When I was in primary school I was lucky enough to make friends with a girl called Lisa. She had green-eyes, straight blonde hair and was very neat. Although slight, she was strong and could run faster than most in my class (and for that was called a dark horse by my teacher). She was also very bright, in a quiet, unassuming way (the best way). She read a lot and was always asked to read her stories out loud in class. She taught me how to write in paragraphs. She spurred me on to be better at reading, writing and playing the piano. She was the first one in her entire family to go to university.
But of the many wonderful things she did back then, one of the most charming, was her ability to make up clubs. These clubs were very inclusive and very organised and on joining, you were rewarded with an eraser, pencil and notebook (it was fortunate for all of us that her dad worked for Hallmark). She also made us all badges. Laminated. And so there was an ornithologist club called ‘Tweak-a Beak’ and a book club. I expect there were at least two other ones besides. And passwords. None of them lasted very long, but they were important.
Lisa went onto secondary school with me and we stayed friends. And then by the time were were fourteen, Lisa and I belonged to another sort of club. A crew. There were about seven of us, more or less. Boys and girls. By now we were too old for notebooks and pencils and stickers. But still there was a sense of belonging. We spent most of our time hanging out- sitting around campfires in the woods, listening to music, wading through the Ford, cycling through bracken, camping in the garden or at Reading Festival, watching horror movies through splayed fingers. It made being a teenager better. It made the bus journey to my local comprehensive school better – where certain bullies gobbed in your hair or nicked your bus pass or punched you in the arm for no reason other than to get a few laughs. A school where it was cool to be hard if you were a girl – to swear at and fight with other girls, to scrunch your hair back so tight that your scalp flaked at the edges. It wasn’t girl power – because at the same time you had to wear heels, roll your skirt up and plaster your face in orange make-up. And the reward? Being able to hang out by the bench and a chance to be asked out by one of the popular boys who were otherwise very preoccupied with farting, putting others down and drawing inaccurate anatomical sketches.
The school was good in lots of ways (there are some teachers who I will be indebted to my whole life and support staff who brought a lot of joy and help to my sister with additional needs), but being in the playground at break and lunch felt like an act of survival. Belonging to a group away from this was therefore a bit of a life-saver, especially when some of us had things going on at home too. And it made the memory of being a teenager good – rather than full of anguish and anxiety. And I know I was lucky- to have found such kind, trustworthy friends that I didn’t have to impress, that I didn’t have to prove anything to. For whilst at school we had to try and keep our heads below the parapet- to not appear too brilliant or too stupid or too anything- at the weekends we could be ourselves feeling secure in the friendships we had.
This was before social media of course. And mobiles with speedy internet. The handset I had sent very slow texts with room for only 160 characters. Mainly we sent each other long e-mails or chatted on the phone. Ours was located in the very public hallway, under the beady watch of my mum. There was less distraction back then and so bike rides, long walks, hanging out in the park, going to gigs, the pub, were the main things we teenagers did. It kept us amused and occupied.
But it could be very different for my girls. When they are teenagers will they hang out in person or just chat to each other online? Will they long to explore the world physically, or just via the web? I really want them to have the same experiences as me, to be adventurers and explorers of the world, to forge friendships outside, in the open- to ease the anxiety and worry of being a teenager.
But enjoying the outdoors with friends doesn’t just happen. It needs to be encouraged and learned especially now there is the lure of the internet, T.V and social media. And so this year we set up ‘Adventure Club’ with another family for our children. At the moment they are all under 6. At some point we hope that they go onto to do Adventure Club on their own, without our input. This I think is important. Lots of the clubs our kids attend are led by adults. Children need their own space, independence and freedom away from this. But right now, while they are young, my husband and his friend Stephen (pictured) take the children on an adventure every Saturday- making dens and cooking food on the fire, or finding some water to wade into. There is also talk of building a boat. The hope is that it will encourage our children to love the outdoors and value it for the wonder, entertainment and health (mental and physical) it can bring- to last right through into adulthood. And as for me, in the spirit of Lisa (who is still my friend) – I have promised notebooks, pencils, erasers and homemade badges for them all to wear…