I took my daughter to a high school open evening last night, the school I once went to. I suppose it wasn’t that long ago, I had my daughter when I was seventeen. She’s eleven soon, and nearly as tall as me, it’s very strange to watch her grow up, she’s so mature already for her age, and she has made me so proud in so many ways.
At the school we had a presentation in the school hall where I used to have assemblies, and I felt the acute anxiety I used to feel, not wanting to go to lessons, the utter dread. I remembered everything so intensely, feeling like an outsider, feeling singled out, bullied. And I went to the art room and the music room and almost connected with my fifteen year old self somehow, I could almost perfectly imagine myself sat there drawing, or by the piano singing to Mr. Whittingham, who was sadly not there. There were some teachers that used to teach me, still there, I avoided a couple because it was too weird, and I realised I was one of the youngest mums. A girl who bullied me was there with her son, she still gives me filthy looks now for no good reason after all these years and her probably not knowing why she picked on me in the first place.
The evening was emotional, Elizabeth ended up in tears because she couldn’t understand why we have to make a decision about which school she should go to when it’s only just the beginning of year six. I think she was overwhelmed by the size of the place and the prospect of having to start over. Me and Steven remembered some of the old teachers we had who were terrifying. We had a teacher called Mr. Brayley-Willmotts, who taught history and rarely ever asked any girls questions and was very creepy with the boys. He was a bully and a sexist pig. And Steven had Mr. Lees who would make boys do PE in their underpants and would have them facing the wall doing squats.
It doesn’t feel that long ago and I guess it’s not. I wasn’t young for long, pregnant when I was sixteen. I just hope and hope that Elizabeth will have the best years at school. She’s already very popular and extremely cool so I don’t think I have much to worry about. I was an oddball, I had dyed black hair it would wear little beatnik braids and I wore a velvet jacket and listened to Smashing Pumpkins, wrote poetry and played the guitar. I didn’t have much schooling, in child and adolescent psychiatric services for some time, and school work not being the main focus of what went on there. I still did well but missed a lot of essential stuff. At the end of school I did most of my lessons in the library or the art block and only attended a few classes. I know so many kids whose experiences were similar, and my heart breaks for them. I used to watch the kids out playing netball and wish I could just join in, but I was broken up inside. Elizabeth’s not much like me and I can’t see her struggling with making friends or getting involved or getting good grades, she’s above average in all her schoolwork now.
I never realised how hard this would be. When you think about what your kids have to go through and how hard it all is you could cry. I could cry for that troubled fifteen year old girl with her scars and her moodswings and the insults and the jibes and the names and the gossip. I think that I didn’t talk enough about it, I kept everything in and I think I felt really that there was just something wrong with me and I just deserved it. My daughter will never feel like that, I can say that for sure. If there’s one thing we know how to do in this house it’s talk. Mostly we drive each other crazy with talking. The one thing I have learned and brought with me is that families have to be wide open. If I feel I haven’t got my finger on the pulse or I don’t know what is going on at any particular time I see it as not doing my job properly, if the kids aren’t being open I get right in and make sure we all know we can talk about it and if someone’s got a problem it’s everyone’s problem. I think this will be made infinitely difficult when the teens kick in but it might not be as bad as I think; I sort of feel like I have to prepare for them now. Like settling in the boundaries, I always say to her I wish I could be her best friend but I’m not, I’m a mum and I have a job to do. It surely is the hardest job in the world. There’s a lot of tough love in this house and every night I sit down and think, am I doing right. Am I gentle enough, am I fair, am I overreacting, am I giving enough affection, and it feels as though I’ll never know how to get it just right.
I don’t wish I was young again, but I miss it. Like singing Nina Simone songs down a back alley to my first boyfriend, and sharing a bag of chips at lunchtime with my best friend and putting the world to rights, and smoking sneaky cigarettes and swimming in the reservoir and having picnics in the park and watching MTV on the sofa with a blanket and a can of cider. I do have wonderful memories, alongside all the bad stuff, all the trouble and the grief. And I grew up fast but I don’t regret it at all.