There is a special poignancy to moments of transition: consider the two year old emerging from babyhood to claim a resolute sense of self, or, at the other end of life, the shift from the full command of maturity to the tremulous dependence of old age. But then, I’m a writer and writers have always been drawn to such moments. The story happens, after all, not in some seamless sequence from birth to old age but at those particular points in life when an individual begins to move.
The years between 12 and 14 are one such period of transformation and in New Zealand in 2002 it is for most a period spend at school in a variety of lumpy uniforms as a “Year Nine”. This is the breaking point between childhood and adulthood. On the one side is dependence, where food, clothing and activity are moulded and controlled by adults: on the other side lies a blessed land of independence where, according to the Year Nine students I talked to in Akaroa yesterday, “You can do what you want.” I had to talk to them to write this preface because my own adolescence is so shrouded by the mists of time - pre-tv, pre-Big Mac, pre-computer - as to seem like the Eocene, while my daughters’ adolescence though more recent, is a blur of Levi 501s, Bata Bullets, Dire Straits and Annie, which brings it up to about the Pleistocene. Some things do not change, however and this year’s Year Nines are still preoccupied with friends and marathon phone calls, still scrapping with brothers and sisters, still looking for jobs and money, still fumbling with the suddenly problematic business of male and female. They still possess the dreams of childhood. They want to be chefs because they like cooking and nurses because they like helping people and netball players because they are good at netball. They are idealistic, valuing love and friendship above all else. They are too old for some things like fighting over who will sit in the front, and too young for others, like doing the driving themselves. Above all else, they are waiting: waiting to get a licence, waiting to earn, waiting for the time when they can decide what they will eat and when, and where they will live and with whom.
Whether this is symptomatic of the age is debatable. Once, not that long ago, most of these kids would not be in Year Nine at all. Before 1944 most would have left by now for the world of work. In that year, Dr Beeby and the government of the day decided that it was time children should stay at school not till 12 but till they were 15 because adolescents in those troubled fatherless times were “missing the discipline of a normal homelife” and the schools would “keep a grip on them in these essential years.” Within a decade, the rolls of New Zealand high schools more than doubled. There are nevertheless many people still alive today who left school at 12 and who have been none the worse for it. They lived in tougher times. A friend owns an ancient book, one of those worthy compendia of advice for the young published in Britain in the early years of the twentieth century, titled “100 Things a Boy Can Do”. And there, tucked in between building a sled and conducting some mild electrical experiment are instructions for joining the Royal Navy: yes. Should your 12 year old appear a little restless, pop him on a boat bound for one of the many pink bits scattered about the globe. Preparing a play about the young women brought out by the government from Britain in the 1860s as assisted immigrants, I was struck by the number of 12 year olds among them. Clearly, it was considered totally unremarkable for a 12 year old girl to embark in Liverpool or London for a four month one-way voyage to some imperfectly understood destination on the other side of the world. She was an adult, ready to work, or like Juliet, another famous Year Nine who had “not seen the change of fourteen summers”, to marry.
This relatively gentle business of schooling for teenagers is a recent trend. The very word is a neologism: according to Bill Bryson’s fascinating Made in America, the term “teenager” dates from only 1941 when it came into use to describe a generation blessed with the leisure to develop their own language replete with new words like “neat”, “cool” and “big deal”, their own wild music and most importantly, their own money. “Teenagers” were a defined market sector who by the 1950s were purchasing 40% of all records and radios sold in America, 9% of new cars and over half the movie tickets. The education of teenagers may have been deemed necessary in the first instance perhaps to “keep a grip” on a generation, but it was also useful as a means of limiting unemployment in volatile times. A more generous interpretation might see the move as a liberal attempt to make universally available the privileges of the middle class. All should be entitled to an education, just as they are entitled to safe streets, clean water and adequate health care. It is a mark of civilisation that 13 year olds in New Zealand are not slaving in sweat shops for 14 hours a day or hauling coal trucks through mines and those lumpy uniforms, shoulder bags and unsteady desks are a true sign of progress, despite what it may look like from the back row of 3GH last period on a Friday afternoon.
But whatever the history, here they are: the teenagers of Year Nine glimpsed in the classrooms, corridors and grounds of five Christchurch schools at the turn of the millenium. At the time of writing this I have not seen the exhibition. I have seen only a small selection of the many hundreds of images Hanne Johnsen has created. But those images speak volumes. There is trust in these images, so there is a laughing correspondence with the photographer and through her and her camera, with us, the viewers. The people here gesture to the world with the talismanic signs of their particular tribes. They scrap and playfight in that endearingly puppy-like fashion which will pass soon for the more sober physical attachments of adulthood. They emerge as funny, serious, idealistic, a little frightened perhaps of a world where the papers as I write are filled with murder, rape, wars against terrorism, bombings and abduction.
But ready or not, they’re on their way. They’re setting out to see what it is going to be like.