I wonder whether you see how very very appealing the ability to run around drinking and shouting and wear daft clothes - the freedom to let yourself do your own thing even if it involves making mistakes - can come across to people struggling with a cocoon of paralysing terror at the thought of doing... anything at all, really.
I see it now. I didn't see it then.
I was visibly studious at school until I realised that it was a fast-track to being bullied. Thereafter I played the Fool, and wore weird clothes, but studied a little more quietly. I was given a kind of grudging respect for the ways I dressed -- ways that nobody else would want to dress. "Why do you always wear such weird stuff?" they'd say, sneering slightly enviously.
I didn't feel as though I was "doing my own thing", though. I felt as though I was creating a caricature of myself. Now I don't usually show people my teenage poetry because it's more or less unmitigated angstbollocks, but still, it serves as a record of my state of mind; this is one I wrote when I was, oh, I dunno, probably about 14:
Cartoon teenager I HATE YOU
With your lifeless slogans
and your spineless protests,
all the right music
soundtracks each new cliché,
I HATE YOU
A deeper hate than all your
carefully choreographed arguments,
your petty rebellions
can ever show;
your technicolour language says
I HATE YOU
pencilled in, in the speech-bubbles
poised by your two-dimensional face,
you're just not funny anymore
I HATE YOU
with your well-groomed angst,
your profound pretensions,
your life reduced to
statements in nailvarnish
and eloquent boots and hats
I HATE YOU
I can't look at you anymore
I'm the artist, I'm gonna
smash the mirror, rub you out.
At university I had the freedom to do exciting things like DRINK and STAY UP LATE and be utterly overwhelmed by the realisation that there really were other non-heterosexual human beings in the world. Not to mention the possibly more useful freedom to utter polysyllabic words in public without ridicule. To talk to people -- actual people of my own age, not teachers! -- about T. S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett; to talk to people other than my dad about the relative merits of the Beatles and Pink Floyd. To go to a REAL INDIE CLUB, to wear multicoloured tights and not be called queer for liking Tori Amos (or 'sad' for liking The Cure). To have sex without having to pretend not to be having sex.
In other words, to turn into a cartoon student.
I had all these freedoms, and I used them because they were there and they'd never been there before. I was bowled over by the fact that I could go out, and do things, and not have to ask permission. But what I didn't have was any confidence, in my looks or my personality, or -- most of all -- my intelligence. I remember in about second week the only boy in our English set (a boy! a real boy! in lessons! who didn't think it was uncool to study!) asking me to have a look at his essay and see if it was "okay". For a moment I was reassured -- I wasn't the only one with doubts! -- until I saw the essay. He'd done all this complicated structuralist crap, and he'd used words I didn't even know, for god's sake. "Yeah... yeah, that looks great! Wow, I've, er, not taken such a theoretical approach to it myself." Christ. I wanted to cry. I wondered how long it would be before they realised it was all a mistake, and I wasn't up to the standard of the work, and so on. And here was this quiet nerdy boy worrying about his work when he was writing like Terry Eagleton already.
Where's all this going? I don't know. I suspect that at 18 nearly everybody is a seething mass of insecurities, even -- perhaps especially -- the arrogant ones. Was there a point to this? I forget.
There are values of "grown-up" I've fought hard against becoming, and others I've had to work on - still am working on - undoing. [ work-related guilt ethics are a large pile of no fun at all. ]
The grown-up-ness thing, for me, is mostly to do with experience rather than behaviour. I feel as though everybody I know started acquiring experience a long time before I did, and was somehow better at acquiring it. Better at using the opportunities open to them and creating new opportunities. It's little things, like not being able to find my way around without a map, not being able to sound like a real grown-up on the phone, still being pleased with myself for managing to do things like book flights and hotels, things which most people could quite happily do at 16, so they're liable to laugh at me for still even noticing stuff like that. It's like seeing a 26-year-old being excited about managing to tie her shoelaces. Hell, I'm still pleased with myself when I can find my way from A to B without a map, which most other people could do at the age of about 5 -- in plenty of time to be able to walk the 5 miles each way to primary school on their own. But hey, if you're not allowed to cross a road on your own until you're 13, how can you learn to find your way around anywhere?
But really it's just something I have to come to terms with. I can't change it now. I can't catch up. All I can do is make the best of things from now on. And I've had a lot of experiences -- good and bad -- and I feel I've learnt a lot from them. "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe." :-) I've learned to deal with things I never thought I'd be able to face, and I've come through stronger. I'm still scared of some things, but mostly I do them anyway. And they mostly get less scary.
I still feel like I'm faking it. But now I know that everybody else is faking it too, a lot of the time. Sometimes that annoys me. Sometimes I want people to be more honest, more open, more willing to say things like "I've never done that before" and "please explain this to me". Other times I recognise the need to keep up the pretence. There's a time and a place for everything; if everybody spent all their time unravelling themselves in public like this we'd never get anything done.
Think I'm doing OK at being open to new opportunities and cool things coming my way, rather than being "sensible" in ways that preclude taking the odd chance.
Better to regret the things you've done than the things you didn't do.