Understanding teenagers

I was very fond of my grandparents in Huish Episcopi, but would never have expected them to understand my teenage self. They were born before the First World War and were two generations removed from the life I was living in the 1970s.

Talking with students at school, one of whom reaches his thirteenth birthday at the beginning of the new academic year in September, I realized I was as far removed from the lives of the students as my grandparents were removed from me.

Being two generations removed from the age of those whom I teach, to even partly  understand them is a challenge. How can someone the age of your grandparents remember what it is like to be a teenager?

The best insight I have encountered into trying to establish empathy with young people came not from any pastoral training I ever received, but from the television detective series Morse. The inimitable John Thaw articulated thoughts on how difficult it was to be a teenager:

Morse: She didn’t do anything special against me. It was just the steady accumulation; the drip, drip, drip of humiliations . . . hatreds, when you’re that age.

So I suddenly thought, ‘Sod this. I’m getting out of this; it’s not worth it’.

Lewis: You ran away?

Morse: I decided to kill myself.  I though of all the ways of doing it, then I put them in order: one, two, three . . .  all the way down to about fifteen; which would hurt me the most; which would hurt dad; which would Gwen. I even thought of which would hurt little Joycey the least.  I liked Joyce.

Then I thought, ‘That’s pretty bloody clever what you’ve done’, because I’m vain.  I was vain even then!

And then I thought, ‘If you’re clever enough to have done all that: well, it’s the waste of a good mind’.

Lewis: I can just imagine you saying that.

Morse: No-one can imagine someone else’s pain, Robbie.  It’s the human tragedy.

But I made a vow, I wouldn’t forget.  I would never forget how awful it is to be fifteen.

I’ve forgotten, of course, everyone does. But I’ve been trying to remember.

It is almost thirty years since those lines were spoken in an episode of Morse. It seems odd that the words of a fictional character should have retained the power they had the first time I heard them spoken. “No-one can imagine someone else’s pain.” The words linger at the back of the mind in conversations.

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