Thursday, 19 November 2015

A class of their own.

"Kitty achieved an outstanding eleven A*s and one A at GCSE and is now studying five A-Levels, planning to go to Oxford to read Astrophysics with Further Maths on the side. In her spare time she plays volleyball, netball, rugby and hopscotch, all at international level and also cello, piano and comb and paper up to Grade Ten, while blindfolded. In the summer she travelled to Madagascar to teach disabled, orphaned, dyslexic children how to read. She's now going to sing an aria from Cosi fan Tutti, while standing on one leg."

Okay, so I exaggerate a little. It's Thursday night and we're at the sixth form awards evening. We never got here for Eldest. He did get an award at the end of Year 13 but he'd already left by then. He was expected to come back to get it. You must be kidding. Too cool for school. Really, he was, too cool to come back to school to collect it. I thought about going without him, sitting there in the front row, clapping manically to the empty space on stage when they called out his name, but decided it might look a bit desperate. 

So here we are for the next one - in Year 12 - with a seemingly endless stream of preternaturally accomplished kids parading in front of us as we wait his turn. Loads of them. Loads and loads. Especially girls. Unbelievably brilliant. All "mature," and "very hard workers," and so focussed on their future it can actually be read out as they traverse the stage: "Hoping to study anthropology." "Hoping for a career in politics." "Hoping to go to Oxford." An awful lot of them, as it happens, "hoping to go to Oxford."

No wonder teenagers are stressed out of their still-developing minds. Haven't they discovered the joys of having no flippin' idea what you're going to do with your life? Spending Friday night down the Black Bull drinking rum and black, hoodwinking the bartender you're really 18 when you're actually just 15? Or hanging out at Casanova's nightclub in the city centre until 2 am on Sunday morning with a boyfriend who's already left school. Then dashing off that overdue A-Level English essay in registration on Monday morning, seconds before Sir arrives? (I know I'm making it sound like Cider With Rosie and it was only north Yorkshire in the late 80s). When did youth become so serious?

They seem to fall into two camps these days. Those off their heads every weekend on MDMA and "gas", Instagramming their body parts and giving each other sexually transmitted infections, and those working their socks off, joining the debating society, backpacking to Cambodia, building huts for one-legged single mums and trekking the Atlas mountains for the Diamond Studded D of E (Duke of Edinburgh for the uninitiated). 

We didn't have awards at my school and I'm sure I wouldn't have been awarded one if we had. The only times I stood on the stage were to read out my poetry (I know, I apologise), when I was in plays, and once to inform my baffled audience that the way ahead was to nationalise all industry, when I stood as the Labour party candidate for our school mock general election. I remember a boy put his hand up and asked what's the difference between Elizabeth's policies and those of the Communist party? I replied that he had a good point, not much. The Tories won by a landslide. 

I fear for the youth of today. So much is expected of them. So much pressure. We just muddled along, did a bit of work, got some half-decent A-Levels, which was more than adequate to get into a half-decent university and then go on and get a half-decent job. There was very little pressure, no university fees turning the future into a massive gamble, requiring you to throw your disc on to the spinning roulette table of life in the hope that your number might come up and you'll be able to pay it all off. Some of their numbers might come up, some of those sixth formers applying to Oxford might get in. But just based on the quantity applying, versus the number of places available, there are going to be some very disappointed geniuses up there.

Meanwhile we're selling them a lie: work hard and you will be amply rewarded. Rewarded with what? Plentiful free university places? A job for life? A house? A manageable mortgage? A decent pension? A functioning NHS? Er, no, sorry, that's all used up, your grandparents had it. And no matter that they might end up with anxiety along the way, or anorexia, or cut themselves because the pressure is too bleeding much to bear and it must have an outlet somewhere. Not just the pressure to succeed academically either, but to parade across that stage looking impossibly gorgeous and slim and attractive, both for boys and girls, before posting a picture of yourself with said award afterwards on Snapchat or Instagram (Facebook is "for losers," remember) looking impossibly gorgeous and slim and attractive. The pressure is huge, so huge many are buckling under the weight of it all, 16% of 12 - 16 year olds experiencing "neurotic symptoms," according to mental health charity YoungMinds. 

Sod it, I say. Grab that award and run from that stage and just keep on running, like Forrest Gump. Run and run until your impossibly skinny pubescent legs can't carry you any longer, until you flop down exhausted in a green and pleasant field far from school, a sweeping vista of bucolic freedom stretching before you, the claustrophobic towers of the mad metropolis far behind, like something from Logan's Run, and weep for all the fun you never had. Then go off and find a nice little village pub and order a rum and black. 

Love E x 


P.S. And yes it was lovely to see him receive his award and obviously I don't mean him, he needs to keep at it.

A still from Logan's Run, 1976. The film depicts a dystopian future in which the population is maintained to preserve consumption of resources by killing those who reach the age of 30 (and more importantly Jenny Agutter is in it and she's hot as hell).


  1. I love this post. It is so, so true. I have three boys at about the same age as your boys. My life is muddled and bitty and not entirely satisfactory the way, dare i say it, yours is too and I love reading your observations and opinions on life as it unfolds. This completely captures the pressures on our children and the absurdity of what they are expected to do and achieve. Send it to a national newspaper now! It will get a few rum and blacks.

  2. Thank you so much, Helen. Glad you liked it, it was fun to write. It's lovely to have a comment and especially one from someone going through the same things, who understands. It's great to have so many readers but even nicer to know what they are thinking. You're right, I should have pitched it to a national, I might have a go next week. Sometimes I think I'm writing this stuff as therapy. Have a great weekend. Love E x (Off for a rum and black.)