The dangerous lives of thirteen year olds

The first year students are no longer new, but nor are they worldly-wise. They are reckless about their own safety and I have realised that my warnings fall on deaf ears. They give me a fist pump and a smile and go on their way. Death for them does not exist.

Of course, we knew about death.

It was the 1960s, the Second World War was only a generation previously. In our own small community, there were people whose sons and husbands and brothers had not come home. War deaths were not just among those who had died in the forces, the bombing of the milk factory in Somerton had added a list of civilians to the war memorial in the town square.

Within my family, Uncle Bill, a great uncle, was the first death I remember.

Uncle Bill drove a big black Humber car and brought Aunt Ella from their home at Hedge End in Southampton. Hedge End seemed a magical name for a place, it seemed like something from a story book. When Uncle Bill and Aunt Ella came to visit the farm, they always brought comics with them. The death of Uncle Bill seemed, to a small child, to threaten the supply of Jack and Jill and The Beano. What the death of Uncle Bill did not do was to suggest that death had anything to do with us.

Death was to do with wars or to do with older people who had lived a very long time.

The only exception to the rule, the only young person I knew who died, was Trudi, who lived next door to my grandmother. Trudi went on a school trip to France and fell from a bicycle suffering a head injury that was to prove fatal.

Yet there was a feeling that this was something that happened in another country, it wasn’t something that affected us.

There was a policeman who went around the schools telling stories of the danger of riding bicycles without lights, not having brakes that worked, and not observing the Highway Code, but he did not live in our village where cars were few and far between.

In plain terms, death was not part of our life. It existed, but it did not exist in a way that threatened us. We could ride our bicycles as recklessly as we chose, we could climb trees, we could go where we wanted, we could do as we liked. One day we would get old, but that day was so remote we didn’t need to think about it.

Watch a group of teenagers and you realize that there are ages in life when you are going to live forever.

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