Posts Tagged ‘Adolescence’

Reading through the second book of Ally Carter’s excellent Gallagher Girls series, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, on the bus home yesterday afternoon, I was suddenly struck by how the representation of schools in YA writing is, in many ways, reflective of the wider problems of modern education. Now, when it comes to the subject of education¬†generally and high school in particular, I am not what you would call an objective commentator:¬†I have passionate opinions, and I like to share them. I mention this by way of establishing from the outset that my perception of modern education and its problems are not necessarily universal. (I like to think it should be, but that’s another story.)

The point being, high school is problematic, and regardless of differing opinions on why that is or how it might be fixed, the simple assertion that ¬†problems do exist is not a controversial statement. And so, while reading a book about a spy academy for teenage girls, it occurred to me to wonder why some types of school are held up as interesting, awesome and excellent in YA novels, while others either blend into the background or, at worst, are depicted as hateful, prisonesque¬†institutions. At first glance, this is something of a ridiculous question: YA is about teenagers, teenagers go to school – is it any wonder, therefore, that depictions of education in YA should vary, too? Well, no: but probing a little deeper, it’s possible to discern an interesting pattern about the types¬†of school on offer.

To start with, let’s consider the cool schools. These are places where the actual content of various classes is depicted as positive and interesting, not only to the characters, but to the readership – and more, where the skills they teach are of demonstrable use to the protagonists. These are the schools that cause real-world teenagers to read about them and think, man, I wish I went there, and what should be instantly significant about this is not that such schools exist, even hypothetically, but that their status as such is contingent on the combination of three factors in varying ratios: glamour, agency and relevance. Dealing with the foremost of these, it’s undeniable that cool schools train their students to be, well, cool. Carter’s Gallagher Academy is a school for spies; J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts trains witches and wizards; and, though they don’t attend schools in the modern sense, Tamora Pierce’s heroines nonetheless learn to be knights and police officers¬†in institutional settings.

Undeniably, then, glamour is a factor: to borrow¬†Monty Python’s favourite example, who wants to read a book about a school for chartered accountancy? But even so, there’s something significant in the narrative success of schools whose aim is to churn out graduates with qualifications for a particular career: the idea of educational relevance. Beyond the novelty of reading about single-focus schools, all these stories show students being trained for an identifiable purpose, taking on difficult assignments not just through their own adventuring (though this also happens), but because the structure of the institution demands that they do so. Regular homework, genuine danger, obedience to teachers and repetitious training are never omitted or skimmed for the sake of making school look like a cakewalk: instead, they are emphasised, because in a setting where teenage protagonists are allowed to have personal ambitions – and more, where these can be actively pursued through school – then all those educational necessities which in the real world are seen as tedious, pointless and intrusive suddenly become interesting, worthwhile and relevant. Put bluntly, it’s one thing to sit resentfully through hours of geography class without the slightest idea of when it might ever be useful, and quite another to read about a scenario where, in order to prepare for their future career as a globe-trotting spy, a teenage protagonist sits down to memorise all the world’s countries and capital cities. Sure, actually doing the memory work would be difficult, time-consuming and perhaps even dull, but the end reward – being a spy – would more than compensate for it.

And then there’s the question of agency: the fact that teenage attendees of cool schools are not only expected to know what they want from life, but are frequently allowed leeway in their efforts at pursuing it. By and large, cool school teachers don’t care about standardised testing: they care about the material, about preparing you for the real world; they stand up for their students, support independence, encourage critical¬†inquiry and – most importantly – treat teenagers as though they’re intelligent enough to have real opinions. As a result, the students of cool schools get to have genuine adventures without being constantly told that doing so is impossible, illegal or irresponsible. Which isn’t to say that their actions never have consequences, or that no one ever gets punished for breaking the rules, or even that adults never call them idiots. What it does mean, however, is that there’s a general acknowledgement that the most important, powerful and¬†significant¬†moments of one’s secondary education do not necessarily take place in class or as a result of school-sanctioned activities, and that a certain amount of disobedience is to be, if not actively encouraged, then certainly expected as part and parcel of growing into an independent adult. Thus, while Professor McGonagall has no compunction about taking house points or assigning detention (for instance), we never see any evidence that particular crimes at Hogwarts have lasting consequences beyond the (drastic, rarely issued) threat of expulsion. At cool schools, there is no such thing as a permanent record, and if you can’t see the link between the freedom to make mistakes without endangering your whole future and an assertion of teenage agency, then I’d be so bold as to suggest that you’ve forgotten what high school is like.

So, to recap: cool schools have glamour. They make the students work hard, but towards well-defined goals that are actually relevant, both to the real world and to their personal ambitions. They are understanding of error: punishments are personal and immediate, rather than long-term and general. They have good teachers and interesting subjects, with an emphasis on curiosity and independent research. Students at cool schools have agency, and are treated like adults-in-training rather than merely teenagers. This, to my way of thinking, distinguishes cool schools in YA fiction from most actual schools, but you’re allowed to disagree. (Note: real world schools can still have awesome teachers. If I’m asserting any dissonance in that regard, it’s that awesome teachers in cool schools never have to answer to an underfunded, over-nannied bureaucracy and are actually well-paid for their services. Which, you know. Matters.) Hopefully, though, you’ll agree that the characteristics listed above, with the exception of glamour, are all good things.

It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that writers – that is to say, intelligent, creative people working in a profession that cares absolutely nothing for their school marks or qualifications ¬†– have a tendency to question the current educational system. Without wanting to assume my own experiences to be even vaguely universal, I can’t have been the only teenager who knew that they wanted to write stories for a living (or play sport, or be a musician or an artist or a dancer), and who therefore dedicated thousands of hours throughout high school to personal projects utterly unconnected with anything on the curriculum. Quite arguably, the fantasy of cool schools is as much for the authors as it is the readers: what would our teenage years have been like if, instead of being forced to learn things we’ve never found a use for and have subsequently forgotten, we went to schools specifically structured around our interests? What if our passions hadn’t had to compete with our coursework – if every school was like the one in Fame, only geared to our personal interests? What if we’d been taken seriously as teenagers?

It’s a rosy-lensed hypothetical, to be sure. Back here in reality, even radical educational reform would never allow for the kind of schools we all secretly yearned to attend. But even so, our desires come through in our writing: testing the waters, trying to see what school could be like if people like us were in charge. Both Liar and How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier play with the idea of different secondary systems: in Liar, the protagonist attends a class called Dangerous Words, where censorship and media dishonesty are discussed, while in Fairy, subject-centric schools are run on lines designed to foster traits valued in their particular professions, so that the rules of a sports high emphasise teamwork, discipline, obedience, punctuality and coordination over everything else. It goes without saying that YA novels feature a certain amount of escapism, but while the base assumption about teenagers is that they all want to escape from school all the time,¬†the idea that they might be taking refuge in stories about¬†better schools is not nearly so normative.

And when, in such novels, the teenage protagonists do rebel against school, it’s usually for very good reasons: either the school itself is terrible, or it has become terrorised. In Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, for instance, Marcus sets himself up in opposition to authority because his rights are being violated: government politics are interfering with freedom of speech, his best teacher is being muzzled, and the principal has started using particular students as informants. In Libba Bray’s trilogy about Victorian schoolgirls, Gemma Doyle and her friends use magic, courage and cleverness to make lives for themselves beyond what society expects of them as women, escaping the confines of a college that, for all its sorority, only wants to turn them into wives. To quote the final book, The Sweet Far Thing:

“They’ve planned our entire lives, from what we shall wear to whom we shall marry and where we shall live. It’s one lump of sugar in your tea whether you like it or not and you’d best smile even if you’re dying deep inside. We’re like pretty horses, and just as on horses, they mean to put blinders on us so we can’t look left or right but only straight ahead where they would lead.”¬†

Which brings us, finally, to the traits of mediocre schools in fiction: how are they characterised? Usually, it’s enough that the characters have more important things in their lives than what goes on at school: that they’re learning elsewhere, and – more particularly – that such external subjects are of greater interest and relevance than the content of their classes. The characters in Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller, for instance, are both exceptional individuals and largely self-taught: Betty is a master of disguise, Luz is an inventor, DeeDee a chemist, Oona a hacker, and Ananka an observant intellectual. While it would be foolish to ignore the glamour factor of these interests, what’s important is that the girls are independent, resourceful and clever, pursuing their passions in their own time precisely because¬†a traditional school environment would only limit them.

As I’ve previously had cause to mention, science tells us that the human brain continues to develop throughout our teenage years and doesn’t actually settle until sometime in our twenties. The upshot of this information – or at least, one of the social upshots – is that many adults consider their suspicions about teenage childishness to be correct. This is why schools and universities are compared to daycare centers: because students cannot be trusted to act like adults, must be coddled and protected and talked down to, protected from agency and relevancy and all the danger that comes from actually acting like an independent person held to be responsible for your own actions. Never mind that the same research about brain development talks about the power of teenagers to sculpt their own identities by exercising their intellect – by thinking, by acting, by engaging with the world – and the far from radical notion that a good way to encourage this behaviour might be to, you know, treat teenagers like adults. Oh, no: their brains are not ready! No one should do anything that matters until they’re twenty-five!

But how can the brain develop if the person attached to it is only ever treated like a child?

And this is why, to come to the long-awaited point, the depiction of schools in YA is so reflective of the current problems with Western education: both narratively and in terms of the real world, writers and readers understand the disconnect between what school is meant to achieve, and how it actually works. Passionate students must follow their interests outside the classroom. Adventurous, inquisitive, questioning students are disproportionately punished in the long term for misdemeanours that are, at base, attempts at critical thinking and independence – skills that schools are theoretically supposed to foster, but which in practice they actively suppress . Average students drift through classes without a sense of either purpose or agency, unable to find meaning in lessons that most of us forget by the time we’re twenty, and which have no bearing on anything they might care about otherwise or be interested in doing.

And so they turn to fiction: stories where the schools are genuinely good; or where, outside of school, there’s a means of learning relevant, interesting things with friends; or where, if the school is terrible, there’s a way of fighting back. Over and over, we tell ourselves stories of how things could and should be different, to the point where novels – and through them, authors – are in a sense picking up the shortfall left by school itself: suggesting interests, provoking passions, encouraging dreams and critical thinking and courage and independence, proving that there are at least some adults who understand that the way things are is not necessarily the way they ought to be.

So governments: if you’re out there, and you want to really improve your education systems? You could do a lot worse than asking some YA authors (and – gasp! – teenagers) what they think. Because in the end, we never resented ¬†school for being school. Instead, we resented it for all the things it should have been, and could have been – but wasn’t.

So, OK. As those of you who’ve known me for any length of time can attest – and as I have once or twice admitted in the writing of this blog – I am a zeusdamn stubborn, conservative person. It is actually very irksome! Because stubbornness and conservatism are not behaviours I consciously cultivate; are in fact the very antithesis of the behaviours I like, let alone try to cultivate; and yet they are apparently innate enough that I am constantly forced to suspect myself of them, to press the ever-present bruise of my own laziness in order to determine whether I am being honest and discerning as opposed to reactionary and biased at any given time. As I am simultaneously the kind of person who goes around recommending books and films (for instance) to all and sundry with the expectation that they start to adopt my tastes, this makes me very close to belonging to two categories of person with whom I am otherwise deeply uncomfortable: hypocrites and preachers.

My only saving grace is the fact that I recognise this at least some of the time, and am actively struggling to change. But for most of my life, that hasn’t been true, with the end result that now, slightly less than a month out from my 25th birthday, I’m starting to wonder exactly how many awesome things I’ve been missing out on for no greater reason than my own intransigence. Which is, itself, a conceit, because I mean, come on: twenty-freaking-five. It’s not like I’m Citizen Kane crying out for Rosebud on my deathbed, here. Despite the fact that I’ve been married for three and a bit years, and in serious relationships for five-odd years before that, and in the midst of becoming a published author for about two years, and have finished a Bachelors degree, and have moved first states and now countries, and held down a frankly surprising variety of the sort of jobs I never really knew existed until I started applying for them, and all the sort of gunk that seems to fill up your late teens and early twenties if you’re lucky enough to live in a first world nation where you speak the national language and have been relatively well-off your whole life and have never had to contend with poverty or civil war or persecution or any major trauma; despite all that, I am, by the standards of both my own culture and the scientific community, barely out of adolescence. I am young.

But I am also much less young than I was even a year ago, or the year before that, or the year before that; and even though as a teenager it would never have occurred to me that I could sit here and be almost 25 and¬†so very different now to how I was then, I can still – just – stretch to remembering my teenage self, her views and preoccupations and ignorances, without universally cringing at how utterly infantile and stupid they were, so that any sense I used to have that I was already grown up must only ever have been wrong. I feel torn: can I deny that I’ve grown since then, and that those changes have been increasingly positive? No, I can’t: but does that automatically mean that whatever I used to be is therefore rendered incorrect, reprehensible? Psychologists say that one of the key stages of childhood development is the tendency to first disdain and then throw away those trappings of whatever age we have just outgrown, like a fledgeling tweenager tossing out her toys. I must still be a child, then, because more and more, I feel like every step I take to change myself is simultaneously a battle to refrain from mocking, not plastic horses and skipping games, but previous ideologies.

Once, as a first year university student, I wrote an angry letter to a Sydney newspaper about its inflammatory coverage of a series of car crashes involving adolescent drivers. It was terrible, yes, and those people had been stupid, but their reactionary condemnation of all youthful drivers – the suggestion that driving curfews be implemented, limitations imposed on the ability of teens to carry passengers – was out of line. No matter how much they raised the age limit for acquiring a driving license, I argued, and even taking into account whatever risk-taking predispositions we could all agree were more likely in the young, a significant part of the problem would still be inexperience behind the wheel. Some things you simply cannot learn through shortcuts, or any way but the hard way: sooner or later, we all make mistakes, because suffering their consequences is how humans learn, and even if nobody was ever allowed in a car before the age of 27, new drivers would still account for their fair share of accidents. Not because of their age: because they were new. And in the mean time, given that adult drivers would continue to account for the other eighty-something percent of accidents, what would happen if we broke the statistics down into age brackets? Would we find that the most elderly drivers were the least accident-prone, or that the probability of accidents would regularly decrease with age? Does getting older always make you better?

Turning five did not make me morally superior to my two-year-old self; just older and physically different. Turning fifteen did not make me morally superior to my twelve-year-old self;¬†just older and physically different. The same will be true again when I turn twenty-five, and thirty-five, and every age after that. In so many of these blogs, I’ve written about the frustrations I felt as a teenager, how it was hard to get adults to take me seriously and how they all appeared to have gone through a brainwashing machine at some point or emerged fully formed from alien pod-plants. Even though I could understand things at fourteen that were incomprehensible to my four-year-old self, that greater proximity to the adult world made it seem as though adulthood was a static realm towards which I was both inexorably travelling and closer to reaching than ever, so that any suggestion of considering how much I’d already changed as a way of anticipating how much farther I had yet to go would have seemed futile, insulting; as though, on the cusp of adulthood, I still deserved to be reminded of – judged by – those things I’d outgrown;¬†as though I hadn’t really grown up at all.

Which, of course, I hadn’t, because the whole idea was a lie. Nobody ever grows up. We just grow. But our language, which betrays so much of culture, suggests otherwise: hierarchies are linear, top to bottom: growing up means growing better. Nobody grows down. And yet up connotes even more than that. It makes us think of a fixed destination when there is none; it makes us want to not only cast off who we were, but disparage it as unnecessary, as though the very notion of ever being someone else is embarrassing, taboo; as though that prior person were utterly unrelated to every single subsequent incarnation.

Tonight, I have been reading Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E Butler, a single novel made from the collection of a trilogy of novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. Having only just reached the start of the second of these, I came across a particularly beautiful quote. It is the reason I stopped to write this post; to consider why I had never read Butler before now, despite having heard of her, and to wonder if perhaps the reason I find her so moving, so compelling, is because I am reading her now. Would any of my earlier selves have understood?

Butler asks:

“Trade means change. Bodies change. Ways of living must change. Did you think your children would only look different?”

And I answer:

Not any more.

Look: I have issues with the whole high school thing.

These issues are wide-ranging. They involve mundane, unintelligent and generally backward curricula, antiquated teaching methodologies, the negligent pay scales for teachers, the lack of reward and prestige for education as a profession, the bastardisation of learning into something that is neither relevant to grades nor recommended that teachers embrace in their own lives, the structure of a system that creates year levels on the basis of age rather than ability, the general social malaise of throwing a whole bunch of teenagers in the same deep pool and yelling SWIM!, the generational incomprehension of techonological and social media as an advanced medium of bullying –

OK. I could go on.

You get that.

But here’s the thing:

High school fucking sucks, man.

We all know it.

Every teenager knows it.

Most adults with actual memories of their high school years, no matter how rosy-lensed, can acknowledge it.

And yet our ability to change that system? Even in the smallest ways?

Is seemingly non-existent.

I have cared about the shitness of high school since I was thirteen. That was eleven damn years ago, and I am still howling into a void. In abstract, it should help my case that so many things are so obviously wrong with the system. In the Land of Government and Educational Bureaucracy, however, that’s actually a massive hindrance, because in a society where ripping a major institution down, salting the earth and building afresh is less an option than it is political suicide, there’s no obvious starting point for reform.

And so people do next to nothing.

Because it’s easy.

Because there’s no viable mechanism in place for doing more.

Because optimism with regard to educational reform is seen as naivety.

Because making things better is too fucking hard.

Well, you know what? I’m sick of that excuse.

I am sick of people whose jobs it supposedly is to support and create a culture of knowledge saying that teenagers and their problems are just too hard; that poverty, cruetly, violence and bullying are just too hard; that creating curricula that are relevant, engaging and intelligent is just too hard; that basically doing anything with anyone between the ages of twelve and nineteen that might be of any use to their future selves or lives beyond the most basic social interactions, arithmetic and language skills – and sometimes not even that – is too hard; that spending money on schools and technology is too hard; that talking to actual teenagers about the circumstances of their education is not only too hard, but impossible, because they can’t be trusted to tell the truth, and everyone knows they just hate high school anyway.

Well, here’s a goddam radical thought: maybe high school is worth hating.

I am sick of homophobia and bullying.

I am sick of a system that seems to be based entirely on Lord of the Flies being a valid basis for social hierarchy.

Years of insomnia. Years of random cruetly, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, violence and ignorance. Years of hearing that at some point, every bright, funny, clever or caring person of my acquaintence had been found in the garage with a noose around their neck, standing on a chair and trying to knock themselves out by sniffing petrol fumes so they wouldn’t feel their hyoid break, or cutting themselves with scissors because it was the only sort of pain they could control, or drinking themselves insensible and weeping on school nights because they couldn’t function otherwise, or taking pills and curling up in the dark like Sylvia Plath, or walking along the edge of cliffs and daring themselves to jump off, or burrowing down inside themselves because it hurt like fury, like glass in the heart, and even the other downtrodden would mock them as protection against further mockery themselves. Years of waking up with less right to sick days than an underpaid temp worker, struggling through depression, illness, fear and uncertainty because you’d get a black mark if you dared show up without a doctor’s certificate, and nobody there to point out that colleges don’t give a flying fuck for your attendance record; that at the end of the day, it’s just a piece of laminated cardboard your parents keep in the attic, and not the be-all, end-all of your academic existence.

No. Fuck that noise, and fuck it sideways.

High school students of the world: you are not prisoners. You are not stupid. You have rights. You have opinions. You know what you feel. The rest of us have either forgotten or are in the process of forgetting, because where you are now? It’s about survival. Once you’re out of the jungle, you don’t go wading back in to fight the tigers and tame the lantana. But that’s why those things persist. You get out, and you’re safe, so you forget. You see the little tweaks and changes on the news, and you forget how bad it really was. You grow up. You start to doubt your teenage intelligence. You wonder if it was just because you were seventeen and an idiot that you hated your creepy geography teacher, the one who knocked the girls’ pens off their desks so he could peek down their shirts when they bent over to pick them up, or that you couldn’t find any practical or intellectual application for what you were asked to do, or that nobody would listen to you or had the power to do anything when you told them you were depressed or being bullied.

Fuck that.

Speak up.

Speak up, because your voices are the ones that matter.

All the debate about schools, about curricula, about subjects and bullying and sex and homophobia and ignorance and bad teaching – all of it affects you. More than anyone else, it affects you. But you are being left out, because you are students, and cannot be trusted to have intelligent opinions. Like prisoners, it is assumed that your sole goal is escape. Let’s slide right by the point where that comparison means many adults subconsciously think of schools and jails as being fundamentally the same, necessary-but-evil types of correctional institution. Yes, lots of teenagers are wankers. I know it, and so do you! If that weren’t true, then bullying wouldn’t be a problem. We would live in a candy-cane world of pixies and chocolate, and ride unicorns to school. Being a teenager doesn’t make you automatically right, either. We’re all still learning about life, after all. Personally, I maintain that any person who thinks they’ve reached a point where learning has become optional is (a) deluded and (b) most probably (see above) a wanker.

But here’s the secret: a lot of adults are wankers and/or wrong, too, and many of them have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager. Perhaps more importantly, they have never had your teenage experience, and are therefore categorically unable to learn from it. There are also good adults in the world – adults who care, and try, and are nonetheless thwarted by a system that desires they do neither – and those adults deserve to be rewarded. But that cannot happen unless you stand up and make your opinions known.

So: right here, right now. Stand up.

This is what the internet is for.

Read. Learn. Protest. Rebel. Think. Question. Argue. Care.

The future is yours, and unless you do something about it? Continued suckage is a definite option.

Be clever. Be subervise. Be creative.

Fight back.

Not on their terms.

But on yours.

And win.

 

Back when I was a teenager, the prospect of turning into an adult troubled me. Surely, I thought, it must involve some sort of brainwashing: what else could possibly explain such a drastic shift in priorities? At best, the process seemed to involve forgetting adolescence more than learning adulthood, and what was worse, I couldn’t see an intermediary phase. One minute, you were a normal person, happily making mock of authority and sleeping through class; the next, you had an actual job and a proportionally decreased sense of humour. It seemed like such an unreal metamorphosis that despite all evidence to the contrary, I half-believed it couldn’t happen to me. Though my body might age, inside I would always be the same person I was at nineteen, forever hovering on the cusp of adulthood without ever properly crossing over.

I was wrong, of course, but it’s taken me until now to understand why.

At the time of this writing, I’m twenty-four years old. As a teenager, I never used to think about what being in my twenties would mean beyond the advantages of legalised drinking and enough disposable income to afford it as a passtime. Sure, I had plans for the future, but they were plans for me – for the person I was, a person I couldn’t actually imagine changing – and therefore disconnected from any notions of age. Besides, being in my twenties wasn’t the problem: twentysomethings weren’t old (or at least, not too old) and compared to my parents, teachers and lecturers, they weren’t actually adults, either. Perhaps that’s why I essentially looked forward to my twenties as something of a static state: except for the necessary profusion of twenty-first birthdays I could anticipate attending, nothing of adult significance would actually happen. I would study, socialise and carry on much as I always had, but without the hindrance of parental supervision. If someone had told me then that I’d be engaged at twenty and married the next year, I would have told them they were an idiot. Marriage was something adults did, and therefore high up my list of things I planned to avoid. Happily, it didn’t work out that way.

Near the end of high school, my favourite teacher took it upon himself to try and forewarn our history class about the perils that awaited us in the Real World. Seated on the edge of his desk and smirking only a little, he informed us, as adults seemed wont to do back then, that Life Would Go By Quickly. We might have planned on being young forever, he said, but sooner than any of us expected, we’d be receiving our first wedding invitations, and after that, there’d be christenings to attend. We laughed, but there was a gleam in his eye that put an edge to that laughter. Could he be right? Despite my determination not to grow up, I thought about that moment often in the following years, not least of all before my own wedding. As the first of my friends to tie the knot, I had unexpectedly caused the first half of his prophecy to come true. But that still didn’t make me an adult. Did it?

The truth is, my twenties have proven to be more significant than I ever imagined, not least because my definition of significance itself has changed. Slowly but surely, other friends have gotten married or engaged, announced pregnancies or split up, come out or moved countries or changed jobs. And slowly but surely, I’ve changed, too. I don’t remember the first time I decided to spent a quiet Friday night indoors rather than going out with friends, or what prompted me to start shopping with the intention of keeping a full cupboard rather than only ever buying the ingreedients for specific meals. But now, my end-of-week celebrations are as often held at home as not, and even when I haven’t been to the supermarket, there’s always enough food in the fridge for lunch. After years of being told by my mother to tidy as I go and thinking it a waste of time, suddenly, it’s starting to feel like common sense. The house still exists in a regular state of mess, but a lesser mess than it was even a year ago, and I’ve started cleaning more regularly. Where once I used to put off unpalatable tasks for as long as possible, now I find myself trying to get them out of the way. Friends come over for dinner more often than for parties.

And that’s just the obvious stuff.

There is no brainwashing, flip-switch moment to adulthood. There never was. There never will be. Trying to explain to my teenage self about the satisfcation of cleaning the house on a weekend would inevitably produce as skeptical a response as if she tried to convince an even younger Foz that playing with toy horses could be anything other than fun. No matter how long we’ve been alive or how much the process of living has changed us up to a certain point, somehow, we humans continually manage to convince ourselves that the only the way we feel right now is real: that being happy with ourselves is enough to make any further development impossible. But we are all changing constantly. The fact that I no longer play with my toy horses doesn’t mean that I was wrong ever to do so, or that the rightness I felt as a teenager was illusory: it just means that Foz-Now is different to Foz-Then, despite our being made up of the same essential components. And right now, at the tail end of a week which, for one reason or another, has made me feel that perhaps I am an adult after all, or at least firmly on my way to becoming one, it seems that the greatest threat to people of different ages understanding one another lies in the subconscious assumption that there is such a thing as just the right amount of life experience; and that too little or too much makes us either callow idiots or forgetful fogies.

The paradox of being human is that, once we learn something, we can’t unlearn it; but until we’ve learned it, we can’t imagine what the lesson will feel like. Now that I’m a twentysomething, I can’t go back to what I was before; but until they roll around, I don’t know what further changes my thirties will bring, either. I want to go forwards, but not at the expense of forgetting who I was. Because underneath all my old concerns about brainwashing lurks a deeper fear: that somewhere down the track, I could change into a person of whom my earlier selves would actively disapprove, not just because I was older, and therefore somewhat alien, but because my age had lead me to view my youth – or rather, the motives and passions of my youth – with contempt. Growing up no longer concerns me. Growing ignorant does.

Why do we remember some things, and not others? Mixed in with all the significant moments and epiphanies are any number of mundane recollections, things that stand out now only by dint of how much life has changed since then. I remember running across the tarmac at primary school, my half-empty bag swinging side to side across my shoulders. I remember kissing my first boyfriend by the science block at the end of recess, simultaneously thrilled and embarassed at the intimacy. I remember walking to the train station at the end of innumerable Year 12 days, fantasising about the end of school and the music I’d play to celebrate being free. I remember the first time I saw the man who would one day became my husband, shyly tidying his philosophy books off the dining-room table in a borrowed apartment. Small things. But they matter.

All these moments that make up my life are no less right for having been superseded. The girls I used to be are no less real for having been made to grow up. One day, the same will be true of the woman I am now. But until then, I write this down. I write, so that I might remember. And maybe – just maybe – it will be enough.

By way of introduction to what comes next, consider the following articles:

1. An in-depth examination of what makes a great teacher;

2. A renunciation of helicopter parenting;

3. The suspension of students after the online ‘bullying’ of a teacher;

4. A warning to teachers not to ‘friend’ students online for fear of said bullying; and

5. The Rate My Teachers website.

Are we all familiar with the relevant materials?

Good.

But before I begin, a relevant disclaimer:

I hated high school. Not to begin with, certainly, but by the end, I loathed it with a furious vengeance that would cheerfully have seen me set fire to the place. I went to two high schools, since you ask, both of them co-educational. The first was a public school; the second, private. I spent three years at each. It is important to note that my hatred does not stem from these differences, nor from a desire to have studied under a same-sex regime. In both instances, I had access to teachers who were engaged, intelligent, interesting and committed to my education. One school had more money and resources than the other, and when it came time to choose my final year subjects, that was certainly a boon, but it didn’t cancel out my hatred. Neither was I an indifferent student. By choice, I studied 14 units in Year 12, when the normal maximum was 13, and I continued to play school sport on the weekend when it was no longer mandatory. I even won a couple of prizes, at both a school and state level. I had friends, and boyfriends, and kind, loving, intelligent parents. I was bullied early on in school, but not in a way that dominated my life, and it wasn’t an issue after I turned 15. In short, I was a good student, the kind who cared about knowledge and who, despite the necessary teenage resentments and problems, wanted to do well. But I hated high school. I felt trapped there as I have never felt trapped before or since. I cried myself to sleep at night, those nights when I did sleep, because past the age of 15, my insomnia was all-encompassing. I was depressed, melancholy, self-hating, self-destructive, angry, a cutter, frustrated and, at times, near catatonic with helplessness. More than anything, I wanted to get out. And now I have, and there’s not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for having held on. But the outrage has never left me. High school, as is, is not a good place. In six years, I never met a bright student who hadn’t considered suicide at some point or other, an observation which has held true even when recalling those years among new adult acquaintances.¬† Think about that for a moment: a place supposedly dedicated to education where the majority of smart people end up wanting to kill themselves. The high school system is rotten. I remain convinced of this fact. Yes, it has its virtues. But I cannot bear to make myself their advocate. That is my bias, for now and for the foreseeable future. Be warned of it.

Are you up to speed?

Then let us begin.

*****

Of late, there has been a lot of furore about the problem of how to evaluate teachers. Educational unions are strong, and arguably with good reason, especially when one considers how little high school teachers are actually paid, and how miniscule their prospects of financial advancement. It is not a good status quo, and if it were possible to snap my fingers and eradicate the regrettable social assumption than teaching is a low-prestige job worthy only of a similarly low salary, I would gladly trade the flesh of my left hand to do so. But that is not the case: change is never so easy, particularly when it impinges on politics and tradition, and instead, we are stuck with the slow road. I am deeply sympathetic to the plight of underpaid teachers, harried educaters who work long hours for little recompense, dedicating their holidays to marking and the creation of lesson plans, struggling to earn a higher wage, and who find themselves thwarted by poor resourcing on behalf of their attendent governments. These are all problems which deserve redress, and soon.

But.

There is such a thing as a bad teacher. More to the point, there is such a thing as bad teachers, plural, meaning that they are among us, and many, and largely undetected. This is not a desierable situation. Nor is it easily fixed. I will not pretend that creating league tables to measure the performance of schools will automatically solve all the problems parents face when deciding where to send their children. The difference in resources available between the public and private systems is still mindboggling; and I should know, having been in a position to gauge it from both sides. But there is something obvious to the idea that good teachers make a positive difference in the lives of their students, and – correspondingly – that bad teachers can have the opposite effect. The problem, as in all subjective matters, lies in determining what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the context. Especially when endeavouring to craft new legislation, rather than merely supporting laws which already exist, the desire is to improve, adapt, mend: we see the problem, and therefore strive to fix it. But which person, or what body, has either the right or expertise to draw such a contentious line in the sand – to declare that X breed of teacher is good, while the practices of Y are intolerable?

As painful as it is to admit, there surely comes a point when we must pass such a judgement, not because we believe it to be inviolably true, but because we cannot rightfully function without some sort of acknowledgement that there is a judgement to be made at all, and what’s more, that it is worth making. Some teachers are better than others. In almost every other field of employ, we are willing to concede this point, and yet teaching remains a battleground. Elsewhere, the idea that good results be rewarded with higher pay is a logical sort of system, and one that some teachers, at least, are eager to embrace. But where to start? With all the accepted variances in syllabi, school resources and – though more controversial – the socio/economic data of particular school catchment areas, it seems intuitively wrongheaded to suppose that all teachers are striving towards greatness from a position of equal footing. How, therefore, might one reasonably craft the defining qualities of educational success, if the starting assumption denies that all teachers begin with a common set of resources and an equally well-equipped student populace? It is impossible; but then, if we look at the corporate sphere, nobody has ever claimed that all lawyers begin their careers with the same number and type of cases, or that all doctors must successfully diagnose from an equal pool of patients. In that sense, there is always going to be inequality: the point, however, is in trying to establish standards for success that transcend that fact in a visible majority of instances.

So: how do we go about evaluating the success of teachers? Grades, one assumes, must have something to do with it, although that is possibly the trickiest rubrick to establish, given the above concerns. Is there, then, an easier starting place? Yes, I would contend, and a fairly obvious one, though equally controversial. I can think of only two types of institution in our modern world where those in a position of authority are not noticably subject to the rights of those beneath them: prisons, and schools. In both instances, we believe the governed body to be too deeply invested in the dismantling of the whole system to bother with their opinions, not least because they are, by and large, resentful of being held somewhere against their will. But that does not mean abuses do not take place, and it certainly does not mean, in the case of students, that they are comparable to inmates: that is to say, innately untrustworthy by dint of sitting on the far side of the desk. Yes, there is a worry that students will play favourites; that they will lie about their teachers, and desire only the sort of cheerful mediocrity which allows them to misbehave with the least amount of stress. But one might just as easily say the same of junior employees, resentful of the power of their bosses and wanting only to be paid exhorbitantly for the minimum amount of work. Regardless of age, this is always the dichotomy, and while we might acknowledge that some teenagers will abuse the privilege, or else prove unequal to the task of articulating their discontent in an intelligible and useful manner, I am not convinced that adults are any more noble.

Out of curiosity, I looked up one of my old schools on the Rate My Teachers website. Yes, there were some purely pejorative comments in evidence, but otherwise, I found that my own recollections bore out in the assigned scores: teachers I recalled as outstanding were roundly praised, while those I remembered with less fondness were frowned upon. Given my disclaimer about the extent to which I hated high school, I might well be biased, but it seems as though teenagers aren’t as misguided in their perception of teachers as is commonly made out, no matter how poorly those perceptions might be expressed. Since leaving school, I’ve worked for at least one employer whose neuroses and general unpleasantness made my skin crawl, and nobody I complained to about it ever made me feel as though my powers of observation were somehow deficient. Bad bosses are part of the adult world: we accept their existence almost by default. But bad teachers are a different kettle of fish. Even when reminiscing as adults, with all the powers of hindsight at our disposal, there is often a sense that we are being unjust in our perceptions of former teachers; that somehow, we are letting childish emotions cloud our judgement, clinging on to age-old resentments rather than electing to grow up. Even though the only difference between criticising an employer and a teacher might be a few months – or nothing at all, for those who hold down jobs during school – we are automatically inclined to treat the former complaint with greater gravity.

Why? A simple thing: choice.

Suppose I’m working an awful job. Should things turn really nasty, I have the option of leaving. Any resentment I feel towards my employer may therefore be reasonably viewed in this context, and gauged with a modicum of objectivity, depending on the listener’s knowledge of my personality and quirks. But students do not have such a choice. Their resentment is established as a matter of fact, such that any attempt to increase it – say, by complaning about a teacher – does not seem any different from this perceived background level of discontent. More importantly, the fact remains that, even if the teacher is genuinely bad, there is little to be done about it. Changing schools for the sake of a single person is hardly common, and certainly not smiled upon; never mind the fact that changing schools at all is difficult. The idea that a teacher might be dismissed or even reprimanded because of any one student’s say-so is equally unlikely. But in a situation where there is no established means of acknowledging good teachers or weeding out bad even among the educational hierarchy, what hope does any student have of making a valid complaint?

I am not trying to wrap teenagers in cotton wool. As in the case of teachers, some are better than others, smarter than others, kinder or more enthusiastic or honest than others. That cannot be changed, and I do not want to implement some unrealistic, lovely-dovey system wherein all teachers strive for the approval and popular adoration of their pupils. But surely, there must be some way, some viable genesis, wherein students can evaluate their teachers and be heard within the bounds of a legitimate system, and not just by venting on an unauthorised website. Here’s an idea that plays to biases, and which might work for exactly that reason: what if we took note of the type of student complaining about a particular teacher? If they’re all friends from the same group, or possessed of similar personalities, then it seems reasonable to assume that the teacher is either being directly targeted, or that their method of teaching jars with that teen-type. But if the complaints are coming from diverse corners of the student body, or from the type of pupil who normally refrains from rocking the boat, then perhaps schools should sit up and take notice, if only to be sure that nothing is amiss.

If you consider that a teacher is but one person faced with twenty or thirty rebellious subjects, then the idea of students bullying educators becomes less absurd, no matter the balance of power. I am not saying that students should have carte blanche to make their teachers fear for their jobs, or to ridicule them, or any such thing. But the crucial element of bullying is power, and the effect it has on the injured party. Someone might try and tease me, for instance, but if I do not fear them – if they have no tangible ability to make my life worse, and if I genuinely do not care what they say – then they are not bullying me; they are only failing to do so. And perhaps, for the sake of the attempt, that failure should be met with reprimand. Perhaps. But where there are more concrete examples to be getting on with – people who do fear their persecutors, who care what is said about them, and whose lives can be made worse by those on the attack – then spending breath and effort berating what hasn’t happened seems like a waste of time. Thus, in reference to the current concerns of schools re the bullying of teachers – particularly, as in the case of Leeming SHS, of teachers who are themselves feared by their students – I entreat you: look where the power is. If students have no valid outlet to complain about their teachers, and if those teachers are behaving aggressively, then do not be surprised if the internet takes up your shortfall. Don’t go calling it bullying for the sake of effect, or because you think the students shouldn’t have bad opinions in the first place: be an adult, and maybe wonder whether or not such vociferous complaints have merit.

I’m almost done, here. I’m running out of words. The hour is late. I don’t have an overriding solution; only a few scraps. But, please: the things that are wrong with high school aren’t just due to teenage angst. There is something broken in the system – a deep, treacherous wound that cannot mend itself, and which few enough adults even acknowledge exists. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: teenagers are not stupid. The lower your expectations for any group of people, the less likely they are to try and surprise you – why should they, when it doesn’t get them anywhere? We need to start thinking about how to make our schools better, and evaluating teachers is part of that. But until then, try and imagine what we can change. It’s the only way forward. And sooner or later, it’s where we’ll have to go.

I’ve never liked the New South Wales Board of Studies. As a student, I loathed their jargon-bloated English curriculum, a position I’m yet to renounce; and even as a functioning, happy adult, the word juxtapositioning continues to give me grief. Internally, I still picture them as a befuddled panel of port-sipping old duffers interspersed with managing executives in shark suits: the ultimate amalgam of straw men. I’d love to be proven wrong, of course, because it would mean things might actually get fixed, but so far, there’s not been anything especial to convince me otherwise.

Imagine my chagrin, therefore, at the following bold advice to HSC students struggling under the dual burden of coursework and part-time employment: to “set out a roster that balances time for their schooling and studies and their responsibilities with their part-time work.”¬†

On the surface, this is a seemingly reasonable statement. It’s also entirely unhelpful, and, like just about every other¬†Board-originating comment¬†in the article, so obvious as to be risibly condescending.

So,¬† for the benefit of those Board members¬†whose own adolescence whipped by some time prior to the construction of the pyramids, take heed: teenaged checkout chicks have about as much negotiating power with their employers as a mouse does with a very hungry cat. Because of the limited hours they can work, they’re already competing for shifts with more flexible workers. Their pay is low, their rights are few and, appropriately, they are extremely easy to replace. Beginners in any field simply can’t advocate for the most favourable shifts with any weight, and most managers, nice though some of them undoubtably are, have a business to run: the roster is meant to work for them, after all, not slot in around the study habits of a junior employee.

Nobody likes to work late and get up early. It’s just that, for students, there are¬†very few avenues of redress. School is non-negotiable; absences even for good reasons are frowned upon, as is running late – and I notice, Board, that your solution wasn’t to try and promote flexibility within schools, but to put the onus back on students and families to figure it out themselves. Which, undoubtably, they’ve already tried to do.

It’s not an optimal situation; I’m not even suggesting there’s an easy solution. But throwing a patter of useless, pat-on-the-head statements out into the ether and hoping that an ability to state the bleeding obvious counts as a proactive endeavour is worse than if you hadn’t actually noticed.

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.