When I first started working in a secondary school, I was slightly disturbed by the beautiful 15 and 16 year olds, with their skirts rolled up, the ultra-fashionable 17 and 18 year olds. I was used to working with adults, and the necessary recalibration of relationships left me feeling a little awkward. I gave them a wide berth, because I didn’t want to come across like that dodgy uncle at a wedding, a little too charmed by the bride’s pretty friends.
I mentioned this to a good friend of mine in a loud London restaurant. Glancing anxiously at him for reassurance, I caught the end of a grimace of distaste he had aimed at my lowered head. This horrified me. I’d been hoping he’d dismiss it, tell me I was being overly scrupulous. He’s so kind and supportive, and we were alone so he wasn’t trying to distance himself from me in the eyes of others. This was sincerely felt discomfort.
I pushed it to the back of my mind. After all, my friend didn’t work with teenagers and thus had never had to ask himself these questions. He could afford to be puritanical. But that look kept coming back and I began to question myself: did I have inappropriate feelings for teenagers? My experiences as an adolescent suggested that I was capable of serious confusions and misjudgement. I have a fragile sense of internal reality, and because I didn’t trust myself, I doubted my own reassurances. Horrible thoughts pushed their way in to my brain. I was testing myself, running diagnostics: how did I respond to the thought of somebody doing this particular act with this particular age or gender of child? I just didn’t know. I seemed to have no response at all. Was I, then, a latent paedophile who’d just never had his urges triggered?
I walked around for months in the most terrible stew, tortured by nightmarish thoughts and fears, periodically drenched in a cold sweat as I tried to push away a thought so awful it felt like my whole brain was buffering, under the strain, and yet I could tell no one. How do you bring that one up without losing your job, your wife, your children, your liberty? I thought I might have to live with a secret and suppressed inner evil for the rest of my life.
Eventually, I regained enough calmness to realise that I was just in a mad lather of self-doubt. I was having obsessively intrusive thoughts. After all, I was in my 30s and had never exhibited any inclinations of this sort at all. Rather than my mental distress being caused by these thoughts, the thoughts were a manifestation of the mental distress. The root cause was not a sexual attraction but a crisis of identity, a fear that If you don’t know what you are, you could be anything, even the things you fear most, the aberrant (or abhorrent). This ought to have been obvious from the fact I thought myself guilty, on a deep, spiritual level, of sins I hadn’t committed and hadn’t displayed any symptoms of: original sin.
I’d never heard of the term “intrusive thoughts” at that point. I now realise that I’m quite prone to them, especially as a side effect to self-doubt or existential angst. Probably we all are. When I’m feeling particularly psychologically uncertain, I worry that I might be psychopathic, utterly lacking in compassion or empathy, incapable of grief, that I might be capable of murder or rape. I think this was just one of those episodes. I’ve always had a dismayed, distractable consciousness. I’ve always found it difficult to concentrate. At the time, I was flickering, existentially. The self, that wavering, guttering slip of candle flame, was dwindling almost to nothingness inside the storm lamp of my body, the surrounding darkness surging in.
Anyway, after a few years at the school, my own daughter is now 13, and I’ve known many of the alpha-queens since they were 11 year olds. They’re just kids. Beneath the sophisticated exterior, you can still see the pixie-child that scurried anxiously along the corridors in year 7, hugging the walls, or the heartlessly disruptive little madam in some young teacher’s lesson in year 8. You remember the fits of self-righteous temper, over something utterly trivial, in year 9. They’re brilliant, ingenious creatures, teenagers, but they’re all mad. They’re mad, morphing children in make-up and so utterly different from adults as to be no threat at all.