There are a lot of awesome schools in YA, where the canteen food is nice, and the classrooms aren’t falling to pieces. Where characters can hang out in the bathrooms without catching one or several life-threatening diseases.
This was not my school experience.
In my school, there was graffiti everywhere. You couldn’t enter a bathroom without getting hit with a plume of stale cigarette smell that would seep into your clothes and follow you for the rest of the day. The wooden tables were gouged with crude words I won’t repeat. Someone always thought it was funny to draw a cock-and-balls in permanent marker on the white board, so we’d have to write our notes staring at its stubborn smudged outline all day.
The joys of being a bit northern and a bit common, eh.
There were good bits, too. Some of the teachers were my absolute heroes. I learnt to play the drums in the music room, on lunch, because we couldn’t afford a kit at home. I even started learning guitar until someone broke two of the strings and the school didn’t have the budget to replace them. I binge-read in the library, never quite wrapping my head around the idea that all those books were free.
For my entire school career, my English classroom was in a temporary cabin. I think they pushed the meaning of the word temporary about five years past its sell-by date, but there you have it. The walls would shake when it was windy. The windows were made of plastic. I read my first William Blake, Margaret Atwood, Shakespeare, and poetry in that crappy classroom.
There was this one time when someone set the Science block on fire. The blackened walls became a permanent fixture in the room that survived, and another ‘temporary’ classroom was born in place of the one that didn’t.
There were all-out wars on the field because my brother is harder than your brother or you looked at me funny that one time in Maths. When I was younger, it was fists and bruises. By the time I was fifteen, they had bats and chains.
There was one time a boy jumped out of a second-floor window in the middle of class because we were bored and dared him to do it. You should have seen the teacher’s face.
I think I can say, with all certainty, that my teen experiences don’t often match what I see in YA.
In my own stories, I can only write authentically if I write what I know. And all that stuff up there? That’s what I know. Could you imagine me trying to write a boarding school experience, or an experience where every kid gets good grades and every kid has hope for the future? I couldn’t do it very well, let me tell you. We had a girl on her second child before she sat her GCSE’s. The lucky ones were the people with a family business they could slot into.
I wasn’t a lucky one.
You know when some adults say the best years of their lives were their school days? And they’d relive them if they could? Oh, lordy how do I laugh. Not for a gold pig. Not for a hundred best sellers and a film adaptation by Alfonso Cuarón. NOOOOPPPEEE.
Now, I don’t want to hate on the… er… less affluent experience of my childhood. It kicked me squarely in the arse, every single day, and the only way I could think to outrun it was to work work work. I truly believe that people who have the drive to excel will do so regardless of their circumstances. Or maybe in spite of them. I think that drive comes from somewhere deeper than surroundings, or peers. It’s a drive that comes from within.
My school has since been demolished, by the way, and a nice shiny academy school has risen from the rubble. The reports are not good.
I believe that there are great stories to be told in worlds like mine. This isn’t some far off place, or a purple planet, this is a few miles from your doorstep. A few hundred miles, if you’re lucky. I think the kids who have to check if their seat will collapse from old age before sitting down in class deserve to see their lives reflected in YA today, just as much as anyone else.
YA is a brilliant, diverse, and constantly evolving category. I hope to see more class diversity in the coming years. God knows, I’d have appreciated it, growing up. There was always this extra barrier between me and the stories I read, then. With their glossy schools and their perfect classrooms, they may as well have been set on a purple planet. It was an extra suspension of disbelief for me. It still is. The only time I saw anything remotely familiar in fiction was when the baddies showed up. Usually some common kid from the Bad School down the road.
But I’m not a baddie. And most of the people like me aren’t either. Is class-shaming a thing? I think it might be a thing. Well… not in my stories. Let’s see more class diversity, please!