Three years ago, I stopped being a teenager. Five years ago, I finished school. A lot can happen in five years, and in my case, a lot has. But even so, it’s sometimes hard to remember that, insofar as the world at large is concerned, I’m an adult.
Five years ago (or six, or seven, or eight, or nine), had you asked me what Growing Up entailed, my answer would’ve been pretty nebulous: adults were a strange other species, inscrutiable and weird. Logically, I knew I’d someday turn into one. But what never really occured to me was the fact that in order for this to happen, I’d have to stop being a teenager. That looks like the most obvious statement possible, until you consider what it really means. Not being a teenager is more than a biological age. Your intelligence hasn’t changed, but you think differently. Your perceptions have altered. Unthinkably, so have your priorities. Your place in the world has shifted, inch by inch, slowly reforming all previous notions of what not-being-in-school and working would look and feel like. Adults are weird because, logically, they should just be teenagers with more freedom, right? But they’re not. To a sixteen-year-old, it looks like brainwashing, or devolution: some awful process that zaps the fun right out of you. But having noticed this difference, a part of you thinks: that will never happen to me.
Deep down, the teenage Foz thought that growing up meant becoming an ambassador for adolescent-kind, finally walking in the adult world with power to address the frustrations, concerns and specific barriers which had, essentially, stopped me from doing exactly that as a teenager. Obviously, I wouldn’t be an adult who tried to hang out with teenagers – I’d seen people like that, and they were universally odd, if not a little creepy. No. It would be more subtle: I’d simply be recognised on sight as having kept the faith. I’d be a rare Cool Adult, because I’d remember what it was like. I’d know. I’d care. And my teenage self, after so long straining at the leash of her teenage world, would be vindicated.
But it doesn’t work like that. Had I stopped to think about it, or even (o, irony!) been a little older, I’d have realised that when you’re in school, you can spot someone who isn’t a mile away. Mentally, such beings are tagged as Adult, or, in the case of uni students, Almost Adult – either way, they’re still a different species. Any overtures of friendship are viewed with suspicion, and any attempts to identify with the teenage state result in raised brows or mockery. Hell, I’d done it myself – it was practically a sport. But until that point, I hadn’t really considered that the barrier ran both ways. Adults worked hard to keep teenagers out of their world, it had always seemed: all the wariness, scepticism, evasion and mockery directed their way was simply retaliatory action. Surely, though, if I genuinely remembered, I’d be recognised. Wouldn’t I?
Looking back, the naivete is bizarre, and a little uncanny. The idea of an adult seeking teenage approval is something I’d always laughed at, wondered at, without the slightest realisation that this was effectively what I’d been dreaming of. The kind interpretation is that I’d been ready to grow up for longer than the world had been willing to let me try: I’d had enough adults telling me I was mature for my age and acquaintances mistaking me for someone several years older that I felt already halfway there. The more honest interpretation is that I gave no thought to mental improvement, or to the idea that a change in perception could be beneficial. My blythe assumption was that because I didn’t plan on changing, I couldn’t. Happily, I was wrong.
Nowadays, I still like to preach about things that bothered me at school. Even though I’m glad to have grown up, and despite knowing that the teenage me was far from perfect, I’m not willing to disregard everything I felt back then. Experience has only contradicted some of my complaints, not all, and short of pulling an unlikely Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed, I’ll never have the chance to reconstruct my social adolescence in adulthood – and even if I could, some hurdles are teenager-exclusive. That doesn’t mean adults shouldn’t try and address them; it just means we forget, the older we grow and the more we change, because they stopped presenting a problem to us years ago, or even registering as potential problems.
I wouldn’t want to be sixteen again if you paid me. But if I’d never been sixteen – that awkward, mawkish, self-absorbed, silly, bright, passionate, fraught sixteen – I wouldn’t be the woman I am now. Not even close. And that’s the debt we owe our teenage selves. They were the ones whose learned-from errors made us into functional human beings, and they did it all in a world full of weird, uncomprehending adults. Ultimately, I know I’ll forget most, if not all, of what it meant to be a teenager. Life moves on, people grow up, and when another five years of memories start pressing on my brain, frankly, I’ll need the storage space. But right now, I feel like I’ve cottoned on to a fundamental truth: that while I’m here, fleetingly, on the last potential cusp of adulthood, it’s all come clear.
We all grow up. And none of us do. Life is a series of readjustments, and while there’s obviously a forward progression to our changes, that’s ultimately all they are: not good or bad, but changes. By age and necessity, physical strength or mental acumen, knowledge or wisdom, we pass our lives in different spheres of the world, all overlapping, all separate. On a deeper, simpler level than thought or action, we can’t help being who we are. A toddler can no more leap into adulthood than a grandmother can shed twenty years; there is no whimsy to our different ages. We are all more than the sum of our parts and past experience, but those old echoes are still there. A ninety-year-old man was not born ninety, and no matter how infirm he is, somewhere inside is a five-year-old boy, an adolescent, a thirty-year-old, thirty-five. We can bury our past selves, forget or repress, but not eradicate. Not truly.
One of my biggest teenage complaints was how much adults had forgotten. How could they ever have been like me, if they didn’t remember it? Without having lived for forty years, it’s impossible to know how much the mind changes in that time, how many new memories come and old ones go. But perhaps that’s the point: if we can acknowledge who we were without automatic censure or dismissal, then we are one step closer to closing the generation gap. Because then, even without the memories, we know there’s something we’ve forgotten, and once we know that, we know we’re not infallable. So much trouble between generations comes from the view that the young are ignorant, the old are out of touch, and everyone in between is either too callow or too jaded to be of use. We close ourselves off in the here and now, blind to where we’re going and unhappy with where we’ve been, because social flaws are human, too.
But somewhere, part of me will always be a teenager. I might never be a Cool Adult, but if I can just remember that being different wasn’t universally bad, then perhaps I can make a difference.