'Imagination will take you everywhere'
It’s that time of the year again: sunshine (and the odd hurricane), farmers harvesting, bees buzzing, the tinkle of an ice cream van, David Cameron’s spontaneous holiday snaps and…what’s that I hear? A collective cry of anxiety from Britain’s sixth formers. It must be A-Level Results day: the cursed day of revelation. Cue newspaper photographs of girls with ponytails and toothy grins (they only show the happy ones) hugging one another and staring at their results with a mix of disbelief and utter hysteria.
On Thursday 14th August, teenagers up and down the country will be furiously ripping open a particularly frightful brown envelope. A wave of anticipation will break in those few tense seconds – anticipation that has been slowly building ever since that last exam several months ago. That envelope will contain a piece of paper with a series of letters typed on – not exactly the most terrifying thing in the world, but enough to reduce even the most toughest sixth former to tears. Oh yes, the salty water will flow no matter what; relief, joy, disappointment, anger – from students, parents and even possibly from teachers.
For many 18 year olds, the grades they get this summer will dictate which universities they get into and consequently their career path (as every teacher joyously reminds them – as if they could so easily forget). Basically the next decade of these individuals’ lives rests on their terribly inexperienced adolescent shoulders – hardly fair, considering that the majority have no clue what they want to dedicate their lives to (does anyone?).
The pressure to perform academically is now more prevalent than ever. Good grades equal a place at a good university which equals a good job, which subsequently equals a good income – henceforth the chance to pay off all that debt. Simple enough? I may be slightly biased, but I think that today’s teenagers are under more pressure than ever to succeed; most notably because of the incredibly competitive job market and rising cost of living. According to The Prince’s Trust Youth Index almost a million young people in the UK are struggling to find a job. At school we are force-fed the fact that a good education gets you a job, but in reality when the big wide world comes calling, even a first class honours degree doesn’t guarantee you a stable income.
My 17-year-old sister, Alex, will be one of the thousands of students receiving her AS-Level results on Thursday and like many of her peers the prospect has been a constant nagging at the back of her mind. So what worries her the most? “Failing! But the biggest pressure is that the grades will disappoint the people around me, like family and teachers, as I don’t think I can live up to their expectations.” Who puts pressure on you to succeed? “School does put pressure on you to perform well for the image of the sixth form, and of course parents always want you to do your best. But mostly it’s me that’s putting pressure on myself, as I’ve got high expectations of what I can achieve and would like to do well.”
“In terms of the main pressure in my life, I’d say it’s doing well academically as it will affect the rest of your life – that’s what scares me. We’re so young to choose what we want to do in our lives. We are constantly asked what career we want, but I’m 17 and it’s hard to decide when you aren’t really aware of what’s out there yet.”
For girls the adolescent rollercoaster can feel like a never-ending succession of highs and lows with an abundance of unexpected loops and twists. Not only are girls under pressure academically to achieve high results, but they also have to navigate the social landscape (or minefield!) of female friendships. Mentally there is nothing worse than being cast out of your social circle and given the evil eye. And then there is the prospect of the opposite sex; no longer smelly, silly little boys (some of them at least), girls are suddenly faced with the dating game – complete with the self-conscious worries that entails. There is also the rite of passage associated with alcohol and partying – complete with those horrendous photos on Facebook, which seemed fun at the time, but not the morning after (especially if your Dad can see them).
Of course as children of the digital age, the modern teenager is expected to be continually ‘switched on’ with social networking – constantly updating Twitter and posting the obligatory selfies on Facebook. As well as using Snapchat, Tumblr, YouTube and sharing their artfully tinted shots on Instagram, because – God forbid – their followers might miss out on any minute detail of their life. This over-exposure comes with intense pressure to make your online presence interesting and fun, which in turn runs the risk of the individual being sucked into a virtual world of nothingness. And this digital world is home to a bevy of cyber trolls, who enjoy nothing more than manipulation and abuse. As well as that, the internet is an ideal platform to target impressionable girls with false ideals of body perfection and the sexualisation of women, which does nothing for teenagers’ self-confidence.
This endless need for perfection; be it for grades, popularity, relationships, or body image, can be self-destructive. A word of advice for those who strive for this: Stop. Perfection is not only unattainable, but boring; it’s your imperfections which make you interesting.
Many of you will have seen the smiling face of Jess Eales beaming from any newspaper over the past week. Her pale blue eyes blazing with happiness; the future had no bounds for this promising young sailor. Yet on Thursday July 31st, she was found dead in the New Forest – just a day after her 17th birthday. Her death isn’t said to be suspicious, which begs the question of suicide. It was only last month that she represented Britain at the ISAF Youth World Sailing Championships in Portugal; she came 11th. Many people hailed her as a sailing star who was bound to have a successful career and become an Olympic champion. She was quoted by the Daily Telegraph before she competed in the Youth World Sailing Championships as saying “ It is guaranteed to be a challenging and testing event with not only the pressure you’re putting yourself under to do well, but also the pressure from wanting to do your best for everyone who has helped you progress along the way”.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for both young men and women in the UK (Office for National Statistics 2012 study). Girls are more likely to develop depression, eating disorders and self-harm. Sadly even the brightest, most talented young women find themselves dominated by the stress to make others proud and live up to the high expectations they have set themselves.
This may seem like one massive rant on the challenges faced by young women in our modern world, but I want them to realise that worrying about these issues takes the fun out of life. At the end of the day, you should set goals based on your own happiness – not anyone else’s. So it may feel as if the course of your whole life rests on those grades in that brown envelope, but ultimately it’s what you choose to do with those grades which will shape you, more than the grades themselves.