by Clare Langley-Hawthorne
Last Thursday, for the first time in my life, I supervised a high school exam at my boys’ school. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I certainly wasn’t prepared for the bizarre teenage behaviour on display. My twin boys are only six, so I am used to Lego everywhere, Star Wars obsessions and the hilarity that seems to accompany any joke involving toilets. What I am not used to (and wasn’t quite ready to face) was the sixteen and seventeen year old inability to focus, concentrate, sit still or behave any better than…well…a six year old boy.
The exam in question was a standardized test set by the government so the rules were extremely strict – to the point that I had to read out instructions verbatim from a booklet (no paraphrasing or deviations allowed) and had to watch the clock and strike off 15 minute time increments on the whiteboard. I also had to pretend to be a really stern mother patrolling the aisles to ensure no one had unauthorized stationery…So what did I encounter (apart from all the unauthorized stationery)??
- The boys who arrived and promptly fell asleep at his desk for 45 minutes. I had to wake him when he started snoring but I still don’t think he actually did anything on the exam. Instead he drew on his hand, drew on the desk, chewed gum, sighed, tried to sleep again, doodled all over the exam booklet and generally behaved like someone with a mental disorder of some kind.
- Half the class who had come to an exam without pencils or eraser even though…yes, you guessed it that was all that was required.
- The boy who constantly sniffed and made bizarre wheezy-nose noises but still refused to take the tissue I offered, despite grossing me out for most of the morning.
- The boy at the back who decided that making dandruff pictures (a la the Breakfast Club) was the most inspired use of his time – oh, as well as cracking his knuckles. Delightful in a small confined space like a classroom…yes, truly delightful.
These were just a few of the behaviours I witnessed, and to be honest I shouldn’t have been at all surprised except that I seem to remember when I was doing exams I didn’t really have the urge to sleep but rather to panic. Perhaps what surprised me the most was that no one in the class seemed to give a toss.
So what insight has this experience given me?
- Well, that it’s no surprise boys aren’t reading. From what I saw, it’s a miracle they can get out of bed in the morning and dress themselves.
- That most sixteen and seventeen year olds are really young and immature (I was giving them far more credit before this experience).
- For most boys a toilet level of humour still applies.
- That I will never be able to describe the hairstyles that have been adopted without laughing.
- That Twilight level romance is so far-fetched at this level it’s laughable.
- That the gap between the maturity levels of girls and boys at this age is so vast, that I may as well forget boys as a target audience all together.
The experience was certainly ‘interesting’ and I rather liked playing the mean teacher role (hmm..what does that say about me) but it many ways this more of a reality-check for me as a potential YA author.
So…how many of you have ever had the delight of working closely with teenagers?
Any other insights you’d like to share on the shadowy depths of the teenage mind?
by Clare Langley-Hawthorne
The Guardian book blog recently had a piece entitled ‘nothin‘ wrong with teen fiction’ which discusses the ‘raised eyebrow and indrawn breath’ that we all remember so well when we were caught reading something that was (disapprovingly) considered ‘teen fiction’. You remember the books – the ones by Judy Blume or VC Andrews – the ones that your teacher regarded as something akin to eating Lucky Charms for breakfast rather than whole-grain granola, in the belief that teenagers should be eating a diet of classics by the likes of the Brontes, Jane Austen or Charles Dickens.
Now that I am in the midst of final edits to my own young adult WIP, I am reminded of the snobbishness with which high school teachers seemed to regard these popular teen books and I’m starting to wonder, with the advent of bestselling series such as Harry Potter and Twilight, whether the same prejudices still apply when it comes to genre or mass-market teen fiction. Are teachers still curling their upper lips and flaring their nostrils or are they just relieved to see teens reading anything at all?
My own guilty pleasures as a young teenager included Len Deighton and Alistair MacLean thrillers, a drippy historical girls’ school series in which I got to channel my fantasies of going to a Swiss finishing school and marrying a doctor, and various TV/movie tie-in books which had all the literary merit as a bowl of cocoa puffs. I have to also confess to devouring Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, but at least this was something my English teacher could relate to…she reserved her horror for the girls who tried to do book reports on novels by Jackie Collins or Danielle Steel.
There is only one book, however, that I remember was (virtually) banned at my school. It was a coming of age book called Puberty Blues and for a young teenager (I must have been about 12 at the time) the fact that my own mother disapproved of it was enough to ensure that I had to clandestinely procure a copy. Now I think back I can’t understand what all the fuss was about – except for the sex and drugs there was nothing controversial:) Today’s teenagers would no doubt think it very lame.
So here’s my question – what books do you remember drawing the ire of your parents and teachers? What ‘teen fiction’ books were you guilty of enjoying? Do you think any of this snobbery has changed or are popular teen books still looked down and frowned upon?