Tuesday 28 January 2020

Adolescence is not a contagious disease

The much maligned Kevin the Teenager, played by Harry Enfield
The much maligned Kevin the Teenager, played by Harry Enfield
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

If we treated any other group in society the way we treat teenagers it would be an ism. Imagine if we spoke about old people the way we speak about teenagers. Imagine if we treated people of a different race the way we treat teenagers?

We regard being a teenager as an illness they will recover from, and a contagious one at that, one that is best avoided. Men who are further down the line on fathering will tell me knowingly how one day my little darlings are going to turn into monsters and want nothing to do with me. The general gist is that they are best left alone for 10 years or so and then they will come back.

I have to admit that teenager is a term of abuse in my house. There are certain ways the elder one has of reacting that are a bit 'Kevin the teenager' and I'll say, "Oh, you're a teenager now, are you?" And she will take it as the worst possible insult. When she sees real-life teenagers I notice her observing them very closely. They are exotic to her, and she is fascinated by them, but she knows that they are bad. She will watch a group of shady-looking young ones for a while, and then she'll lean into me conspiratorially. "Dad. Are they teenagers?"

"Yes they are," I answer knowingly. And we will both nod meaningfully, our mouths set grimly.

And if it wasn't hard enough for these teens that they are shunned by all right-thinking members of society, and forced to rely on each other for emotional support, we lumber them with the most unusual form of cruelty - the Leaving Cert. The Leaving Cert is still to this day the most stressful thing I have ever encountered. It wasn't that I did that much study, it was more the constant feeling that you should be studying. And the purpose of it mainly seemed to be to turn people against knowledge and learning and curiosity, to tell you that there is only one right answer to everything, including poetry, and to tell you that someone will tell you all the answers to these things and that your job was to learn them off.

So reading for pleasure and enlightenment and being curious about the world was something you did in your spare time. But real reading was hard work and required people to explain to you what it was about.

Despite the fact that time is passing me by at an alarmingly fast rate, it feels like a lifetime ago that I was a teenager. I can't say I have a rich store of memories about it, which is probably not a good sign. But I seem to remember that it wasn't the hellish time of confusion, alienation and raging hormones that you hear about. But that was possibly down to the fact that I am a confused and alienated type anyway, though I would agree there were more hormones raging back then.

I don't think I was any more difficult then than I am now either. But maybe I was, and maybe you just don't realise these things when you are consumed by the disease of teenagerhood.

What I think I remember is that it was a time when I was possibly most myself. The shackles of societal norms, dress codes, responsibility and general social graces had yet to kick in. I think in a way I felt relatively free back then. Sure, there was angst. I wasn't sporty but yet wasn't quite swotty either. I wasn't quite a bad boy but neither was I a good boy. Looking back, perhaps it was the beginning of a lifetime of not quite fitting in. But maybe back then it mattered slightly more. It is perhaps only in later years that you realise the value of not being in the club.

I do recall it as a time of passions, a time of making an asshole of myself trying things and doing things and chasing girls and being a bit over the top generally. And it was a time of discovery, too.

And of course, if I could do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I would do it differently. So here goes the cringy bit. Advice for teenagers from an old man: Be passionate and dramatic and feel everything as intensely as your hormones make you. Fall in love easily and often. Enjoy yourself, but don't drink too much. Don't believe what they tell you - the teachers, your parents, anyone. Try to hold on to your own truth. But be patient with us oldies, too. We've seen a bit of life and we're right about some things. Believe it or not. As you are now, so once were we. And we knew it all too. And poetry can actually be quite good.

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