I can hear my mother on the phone at the moment, talking to my cousin. My cousin is ten years older than me, married with children, forever involved in the dramas that come of growing up in a middle-class world and suddenly finding yourself shut out from it.
My mother is talking about my cousin's kids, and what they'll be like when they grow up. She recommends waiting for something until her oldest is 12.
"By the time he's 12, he'll be out playing with friends," she said.
That assumes that, at 12, you have friends.
Friends probably come from school, when you're that age. At 12, in my first year of secondary school, I hated it. And I'm not saying that in the way that everyone hates school at 12 years old, when they resent the idea of being kept indoors on sunny days and having to give up Mondays in order to learn long division.
I hated school in a real, visceral way, that manifested itself in aches and pains and dizzying headaches. I hated the institution, the stuck-up natures of the people there, the unsympathetic teachers and the boring, banal homework we were given every evening. I hated the cliques, the childishness of everyone trying to act grown up, the forgotten invites to parties and the over-reactions to harmless remarks.
School is not a place for the strange. School, at 12, is not a place for the make-up shunning sports-failing sarcasm-dripping misfit. I excelled academically, hated every minute of it, and was too wrapped up in my own misery to try and reach out and make friends. Self-pity enveloped me. I hated school then, but looking back, I hate Past Me just as much. She should have tried harder.
I would go so far as to say I hate most of my past selves, and everything from 12 to 16 should be destroyed, erased from my past. I cringe when people bring those years up. Then, I lived for music, and gigs: they were a driving passion which obliterated all other thoughts from my mind. I fiercely defended friends I made through them, but now we've drifted so far apart I can barely remember their names. Some have changed so much that I wonder why I liked them in the first place, and conclude it was the mutual sense of not fitting in. Society had abandoned us, so we in turn cast out the conventions we were meant to adhere to.
School is the best days of your life, according to my mother.
I have no doubt that was true for her, affable and small and pleasant and good at tennis. An in-between sort of girl, not too cool or too clever but just enough of everything to be generally likable. She had part-time jobs and friends and a place on a nursing course before she even sat her A-levels.
I think adults misrepresent school. We're fed this bullshit from such a young age - that it is the best time of your life - that I felt guilty for not liking it. I felt like I was wasting a valuable chance, spunking away a childhood of youth and freedom on things that did not matter. Even now, I get jealous when people talk fondly about their early teenage years: I hated everything up till 17, when I shook off the loner victim mentality and proclaimed introversion to be too emo.
We can't put youth on a pedestal just because we retroactively yearn for it. Sure, sometimes I miss school, but only as an abstract notion. I miss the concept of playgrounds and half-terms and being with your friends five days a week. I don't miss the reality of backstabbing bitchiness and chronic sick-days due to my total, actual inability to face the world some days.
University was what kept me going. The prospect of it, golden and radiant, and predicating a good school education to get there. I got there. The institution of secondary school was worth it, and I am truly genuinely happy now (or, at least, working on it). I only hope to get happier.
I hope my cousin's son is happier at 12 than I was. I hope I am never
that miserable again. But I take issue with all blanket proclamations
that school years are the best years of your life. You can't spend life
assuming your best days are behind you: all of my best days are to come,
and will still be to come, for as long as I live. What's life without
something to look forward to?