negates their ability to see that other world at all. It becomes like another dimension altogether and we no longer get access.
In the elementary school, I would sit behind the children who were having ‘carpet time,’ acting as a kind of female Rottweiler for dissenters and the teacher would sit in front on her miniscule kid chair, reading a story or explaining the work they were about to do. Belt and braces right? Eyes at the back and eyes at the front. So what could possibly go wrong? Apparently a lot of things. I remember one time, this little girl getting up and coming towards me after ‘carpet time,’ her eyes welling with tears, accusing another child of doing something to her during the story. My face must have been a mixture of shock, disbelief and admiration for the little offender. I definitely remember thinking, ‘How the hell did he manage that?!’
So we wish away the fetters of our teen years, the acne, hair problems, body problems, friend problems and the endless lessons filled with things we sincerely believe we will never use again, herded on towards a goal that seems to belong to someone else altogether and then we hit adulthood and lose more than we gain sometimes. We definitely lose the rule book for ‘being a child or teenager,’ at the same time as we stop hearing that special high pitched ring tone that boys at our school have, so that they can keep their phones set to Facebook without the teachers hearing it. The only problem with that, is that some of us can still hear it! I’ve caught a few out that way and it’s hilarious, that look they give me of abject horror and the realization that something precious and covert is now utterly useless and ruined – around me anyway.
In the course of my role, I deal with past students, often speaking to men in their nineties who came to our school once upon a time. Some rush back to reunions on striped zimmer frames, eager to see what everyone else made of themselves, mortified to discover ‘a room full of old men,’ as one miserably commented once. Others slam the phone down, tell me they hated school and can I please delete their contact details off our database? I get that. I wouldn’t go to a school reunion either!
I think what we don’t realize, as we isolate ourselves in bubble of dismay at how our teen lives suck, is that one day it will be over.
We will graduate to adulthood whether we like it or not and somehow, and God has a way of making it all turn out okay.
We may look back on our teen years and shudder, but when I was slap bang in the middle of all the angst, I really wished that I could have understood how temporary it was. All those hours spent in my bedroom! What did I do? Was it something so covert that I no longer remember what it was? We didn’t have mobile devices or computers and most families only had one black and white television in the lounge. In the intervening years, when I was hard pressed to do two jobs, run a house, herd four tiny infants who had all appeared in four years flat and remember to brush my hair, I would have traded anything for even one of those lost hours just to sleep uninterrupted through. Even five minutes of peace would have been a bonus.
One day, that family we didn’t want to sit and watch TV or eat with, won’t exist. Whilst the thought brings a smile to a face full of zits, it will later bring tears to one full of wrinkles. I wish I could do a pie chart to log all the hours wasted on sulking, stropping off, being alone and anxious about things I no longer recall, broken friendships with people whose names have long escaped me and having great brainstorming sessions with myself on all the clever things I would like to say if asked, but never was. Unfortunately I hated mathematics and didn’t think I would ever need it in the real world, so I can’t. I know that it would be a fair few years wasted though, over the period of a life.
I look back on my teen years and actually feel sad. Not because my life sucked as badly as I perceived it did, but because I misused great chunks of it on futile self-absorption.
Yes, it was hard and terrible things did happen to me, but I survived and hindsight is a wonderful tool. I crawled through those years believing I was fat and ugly. I look at photos now and am surprised by the girl I see in them. One thing I do know after stretch marks from four babies – I would kill to get that stomach back in exchange for this one! And whilst loneliness was a spiritual thing that clothed me, hemmed me in and isolated me, it also caused me to miss out on good people who hung around the fringes of my struggle and offered the occasional hand of compassion, even though they maybe only received an ungrateful grunt in return.
The greatest sadness I find, as I watch more than two thousand teenage boys move around each day at work, is that so many of them stumble around with their eyes closed, believing they are completely alone and that teenagerdom is terminal. They aren’t and it isn’t. There is an end to it and it comes in a terrifying rush. If they just opened those blind eyes and looked around, they would know that loneliness is an illusion and isolation is a choice.
For most teenagers, and I know there are exceptions, there is a ‘someone’ who cares, who watches with interest and care and steadies their boat at the jetty with a tentative hand when the tide changes. For me it was my hard working, single-parent-through-no-choice-of-her-own, totally-not-cool, mother. But did I appreciate her? Absolutely not. Because you see, your hero just may not be the person you want, or expect them to be. Fairy godmothers and rich birth parents who swoop in to rescue us from our surprised adoptive ones, who by a strange fluke, still seem to share our DNA, are the stuff of stories. The real teen saviors are the listening friend, the tired but available parent and that teacher who takes a bit of extra care. The message is, look for your biggest encourager – and give them a smile, because it really will all be over before you know it.