There that’s stopped you in your tracks, hasn’t it? You were thinking, oh she seemed quite normal. Well, apart from the pathological sarcasm and the edge of mild hysteria. (I’m not just putting that on for this blog, by the way. If anything, it’s worse in real life. Pity those who are just about to spend four days trapped on a coach with me on a singing trip to Dublin. Pity them.)
But amazingly enough, I chose to start working with teenagers, not as a radical alternative to a custodial sentence for some unspeakable crime but – wait for it – because I wanted to. Bear with me, hold onto your disbelief, and I’ll explain.
When I tell people I am a teacher, the first thing they say is: “Primary? (in a fluffy tone, all smiles and positive body language) or (adopting grimace of horror and flinching tone) SECONDARY?????”
When I tell them it’s the latter, they tend to say one of two things:
1. you’re BRAVE!* or 2. are you MAD??!
Let’s deal with the BRAVE first. I love this idea, that standing in front of a room full of adolescents and talking to them about alliteration is somehow akin to doing something really hazardous, like being a fire-fighter, or working in Shoezone. Sure there’s the odd bout of swearing, and from time to time, things are thrown. Punches, shoes, insults, the occasional chair. But crucially, these things are not ever thrown AT me. (Well apart from the insults.) They are normally throwing things at each other, so you get plenty of time to duck and cover. Mostly, the most dangerous thing to happen in my classroom is my righteous anger at a misplaced possessive apostrophe.
As for the MAD, well I am not even sure what this means. Everyone comes to the idea of the twenty-first century teenager with his or her own particular misconception. I once had a completely surreal conversation with an acquaintance who claimed that she was scared by the group of teenagers outside the chip shop on a Tuesday night. It transpired that these were, in fact, the Air Cadets, intimidating her with their crisp white shirts, smart blue hats and impossibly shiny shoes.
I tried to explain to her, they really aren’t looking at you. Seriously, they’re not. Teenagers are basically only interested in looking at people if they might have a chance of snogging them. If someone over the age of twenty were to move accidentally into their line of vision, their gaze would just float right over them. Bless you, you slightly neurotic thirty-something woman, but you are more or less invisible. My acquaintance was unconvinced. The Daily Mail stereotype was too powerful; these teenagers must be after her chips, because she’d read it in the paper.
The idea that teenagers are all permanently drunk, high and shagging each other like mad, then, is a potent one in our culture. Well, no doubt some of them are, but far fewer than you might think and very rarely in the classroom. Well, not all three at the same time anyhow. Sometimes, I like to float this misconception in the classroom for sheer comedy value. I am amused by the ironic contrast with the 30 mostly polite, considerate, hard-working teenagers in front of me, fretting about their GCSEs and whether their hair looks rubbish and if can they turn their skirt over one more time at the waistband without actually getting arrested. How we laugh. Well, I laugh; the adolescents obviously can’t actually laugh. Laughing isn’t cool. But they scowl a little less, just for a moment.
And here’s the big untold secret about teenagers. They are just, you know, sort of, people. People like, well, people like you and me. Like we were at their age. Only, and here’s the rub, having a completely terrible time, compared to our adolescence. Honestly, you can’t possibly imagine how lousy it is to be 15 in 2011. I will blog about it sometime, when I can bear it, because it genuinely makes me incredibly sad. Teenagers today have so much less fun, nothing like the freedom, and about a hundred times more pressure, than we had. They deserve our kindness and understanding, rather than our condemnation.
So give it a go. Hug a hoodie – well, maybe not actually hug one, because that sort of thing can get you into a bit of trouble these days – but smile at them occasionally. Maybe even say hello.
Then run away, quick. Before they stab you.
*Five minutes after I had written this blog (in a café, like a real actual writer) I had this exact conversation with another mum, who told me I was ‘brave’. Isn’t that weird? It just goes to prove, I’m always right. Or something.