Posts Tagged ‘Teenagers’

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.

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.

 

Is there anything sadder than a government add campaign self-consciously endeavouring to relate to Teh Young Peoples? I mean, seriously – how stupid do these people think teenagers are? I don’t care how it was back in the Good Old Days Of Yore, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and John Howard was still the lifeblood of the Young Liberals, because nowadays, people don’t look upon advertising as a natural Goddamm phenomenon. It’s not like the weather. It doesn’t just exist in some pristine, impartial state. This is not the 1950s. We know where advertising comes from, and what it is for. The fact that the government is endeavouring to promote law rather than a product grants them a unique legitimacy, especially as the intended consequence here is to save lives. But these ads, right here? They are the televised equivalent of entering a valid argument in full possession of the relevant moral highground, and then proceding to answer every statement with inane schoolyard insults. The government is trying to relate to young people, but instead, it is insulting their intelligence.

A small interlude, by way of comparison. Consider the following recent ad, wherein ANZ has created the (admittedly amusing) strawman of Barbara, a bank manager who lives in Bank World, and who is described as being the diametric opposite of an ANZ employee. I laugh when I watch this ad, because I have encountered people like Barbara in my travels, but I am not fooled into thinking that ANZ’s recognition of the stereotype equates to their having eradicated it. The point being, I am meant to find Barbara repulsive, because the ad works on the assumption that I, its intended audience, am not a Barbara myself. Furthermore, I do not want to be Barbara; I am not friends with a Barbara; I should, in fact, have nothing to do with her (wait for it) barbarous kind, and therefore – it is hoped – the humour and disgust I feel when looking at Barbara will lull me into accepting the premise of the ad, which is that ANZ is home to bunnies and light and sweetness, while all other banks are slavering, scabrous bastions of cruelty and disease. Or, like, not.

But.

The government, in its infinite wisdom, has elected to mock emos and redheads as part of its campaign. Question from the gallery: are there emos and redheads among the teenage population? Ding ding ding, that’s an affirmative, Captain! And are they friends and associates of¬† other teenagers who, although neither emo nor redheaded themselves, are likely to be outraged on their behalf? Double jackpot! And now, for the winner: assuming the remaining population of phone-wielding teenage drivers who like to mouth off their hatred of emos and redheads find these ads funny, what are the chances that their mirth will translate into careful driving practices, rather than – as seems infinitely more likely – serving as justification for their bigoted trashtalking? Do I hear cries of slim to none from the audience? Hallelujah! Thanks for playing another tedious round of Yet More Proof The Government Is Run By Crazy People With Little Or No Grasp On Reality And The Social Intelligence Of A Concussed Trout! I mean, Sweet Zombie Jesus!

Some days, I hate everything.

Look, dudes-in-government: there’s no shame in being so hopelessly out of touch as to qualify you as having only four working senses. Well, tell a lie – maybe there’s a little shame, but that’s only because you can’t bear to admit it. You like the idea of being in touch, because you’ve made a career out of popularity, and deep down in the tiny, scum-encrusted carapace of your stunted souls, you can’t bear to think that there’s a demographic alive you might not be able to sway, should you desire it – but you are not in touch. And most of the time, we, the Thinking People Under Thirty, don’t particularly care, because it’s what we expect. But when you do something like this, it makes us sit up and take notice, and not in a good way. Suddenly, we smell the lies on you, the way dogs smell fear; we curl our lips and remember why we are so fucking disinclined, by and large, to take your advice in the first place. You, with your forced joviality and condescention, you make yourselves resemble a set of creatures we have no wish to become; but inevitably, we will grow up, and when that happens, we do not wish to be scrambling for the approval of our juniors, as you so clearly are, but earning it through a demonstration of the idea that maybe, just maybe, our older selves are something worth imitating.

Today, you failed at that. You failed hard.

Try and learn from it.

Consider the following four articles on the dangers of youth exposure to too much digital culture:

iPod Safety: Preventing Hearing Loss in Teens;

Twittering brains withering, expert warns;

Teens flaunt sex, drugs on MySpace; and

Too much PlayStation causes painful lumps,

all of which cropped up in today’s online news. Together, they pretty much exemplify the fears of the Builders, the Baby Boomers and, to a certain extent, the elder members of Generation X, not just as regards their own offspring, but concerning¬†all of modern society. Loud and clear, they’ve been wringing their hands for the past few years over the perils of digitisation, and every time, I’ve experienced a disqueting lurch of anger. It’s taken today’s media¬†quartet for me to understand why this is: after all, cynic though I may be, I still put a certain base faith in the opinions of scientists and sociologists, especially when backed up by established studies. As a member of Generation Y, I’m hardly an impartial observer, and to a large extent, my negative reactions stem from a sense of being personally maligned, even where certain behaviours or criticisms don’t apply either to me as I am now, or to my historic teenage self. Rather, I feel outraged on behalf of my generation and those younger: that we are, in some sense, being fundamentally misunderstood. I can hack criticism, yes; but the sheer weight of professional authorities whose time has been purposefully devoted to proving that almost everyone under the age of 25 is steering themselves on a course towards social oblivion has begun to seem less like the amalgamated findings of unbiased research and more like an unconscious desire to demonise technology.

When it comes to growing up, it’s human nature to get fixed in whatever era raised us. Modern society is shaped, by and large, to ensure this happens – advertising and television timeslots, for instance, aren’t shown at random, but painstakingly catered to particular demographics. Thus, once we lose interests in the trappings of a given age and progress to playing with a new kind of gadget or watching a different kind of film, we effectively graduate from one type of newsfeed to another. Not watching weekend and afterschool cartoons, for example,¬†means that we no longer learn which shows are cancelled and which will replace them, and that certain products, like the latest toys and games, will no longer form part of our daily media experience. Because our interest in such things has waned, we don’t notice the dissonance: rather, we assume that things have remained static in our absence, and are often startled in a moment of later nostalgia when, flipping on the TV at 3pm, we recognise none of the cartoon characters, none of the hosts, and none of the merchandise. Such disorientation provokes outrage: who are these strangers, and what have they done with our childhood? This biases our opinion of the new product towards hostility and skepticism from the outset; and even when we take the time to watch these new shows, the magic is missing, because we are no longer children. Wrongheadedly, however, we don’t immediately identify this as the problem, and tend to believe, rather, that the product itself is at fault. In fact, it becomes difficult to fathom what kind of person such programmes are catered to, and so, by extension and quite unselfconsciously, we have already taken the first steps towards discrediting the intelligence and taste of the next generation. This outrage slumbers in us, omnipresent but quiescent, until we have children of our own, or are forced to deal with someone else’s. Nonetheless, it is there.

Consider, then, that the technological advances of the past few decades have¬†leapt ahead¬†at unprecedented speeds. In the space of twenty years, we have moved from cassette tapes and walkmans to CDs and discmans to the now-ubiquitous mp3s and iPods of the new millenium. For a generation who started out buying their albums on LP, this is triply disconcerting, while for the generation who thought themselves blessed by the miracle of radio, it seems like a kind of magic. This is all common knowledge, of course, and therefore glossed with the shiny patina of frequent repetition: by itself, the comparison doesn’t provide an explanation for the hostility of older generations. Until, that is, we combine it with the above example about treasured childhood cartoons, because in this instance, not only are the new characters unrecognisable, but they don’t even appear on the same device.

And adults struggle with this. They are disconnected from their offspring, from their students;¬†more important than connectivity and reminiscence, however, is the loss of firsthand advice. They simply cannot guide today’s teenagers through the digital world, which leads most youth to discover it on their own. Most of us who grew up¬†with computers and videogames are either several years away from reproducing or blessed with children still in early primary-school: in other words, we are yet to witness what happens when a generation of adolescents is reared by a generation of adults anywhere near as technologically literate as their teenage progeny, who remember what it was like to hang out on Trillian or MSN chat all night, to experiment with cybersex, to write achingly of school crushes in their LiveJournal or to download music at home. Members of Generations Y and Z, in other words, in addition to being¬†burgeoning iFolk, are also a social anomaly: a group whose own adolescence is so far removed from the experience of their caretakers as to prevent their parents and teachers, in many instances,¬†from adequately preparing them for the real (digital) world.

But the gap will close. Already there are¬†children in the world whose parents own game consoles, who will guide them online from a young age, and whose joint mannerisms both in real and virtual company will be drawn from a single parental source. Navigating away from certain parts of the internet will be taught in the same way as stranger danger and the implict lesson to avoid¬†dangerous parts of the local neighbourhood. We teach what we know, after all, and yet large number of commentators seem not to have realised this –¬†which is why I react badly to their writings. They never purport to be talking about teenagers now so much as teenagers always, or from this point on, a frustrating alarmism that takes no account of what will happen when such adolescents leave home, stumble into the bright sunlight, go to university, get jobs, fall in love and maybe have children of their own. In short, they have no sense of the future, or if so, they picture a world populated by antisocial digital natives, uprooting the fruits of their hard labour out of ignorance, apathy and poor management. Either they¬†can’t imagine us growing up, or fear what we’ll turn into.

I’m speaking here in broad-brush terms. Obviously, the distinction between those who are technologically literate and those who aren’t can’t simply be reduced to their year of birth. Every generation has its Luddites (and, if we remember the political motivations of those original iconoclasts, this is often a good thing) as well as its innovators, its geeks and scientists.¬†And many such worried articles, irksome though I may find their tone,¬†are still correct: listening to your iPod on full volume will probably damage your hearing, just as it’s not a wise idea to post intimate details of your sex life on MySpace. The latter concern is markedly new, and something teens certainly need to be made aware of – indeed, professionals new to Facebook are still themselves figuring out whether to friend coworkers or employers, thereby allowing them to view the results of various drunken nights out, or to keep a low digital profile. Such wisdom is new all round, and deeply appreciated. On the other hand, parents have been telling their kids to turn down their damn music in one form or another ever since Elvis Presley first picked up a guitar, and while the technology might’ve become more powerful in the intervening decades and¬†the studies into auditory damage more accurate, the warning remains identical (as does the inter-generational eye-roll with which it tends to be received).

In short, the world is changing, and people are changing with it, teachers, teens and parents alike.¬†And I cannot help, in my own curious optimism, to see this¬†as a positive thing: that in a world where technology moves so swiftly, older generations must constantly remain open to the idea of learning from their younger counterparts, while those in the know must become teachers earlier. There is so much to be gained in the coming years, and so many problems, both great and small, to be solved. The gap between adults and adolescents has never been so large, but while it always behooves those in the former category to teach and aid the latter, this should never be at the expense of at least trying to understand their point of view. And this, ultimately, is what causes me to bristle: whether playing videogames can hurt your hands or spending too much time online can damage your real world social skills, such passtimes aren’t going anywhere. Rather than condemning or sneering at such things outright or tutting sadly, the more productive path is to consider how best they can be incorporated into modern life without causing harm, or to study how they work in confluence with real-world interactions, and not just fret about what happens if they’re used exclusively.

Because technology – and future generations – aren’t going anywhere. We might not look like Inspector Gadget, but baby, we’re his heirs. Or rather, Penny’s. You get the idea.

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.

Dear Australian Parents,

Stop freaking out about finding the perfect school for your precious progeny.¬†Parroting the answers to standardised tests is not a form of intelligence, and tends to impart the lesson that memorisation is more important than comprehension, let alone independent thought. Kids at their best are creative, explorative, curious . Encourage their interests, but don’t regiment them – the best way to teach is to make learning fun, not to take something they love and make it joyless. If you really want children who are bright, articulate, interesting and well-adjusted, then learn with them: buy them books you’ll read together, play with them, ask what they’d like to do and, where possible, make it happen – but don’t just¬†farm them out to a stranger for rote-learning. ¬†

Not every child is a Rhodes Scholar waiting to happen, and that’s OK. Encourage them to do their best, help them if they struggle, but understand that no amount of money thrown at private tutors, schools or remedial programs will make them any happier or healthier. I understand your concerns, I really do: the world is a difficult place, and especially in times of economic turmoil, it’s natural to want an advantage for those you love best. But education, sadly, has become a commodity, something we buy and sell without anywhere near enough thought as to its intrinsic value. Our society has fathomened the letter of schools, but lost their spirit. When almost everyone finishes Year 12 and a vast majority attend uni, what sets someone apart isn’t their improved marks, but their genuine hunger for knowledge. And that,¬†assuming it can be taught, is¬†a much more subtle lesson.

Parents, let out the collective breath you’ve been holding. Love your kids – teach them, guide them, help them – but remember: they won’t be kids forever. The more you have to force them into something, the less fun they’ll find it. And all too soon, when they shoot up into rebellious, awkward teenagers who storm out, sulk, cut class and answer back, the very best you can hope for is that they want to learn, regardless of whether everything they busy themselves with is part of the curriculum. Like gumtrees that start out in verandah pots, you’re teaching them to be bigger than the space they’ve known. You’re helping them grow up. Whether you send them to public or private school, if they have a tutor or not, it’ll happen. They’ll cease to be meek, but they will inherit the Earth.

So don’t mould them after the system. Teach them to change it.

Cruising through the New York Times today, I did a double-take on the following headline:

Teenagers’ Internet Socializing Not a Bad Thing

As this is a blatantly obvious observation akin to announcing that Chocolate Is Bad For You But People Eat It Anyway, I spent a good minute staring at the link, trying to figure out what I was missing. My instinctive reaction was that, for reasons unknown, the Times and the Onion had somehow contrived to swap stories. Or maybe those fake headline guys had struck again Рwho knows? Unable to come up with a better theory, I decided to read on.

Frighteningly, it appears the story is genuine.¬†How anyone could remain oblivious as to why teenagers – or, for that matter, adults – use MySpace and Facebook is beyond me, while¬†the idea that the MacArthur¬†Foundation actually put money towards proving the bleeding obvious¬†causes a small but vital part of my cerubellum to¬†bulge in a worrying fashion. Seriously, dudes? Young folk nowadays use of the Internets. They send of the text messags, speak on the cellular phones and¬†jive to the rock’n’ roll musics. Deal with it. (I have a sneaking suspicion that the author, Tamar Lewin, is a modern-day Luddite. Only someone completely out of touch with reality could put quotation marks around the phrase “geeking out” and hope to be taken seriously about either technology or youth culture.)

In other unintentionally-self-mocking news, Germaine Greer, that grumpy old feminist, has lambasted Michelle Obama’s election-victory dress with the kind of angry, colourful prose normally reserved for botched military campaigns. The irony of a feminist icon slagging a powerful, intelligent, prominent woman purely on the basis of her clothes – and, stranger still, complaining that Malia and Sasha’s¬†dresses weren’t “girly” – is disturbingly potent. Especially now that¬†actual fashion designers have called Greer’s own wardrobe into question¬†(lordy!),¬†the whole ludicrous¬†incident is eerily reminiscent of something the Monty Python pepperpots might have done.

Now there’s a thought – try a photo of Germaine Greer next to Terry¬†Jones in drag¬†and see what you think. To quote the quintessential Python/Pepperpots exchange:

“Shh. It’s satire!’

“No it isn’t – this is zany madcap humour!”

Also, there’s a two-faced kitten.

Fourth wall, anyone?

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.

As a concept, maturity hinges on two things: emotional experience, and¬†learning from¬†it. While neither qualification can be rushed (or, indeed, predicted) we nonetheless¬†have a tendency to associate maturity with people¬†above a certain age –¬†18, say,¬†or 21. This is¬†based on the not-unreasonable hypothesis that most people will have undergone significant life or emotional change¬†by this point, but this¬†fulfills only¬†one¬†half of the¬†equation.¬†Learning from our experience is, quite arguably, the more relevant point, and is appropriately hard to test for. This difficulty is compounded by two other problems: firstly, the potential for youthful maturity and aged immaturity to wreck the curve; and secondly, a social habit of conflating maturity with intelligence.

This is where the issue becomes confused. Information, maturity, experience, knowledge¬†and¬†wisdom are all learned, but intelligence is native. It can be stunted, developed, delayed,¬†repressed or¬†encouraged¬†according to circumstance, but¬†there is still a level of predetermination¬†to how smart¬†you can actually be.¬†A person’s base intelligence¬†exists¬†beyond their level of maturity: it doesn’t kick in¬†at a certain birthday, nor does it require random, unpredictable change to flourish. Instead, intelligence¬†blossoms¬†as we¬†use it. In pragmatic terms, this is still no substitute for acquired knowledge and life skills, nor can it stand in for maturity; and¬†while an argument might be made that native intelligence¬†governs how swiftly we mature once the opportunity has presented itself, this is of secondary concern. Consider, then, the following concept: that at some point in your teenage years, you¬†become as technically bright as you’ll ever be.

Although the human brain doesn’t finish developing in its entirety until¬†around 24, the cerebral development of intelligence stops between 8 and 12. Hormonal change starts not long after this process ends: even¬†at¬†14, 15¬†and 16, we are still dealing with teenagers whose intelligence is set, and whose emotional development – at least on a¬†biological level – is well underway.

The main difference between adults and teenagers, then, is one of experience. Firsts are a big part of human growth, and with a whole new set of chemicals¬†informing teenage behaviour, it’s not only circumstances that are changing, but the knowledge of how¬†an individual might¬†react. Unsurprisingly, this¬†can lead¬†to mood swings, irrational behaviour, poor decisions and other such adolescent staples – but underneath all the drama¬†lies an essentially adult intelligence, assessing situations, collating data, drawing conclusions and¬†commenting on the process.

This is what society tends to forget: that teenagers are entirely capable of rational thought and observation, not just by childish standards, but in an adult context. Rather than an inability to form cogent arguments or opinions, the struggle is processing the sheer volume of information on offer, much of which is new. Areas which before held little or no interest whatsoever, such as politics, have suddenly hit the radar, while much of what was previously deemed important, like old hobbies, are being discarded. 

There’s more to be said on the subject of teenagers:¬†highschool, stereotyping by adults, social issues. But¬†for now, I’m content to distinguish between maturity and intelligence, and to point out that both are equally significant to adulthood and development. The one might take years to learn, but the other is all too often overlooked.