The best days of our lives? Looking back on teenage romance
Six authors reflect on their school relationships
They were the best – and the worst – of times. From kissing on the school bus to swooning over the latest classroom crush, teenage romances were a milestone in our emotional development.
But a study, reported in The Daily Telegraph yesterday, claims that dating in our teenage years might have been bad for us. The survey, published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, found that pupils who date at a young age perform badly academically and are more likely to smoke, drink and take drugs than their peers. Researchers said that relationships at school could be “an early indicator of high-risk behaviour”, with loved-up adolescents twice as likely to get low marks in exams.
We asked eight writers whether their teenage romances sent them off the rails.
It was very poor planning on Mother Nature’s part to have first love coincide with exams which can determine the rest of your life. I started going out with a proper boyfriend when I was 15 and, overnight, any interest in the reproductive habits of drosophila in Piggy Meighton’s lab was replaced by an altogether more riveting kind of biology lesson.
For a teenage girl the problem is particularly acute because every waking moment is consumed by thoughts of your beloved. When will I next see Angus? Why hasn’t Angus called me? Why did he call me and not say the right thing? Maybe he doesn’t love me. Maybe he fancies Nicola more than me. What will he think of my new pageboy haircut?
In vain did Jackie magazine counsel me to play it cool. I was in the grip of a mania which gave me no rest, not even at night, when I slept in rollers for my pageboy cut to curl under just so, all the better to astonish Angus.
Amazingly, I did manage to pass most of my O-levels, though I would have done far better had the pleasure centres of my brain not been colonised by 6ft of future RAF pilot.
My heart broke when we moved town and I began A-levels in a new school. Deprived of my boyfriend, I spent hours shut up in my bedroom with a lot of dead white males. Shakespeare and Andrew Marvell couldn’t take you for a ride on the back of their motorbike, as Angus did, but they did engage both shattered heart and yearning brain in the most sublime way.
Would I have got my place at Cambridge had it not been for an enforced separation from Angus? Definitely not. Romance blots out reason – and revision. For academic success, you must hie thee to a nunnery. Or a single-sex school.
I was 15, on a geography field trip, when, after days of intense pursuit and flirtation, I succeeded in snogging the much desired Debbie K. Though I would never have admitted it then, it was my first romantic liaison. We locked lips at the back of the school coach as it left the west of Ireland and did not resurface until we reached Dublin, several hundred miles later.
I wasn’t sure what the proper form for such encounters was supposed to be and kept kissing simply because it might have seemed rude to have stopped. My lips were chapped and my neck muscles ached by the time we disembarked but it was worth it just to hear the envious mixture of jeers and applause from my school mates. So this was what people meant when they said “love hurts”.
I was puffed up with pride and convinced I had entered a new phase of maturity. This lasted all of two weeks, until Debbie broke off our romance on the very good grounds that I had never kissed her again. But Jesus, after the pain we suffered the first time, did she really want to go through all that again?
I have often thought that your teenage years are the worst possible time to be expected to study and take exams. I was an A-grade student, then it was like a hormone switch flipped, and I pretty much lost interest in everything except girls and rock’n’roll. I stayed out late, slept late, came into class late, all because I thought I had better things to do.
At 17, I left school, went to art college (for which only an aptitude with a pencil and five pass grades were required), got a leather jacket and a girlfriend in short order. After that, life seemed so much simpler.
The only time I didn’t come in the top three of every class in my Liverpool school – when it looked like I might even fail my exams – came in 1963, when Eros took aim and shot his deadly bolt through my heart.
That summer an Adonis arrived in the shape of the tall, handsome cousin of a schoolmate. The problem was that he was Belgian and spoke little English. So I, with my schoolgirl French, was designated to look after him. What bliss. André was 18, over 6ft tall and owned a soft red cashmere sweater. I’d never seen the like; with my head on his shoulder, it felt dreamy. And he had a little car, he was polite and funny, and very attractive. We spent the summer oblivious to everyone else.
When term started and he returned home, we wrote to each other, all in French, and in secret as my parents would have gone berserk. Normal life seemed tawdry and pointless beside the guilty pleasure of opening his letters and puzzling over strange idioms (French was the only exam I did well in, with 90 per cent). Chemistry, lab work, quadratic equations: who cared? If I was going to live in Belgium, what did it matter?
Somebody told my parents, and there was hell to pay. So I slunk back to my studies, got my head down, stopped myself thinking about him. And won a scholarship to Oxford. I heard later that he married and was still living in Belgium. A lucky escape, perhaps?
With the full force of her dainty 5ft-nothing body, she propelled me across the hallway, pinned me against the wall and shouted at me never to lie to her again.
My mother is not a violent woman, but her emotions were running high by the time I got home. I’d done a very silly thing. I had lied. About where I was, where I’d been and who I was with.
My mother is Greek, by definition a worrier, and when my parents realised that I wasn’t round the corner at my friend Helen’s, I was cast as the lead in a tragedy. My mother thought the worst. The “not knowing” was killing her. I can now understand what she felt when I gingerly stepped on the doormat: utter relief, followed by the incandescent rage that only a teenager can initiate in a parent.
Ian the Drummer had taken me into Sheffield on a date. We got on the bus, ate a slap-up tray of curried chips and then, as we walked around the market holding hands, he bought me a silver and topaz ring. My heart was stolen. After our date we went back to his house to snog. Somehow, my dad found me and collected me for the drive of shame home.
I don’t think that the few boyfriends I had impaired my academic progress or made me drink more: that was all down to me. I was appalling at school. Short attention span, lack of interest, I could go on but it’s embarrassing. I just wanted to get working as soon as possible and that wasn’t all Ian the Drummer’s fault.
Being skinny and unprepossessing, obsessed by horses, and at a single-sex school, my early teens were not much concerned with the opposite sex. I could reel off all champion showjumpers since Tigre, but two-legged males were an abstract concept.
Somewhere around the age of 16, I got diverted by boys. The Wrong Sort of boys. Not for me the well-spoken sons of academics, or ﬂoppy-haired Morrissey enthusiasts. I liked tattoos. The ability to drive. Bad behaviour.
It was a disaster for my school career. Lessons became an optional extra. I began bunking off, killing time that should have been spent in History of Art in steam-ﬁlled East End cafes with Vince, or skidding around the back streets of London in cobbled-together Mini Coopers.
This went on for months – my grades dropping, my appetite for life beyond school growing. I was, however, a hopeless liar. My parents discovered the absence notes that I had been forging half-burnt in a wastepaper bin. Finally, they were called into school. I promised to do better, sweating through the meeting under a thick scarf. It hid the love bite that had Vince had put there not an hour beforehand.
Vince disappeared, eventually. I passed my A-levels largely because my parents had been told I wouldn’t. I made it to university, and a (semi) respectable career. And when my daughter hit 14, I bought her a horse. It seems to be working. So far.
At my all-boys school, like football, hair length and tobacco consumption, romance was a competitive sport. In the middle years, when we spent most of our time in front of the mirror in the forlorn search for the first hint of stubble, an actual girlfriend was the ultimate trophy. If she was passably attractive it was like topping the First Division. For those of us scrabbling around in the non-leagues of dating, a truncated conversation with a girl from the high school over the road was regarded as a significant away win.
Though, since little we said about our dating experience was grounded in the truth, far from undermining our educational progress, it provided useful preparation for certain careers. Trying to make your mates believe wilful exaggeration was perfect practice for becoming a salesman. Or politician.
Frankly, at that stage, with hormones raging, we would do anything. I remember once thinking that vaulting the stream that ran through our local park would somehow impress a girl. Unfortunately I forgot I was wearing stack-heeled shoes and, on scrambling to the other side, twisted my ankle and was off sport for a fortnight.
I don’t remember such romantic failure detracting from my schoolwork. In fact, I devoured novels in the hope they might give me dating tips. Knowing Sons and Lovers inside out, however, provided very little purchase, something I put down to the lack of miners’ daughters in our suburb.
But I do recall slipping into a distracting despond when I was 16 after a girl finished with me by getting her 18-year-old sister to ring up and do it. It wasn’t so much being chucked that upset me. It was the fact that for a brief moment I was convinced my experienced older woman fantasies were about to be fulfilled.