Until I wrote a book about it, I always thought high school was the best time of my life. Turns out, I may have been lying to myself.
"Most of them don't care for the Boomtown Rats, or really know anything about Bob, other than the fact he can pull off a rather excellent hat collection."
This is Bob's Town...
It's ironic that I've chosen to title this blog post Tell Me Why I Don't Like Mondays, when the sole claim to fame my new home town has, is that it's also home to legendary Boomtown Rats singer Bob Geldof. Everyone, from our plumber to the teachers at my children's new school, is desperate to relay this information. I'm not sure why. Most of them don't care for the Boomtown Rats, or really know anything about Bob, other than the fact he can pull off a rather excellent hat collection. I haven't seen Bob around, but I have seen some golliwogs stocked in the local 'antiques' shop - but more on that little gem later.
A very bad time indeed
We moved here, to Bob's Town, in mid-April earlier this year. Approximately four months after my dad passed away, in the same week the house we’d been planning to buy in London was gazumped from under us, despite the fact we'd spent thousands of pounds on lawyers, architects and surveyors. Yes, four months before our move, was a bad time. A very bad time indeed. We'd planned to buy a house next to a 'good high school'. You know, the one with the excellent Ofsted rating, that will somehow prove we are better, more caring parents than we actually are. Instead, we moved here. To a town we had never even visited before. To a school we had no idea about. To a place where everybody knows Bob's name.
Back to school, and not in a good way
I don't regret it, even though by rights I probably should. Grief will do strange things to you - not least make you jump, where once you might have turned tail and run. But that's a whole other story, deserving of a whole other blog post. The point is, recently, my thoughts have returned to high school. My eldest is applying to start his next year (eek!), and I've just written a book about one. A fictional high school, with a fictional cast of characters, but still, it’s hard not to delve back into those feelings, when you are channelling the 15-year-old girl inside.
"So, I'm 15 again, having the best time of my life...except I'm not."
Tan foundation is not my colour
So, I'm 15 again, having the best time of my life...except I'm not. The more I think about the fear I developed at that age, the acceptance of my otherness, the excuses I made for people's behaviour, the anxiety that grew and grew - the more I realise I was breathing someone else's oxygen. An oxygen that didn't quite work for me, in the same way the foundation I wore was orange instead of brown. I couldn't breathe. I lived in a world of white-ness. A world where foundation shades existed in white to tanned white. Where clothes were made for tall, skinny white girls. Where everything beautiful and worthy, was the opposite of me. At 15, I developed a strategy. I stopped talking to people. I withdrew. I tried to spend as little time as possible in places where people could whisper ugly, dirty, fat, paki. I tried to get to the joke first. I kept my circle small. But at high school, I was already a known entity. Smart, outspoken, popular. This withdrawal was considered snobbery. A lack of effort. I played the part. Better to be thought an elitist, than someone grappling with the beginning of an anxiety disorder.
"The more I think about my high school experience, the more I realise those feelings were the dawning realisation that the air I breathe, is made for white lungs."
Sometimes this anxiety manifested itself in literal panic attacks. Crying in front of the mirror before nights out, more often than not, making excuses as to why I couldn't go. Drinking toilet bleach to make myself sick. Not speaking or looking at people. Feeling nervous, for no fathomable reason. I can describe it, as nothing other than continual discomfort. For years, I considered these feelings a rite of passage. Teenage angst, for a person who is still consistently angsty. But the more I think about my high school experience, the more I realise those feelings were the dawning realisation that the air I breathe, is made for white lungs.
"It was the best of times, and the worst of times..."
Now you see me, now you don't
I’ve asked myself, how it’s possible to have had such great friendships and moments of joy during this time. How I managed to believe so completely, that I was happy. How I ignored the darker elements, or even the fact my friends failed to notice them. The truth is high school was, in the words of Charles Dickens - the best of times, and the worst of times. It made me, yet broke me into a million pieces. It was playing the lead in the school play, versus days and weeks and months sat in toilet cubicles, telling myself to breathe.
"I wouldn’t be honest, if I didn’t acknowledge the part race played in my formative years."
Normal, happy teenager
Even now, friends laugh at my high school persona. At my high achieving, snobbish entitlement. It hurts. It hurts to think of the people that hated me. That thought I didn’t notice them, or if I did, that I deliberately ignored them. To think there are people that I may have hurt, by going through my own pain. I spent most of high school just trying to survive. Trying not to show weakness. Trying not to be seen. To be the archetypal normal, happy, teenager. And in so many millions of ways, that is exactly what I was. But I was also shy, scared, anxious, so self-aware I was practically transparent. Perhaps that’s just all teenagers; part and parcel of changing hormones and learning how to shave. But I wouldn’t be honest, if I didn’t acknowledge the part race played in my formative years, or the part it plays now. When I see golliwogs stocked in a local shop, and struggle to articulate how utterly despairing I feel, to know that some teenager, just like me, will see them and feel like disappearing. To realise that to some people, your life, your existence, can be trivialised down to a racist caricature that reminds people of ‘simpler times’ – without understanding these times were simpler and more palatable to them, because we non-white people knew our place. Silent. And beneath them.
"It reminds me of being 15 again. Of that constant thrum of otherness, when you feel yourself stark against a white background."
Just like starting over
Starting again in Bob’s Town has been a twofold experience. An obverse and an inverse. The wonderful hospitality and kindness and warmth of a small town, with the smallness of it. The lack of diversity, the sense of being one of a few, non-white faces. It reminds me of being 15 again. Of that constant thrum of otherness, when you feel yourself stark against a white background. The difference now, is being able to talk about it. To acknowledge the pain and beauty that comes with the perspective of being an outsider.
"If I could say just one thing to high-school-me, it would be... you will still not like Mondays."
The other Bob - Marley
If I could say just one thing to high-school-me, it would be this: everything is going to be alright; which I appreciate, is a quote from an entirely different Bob (but you take my point…). You will learn to pluck your eyebrows, and not care about the size of your thighs, and you will learn it is ok to make people feel uncomfortable, by telling them when you are uncomfortable, and why.
You will still not like Mondays.