Friday 8 February 2019

Schooldays by Keren David

“What I admire so much about children’s writers,” a kind librarian said to me, ”is how you remember how it feels. You must have a wonderful memory. That perfect recall of being a young person.” 

Never have I felt such a fraud. I remember hardly anything about my teenage years. My books are built from my background as a reporter. After a career of listening very carefully to people, thinking about what they are saying, and what they really mean, I couldn’t really turn that off when my children came along.
The things I write about - knife crime, social media, undercover policemen; these were not things that were even peripheral issues in my teenage years. I know now that several of my school friends were gay; it was not something that they talked about then, even though we all sang along with Tom Robinson’s Glad to be Gay in 1978. We were fifteen and before then we’d never said the word ‘gay’ without giggling. I’m glad that’s changed.I don't want to write about those days, I prefer the complexity of today. Zeitgeist suits me better than nostalgia. 

And yet, when my memory’s nudged a little there are things I do remember. Boredom. I would sit in the sixth form common room filling an exercise book by recording every dull thing that happened. (I don’t have any of these books, but they said things like ‘Jane wants a Mars Bar, I haven’t got one, can’t be bothered to go down town to buy one, now Alison’s talking about last night’s homework, I am so bored, so bored, so bored’)

And emotion. Bursting into tears for no reason in the corridor outside the school secretary’s office, my best friend beside me, crying as well. When the secretary asked what was wrong, neither of us knew.

I remember buying a pair of high-waisted Fiorucci jeans, and feeling really cool. Beyond cool. I kept the carrier bag for years. Painting my nails was for rebellion, not adornment. I flirted with punk by buying a shiny razor blade necklace from Miss Selfridge. I used the word ‘poxy’ in an English lit class, and felt daring, yet annoyed that such a small thing was daring. I pined for a new setting, for   men to impress. I lived in a Garden City, and dreamed of urban grit. 

My memory has been nudged by a few things recently.  I read Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia by Tracey Thorn, the musician and writer, which was published yesterday. This is a wonderful book for any reader  -   it captures beautifully that feeling of emptiness, of inertia and tedium and waiting that marked my teenage years as well as hers. Those pointless shopping trips that ended up in disappointment. The lack of female role models, the feeling of being half child, half woman, the lack of clarity about what being a woman could be like, in a world where there was remarkably little space for our voices.

As Tracey and I were in the same class at the same school, and studied the same A level subjects, her memoir overlapped a great deal with mine (I won’t have to bother writing one now, she’s done it for me). Several times reading the book I yelped, for example when she mentioned our third year form teacher (“she’s mad”) or a cookery class where we made jam. I applaud her for her thoughtful dissection of the gaps, the absences in our lives. We weren't exactly friends at school -  she was cool and quirky, I was just quirky. But now I realise that was just superficial. Deep down we were very similar. We knew we wanted more. But where could we find it?

A few weeks ago, I went back to our old school as (amazingly!) guest of honour at its awards evening, handing out prizes and certificates. Everything is different from when I was there. There’s a sparkling new building -  so big! So clean! -  and the uniform has changed from navy blue tunics to natty kilts. There’s more emphasis on the girls as individuals I loved the quilts and bunting on display, made from patches designed by Y7s to reflect their backgrounds and interests. There are women role models, from the names of the school houses (we didn't have them) to the books in the library.
Most impressive was the openness about mental health issues, the supportive, unembarrassed way that one girl was praised and celebrated for successfully taking her exams while fighting an eating disorder.  
When I gave my speech I told the girls about my school days. What made them bearable for me was the way we laughed about almost everything (when we weren’t crying). I told them the advice our head teacher gave on our last day -  I thought she was mad at the time -  1. Keep in touch with your mother 2. Look after your teeth. How we laughed! Now I think this advice was splendidly practical and emotionally sound.  

And I told them to be confident, to believe in themselves, to spend time working out what it is they want to do and then go for it. That’s what Tracey did when our careers teacher, Miss Fraser, told her to forget about trying to be a musician (but had she thought of journalism?).  That’s what I did when the same teacher told me to forget about being a journalist (but have you thought of advertising?). Our appointments were back to back. Afterwards we rolled our eyes at each other and carried on regardless - in her case to Hull University and stardom as part of Everything But the Girl; to an apprenticeship as a reporter and eventually a career on national newspapers in mine.  And now we both write books. One year we both spoke at the Hay Literary Festival on the same day, at the same time. Were you trying to put us off, Miss Fraser? Or challenging us to prove you wrong? 

I don't write much about my memories of my teenage years. But the way I am drawn to drama, to emotion, to crime and politics and social analysis – that all comes from that time. I’m still trying to fill the gaps, to break the boredom. I imagine different ways of being a teenager. And I’m still laughing and crying at the same time.


Anne Booth said...

I really enjoyed that.

Moira Butterfield said...

Love this, Keren, and I'll be buying that Another Planet book today. I was there, too, in a different school far away from you. I 'flirted with punk', too, but didn't have the confidence to go the whole way though I felt so excited by it! I'm going to go back and read the blog again. Love it.

Keren David said...

Thank you!