It’s taken me a long time to write this one: the teen years. I didn’t know what to say; what I wanted to say. I still don’t. High school was hard and harrowing, joyful and jubilant. A curious mix of dazzling and frazzling, of confusion and clarity; experiencing oscillating moments of self-consciousness and wild abandon, freedom and inhibition.
I love how symbolically I’m publishing this as my son nears his first day of secondary school. How his approaching transition has made me remember aspects of mine. It was a time of heightened emotions, dramatic highs and lows … and lots of the seemingly uneventful everyday. Where you are desperate to be an adult, yet take a hit from the challenges of growing up. My teens feel like a lifetime ago, yet some of the emotions are still as raw and real as they were then. I always say that I’m a 16 year old inside – full of a beautiful mix of insecurity and ripening potential. Where anything can happen and everything feels like the biggest deal in the world.
A snapshot summary follows (and what has come through this time is the more sombre side) but I know I will revisit moments and milestones in chapters to come, reminiscing the glory days too. Yes, these formative years are the foundation from which we build ourselves, but we can also reinvent and renovate whenever we choose. I’m a constant restoration project – always ready for a great remembering and expansive extension. If you haven't read first yet, it might provide greater context for this chapter. Here goes ...
Secondary – inferior, insignificant, trivial, unimportant, back-up, minor, dependent, small, reserve, subordinate, less important, contingent and lesser. Wow. The power of a word. The summer before secondary school signalled a rite of passage in many ways. I menstruated for the first time, symbolically crossing the threshold into womanhood. I was now able to create life as my life began to crumble. ‘First’ flowed away …
I entered high school: from a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond. I dislike this cliched analogy, but it works! I began to tread water; I began to drown. Not in a big breath-taking way, just the slow sinking, the leaking and leaching, the letting in of water.
The chasm of my waning confidence grew wider and wilder.
It was tradition at our school to ‘initiate’ the incoming standard 6's. The first week of secondary school we learnt our place - there were no tours of the halls, transition days or settling in systems. We were plunged straight into a week of initiation, ‘administered’ by the incoming matric class: the fully developed, overly confident 18-year-olds, high on their power and position as top of the school. As it turns out, our initiation week would be the last ever allowed … so they made it memorable.
We were nameless for the first week. We were all ‘plebs’ – our chosen nomenclature for the week. Derogatory, demeaning and so much more. I think the only way to survive was to see it as an adventure and approach it with acceptance: laughing with, not at, your fellow plebs. The week culminated with ‘dunking day’ on Friday. Large empty oil barrels were filled with a curious concoction … we will never know all that went in them, but the boys did their best to make it thoroughly disgusting. Bodily fluids and the most foul smelling samples you can imagine. We were lined up in front of a barrel and our heads were dunked in the liquid for a few seconds. If you had held any position of authority in primary school (like Head Girl for me), you were allocated the queue with the worst water. A particularly pungent baptism.
On arriving home my mother marched me straight to the shower … I smelled like “cat’s wee” apparently. This set the scene for my secondary stage.
Everything was secondary now. I was secondary. Subordinate. Below. Inferior. Insignificant. Lessor. An accessory … My friendship circles fizzled out. I wasn’t chosen. I wasn’t first. This was a new feeling – both from an external and internal point of view. I didn’t choose myself. Being accepted by others became more important than accepting myself. I fell from the podium into a pit of uncertainty.
In hindsight, I was seen by all the right people – my people. Yet I craved to be seen by the other - the cool kids, the bad boys, the influencers. Perhaps I saw in them what I had been, what I had lost, what I had left behind. It says more about me than them. The duels of duality. The grip of the greener grass. Of course, they would all have been experiencing their own inner agony – and no doubt viewed me differently to how I viewed myself. One will never know. That’s not the point. In its essence, life is a solo journey and it’s about coming home to the Self.
There was so much beauty too. I remember having profound philosophical discussions during science class with EK. We would ignore the physics and chemistry lesson in favour of deep existential questions. I remember being Jenny to LH’s Forest Gump – I have a silver engraved heart on a chain to prove how loved I was. I remember hiding out in the music room with LJ and feeling home: my ride-or-die scooter soul sister. I remember the sweet embrace of pure acceptance as I ate lunchtime sandwiches with ST.
The conundrum: constant inconsistency.
I remember the jests and jibes too. Your bum is too big. Your legs are too thin. Your breasts are too pointy. Your stomach is too soft. I believed them. I started to feel uncomfortable in my own skin. I fell out of love with my body and with myself. Things grew surface and superficial – it was about slotting in with society.
This seems like a good moment to reveal a crucifying religious comment, shared with the good intention but which resulted in my symbolic death: a fear of the unknown, of the magical and mystical, of my wild nature. I'd forgotten it was even said, buried deep inside. It came back to me during a yoga class in my 30s and I was graced with a grand aha moment. An unravelling. Here's the tiny, tumultuous sentence: "If you empty your mind, you will let the devil in …” That sounded like something I didn't want to do. The space, the void, became sinful and scary instead of the source of the imaginary and the imaginal, of connection and creation. And so, my mind got very busy, filled with their voices and my commentary on the voices. Noise became the normal. The revolving replaying and role-playing. On repeat. My headaches began to turn into mild migraines. My mind-field became a mine-field.
Teenage angst is both acutely personal and achingly universal. It's crazy how a single sling shot of the seemingly small can sit lodged inside – tender and trapped, propagating and poisoning, altering awareness until set free. More years equals more shots. I often wonder what I would say to my younger self. I honestly don't know. Do you?
While I figure that out, I propose a new meaning for secondary. Here are some lifting rather than limiting synonyms: the next level, a new phase, another layer, alongside, further, deeper, supporting, additional, growing, building, developing, evolving, expanding ... the journey is the joy.