Caroline O’Donoghue: It is the dread that I remember most as a teenager

Caroline O’Donoghue: It is the dread that I remember most as a teenager

I’ve just arrived back to London after a busy ten days back home – three days in Dublin, seven in Cork. It was busy because I haven’t seen most of my family for almost two years, and it was busy because it was also a work trip. I visited secondary schools as part of the One County One Book initiative that I’ve been doing with Cork County Libraries. 

You probably don’t need to be in the publishing industry to know that when even one library gets behind your book, it’s cause for celebration. To have a whole web of libraries buy copies for Cork schools is a bottle-of-champagne-at-the-Grand-Prix-finish-line scenario. So I packed my suitcase, and I got ready to talk to the young people of Cork.

I don’t want to toot my own horn too much, but if there’s one part of my job I’ve come to really enjoy, it’s public speaking. Competitive, athletic sport was never part of my childhood, and the robustness that public speaking requires has filled that vacuum in my life. 

I love that it takes stamina, and quick thinking; I love that not everyone can do it; I love that you learn something about yourself and about people every time you do it. I’ve interviewed authors in sold-out London theatres. But I have never, before last week, had to stand in front of a room of 16-year-olds. And trust me: the latter is much, much harder.

Comedians often speak about “feeling” the mood of a room. Of feeling the audience go with you, the sensation of losing them, of getting them back. That makes sense, because comedians are often dealing with drunk people, and at night. Emotions run high. I have never ‘felt’ a room as intensely as I have while speaking to secondary schools. I felt them lose interest, I felt them get tired of me, and equally, I felt their imaginations spark and their attention rise.

Sometimes all in the same 40-minute session.

But whereas a drunk’s emotions are loud, crass and unpredictable, a teenager’s feelings are like a Swiss clock. Every tiny mechanism is whirring away, but the clock face maintains a perfect performance of aloof task management, of big hands and small hands coming together to meet the hour.

They grab books, go from class to class, doodle while their teacher is speaking, carefully time their hand-raising so as not to appear too keen, but you can tell at a glance whose clockwork is whirring at double speed, and whose is gummed up by misery.

It reminded me why I write for teenagers: it is, to me, the richest period for narrative, because it is simply the unhappiest you will ever be in your entire life. I don’t just mean the newsworthy capital-I issues that young people face: cyberbullying, real-life bullying, eating disorders, peer pressure, parent pressure, all that. I mean the general sense of dread that accompanies almost every day a normal person will spend in school.

Of all the things I did and said as a teenager – the fun, the parties, the cosy cliques of trusted friends, the excitement of new, outside-of-school friends – it is the dread that I remember most. It didn’t have a shape or a sound, but an inky sour feeling that began below my belly button and travelled up my spine.

There was nothing wrong with how I grew up. I was very privileged, fairly well-liked, and deeply loved by my family. The pain of growing up came from j

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