Like so many of the things that make you think the most, it started as a joke. A challenge, almost.
'Miss? Could you write something about how you see teenagers? And whether we have replaced religion with things like Facebook?' It was Friday, half term was shimmering on the horizon, and a challenge seemed like fun. It had all started with my incredulity about the Gatsbyesque duration of their school formal.
'It'll be a busy night, you know... we'll be like, taking photos and uploading them to Facebook and like, tagging ourselves and stuff,' they cried, bewildered that anything but checking themselves into the moment in which they were already present could be feasible, imaginable.
The opened gulf reminded me of a question asked a year ago. 'Miss? Would you ever wear a playsuit? Like... a really brightly-coloured playsuit and silver stilettos and like... loads of fake tan and stuff, like someone on a like, night out in a club?'
I tried to explain that I mostly spend weekend evenings collapsed on the sofa, reading, or watching recorded TV programmes missed on schoolnights. But I don't think they wanted to believe in a world where Saturday night does not involve the application of creosote-like tanning substances to pale limbs, and the squeezing of an exhausted, recalcitrant body into mostly unflattering, neon-bright garments to spend an evening of tinnitus-inducing merriment in an overcrowded, overheated and definitely over-amplified institution of alleged 'entertainment'.
I've learned, too, that for many teenagers, it's not so much 'I think therefore I am' as 'I'm tagged, therefore I was,' with constant tags and checkings-in on Facebook, and that, in uncharted territory, they'll invent a label, like 'at the sofa' or 'at my bed'. Every teenage gathering will start with a camera-phone session and some silent tapping and uploading before anything is said or done. That popularity is measured less by being liked, more by getting Likes, and that some people will fall over the status anxiety precipice if they're unliked, unfriended and undone. Liked, but not well liked. Some love to make the humdrum reality of their breakfast, or an untidy desk or bedroom, look as cool as their favourite album cover, using Instagram. A new opium of the masses? A filtered self as drug of choice? An attempt at being a created somebody in a sea of seeming nothingness?
Many teenagers, I've learned, reinforce their student status through the preppy, faux-collegiate style embodied by Jack Wills, or its less well-floodlit cousin Hollister, all surfer-chic and fragrant darkness. It's proof that I'm getting old that I've rechristened it Cacophonous Penumbra. Feats of engineering underpin the teenage image, too: the masses of dishevelled hair, making the most image-conscious girls look as though they've only just woken up, actually take lots of time and 'product' to get right. The artful no-make-up look actually takes longer than the 'plastered on' style - the girl who isn't handed a make-up wipe in school has probably gone to greater trouble to look 'naturally perfect' than her more gaudily made-up classmate who is now sighing as her mask comes off. I've learned that it's possible to make fifth form girls stop speaking to you for a month if you say that One Direction have no musical talent whatsoever, to say nothing of the reaction to my comment that the news of Westlife splitting up was proof 'there is a God'. I've learned that the fact that I don't trust the cup-a-soup-encrusted staff room mugs, but carry my own takeaway mug from Starbucks around the school every day, adds a shot of credibility to my image in the minds of the self-consciously 'geeky' crowd - the ones who wear the skinny chinos and the checked shirts and the huge glasses with the clear lenses and like to drink their coffee with a lid on top to conceal the fact that there's barely any caffeine in there at all, it's mainly just frothed warm milk, like their mums make them still to help them sleep at night...
The truth is, even when I was young, I've never been part of any 'in crowd'. I have never really fitted any tribe, never played for 'likes', always been too 'complicated' to tag with anything other than status anxiety. I've always been the person who prefers the good book to the wild night out, the comfortable flats to the teetering heels, the slightly obscure playlist to the mass-produced hit. And no, I never would wear a brightly-coloured playsuit, with silver stilettos and like, loads of fake tan and stuff.
The relationship status between the generations? It's complicated. But when I'm tired of learning what the younger generation is like, then I'll know I'm too tired to care about teaching my students about things I think they really need to know...
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