The news is knee deep in climate crisis discussions; so in my attempt to take responsibility, I decide to make the most of the sunshine, leave behind the car, fill my lungs with fresh autumn air as the last of the burnt orange leaves falI, and venture on to the local 213 bus towards town. The familiarity of this route runs deep right back to my childhood 30 years ago; one of the first “grown up” ventures I was allowed to take alone, because the end destination was that first step into adulthood – my secondary school – Coombe Girls’ School.
I vividly remember the first day – it was a Wednesday in September 1990. Awake since 5am, I was militantly set; my brand new backpack, almost as big as me, crammed with fresh notebooks, sharpened pencils, eraser and my treasured Parker fountain pen gifted by my mother as an early birthday present – NEVER to be misplaced! There was something about the smell of new books or the perfectly ironed pleated skirt that amplified the excitement of this new beginning. Nervous about transitioning from being a senior and often mouthy Year 6 student at primary school, to now being one of the younger tribes at a much larger institution, the 11 year old me sought both joy and distraction by relishing in my new grown up look.
However, that first journey on the 213 to this new establishment was far from exciting. Despite my protests, my dad decided to accompany me on the bus as a sign of support (to this day I still think my parents feared I would get lost!). Since it was Year 7’s and sixth formers only that day, I appeared to be – correction I WAS – the ONLY new student with a parent in tow and the growing adolescent in me wanted to jump off the bus and walk! During the course of what seemed to be the longest 15 minute journey to school, I began to observe how each of us newbies, in our own way, were united in our awkwardness. I wasn’t the only one attempting to cover my prickly hairy legs with the longest pristine white knee high socks. Countless super straight ties accompanied by oversized blazers which our mums hoped we would magically grow into, undeniably stood out. Misshapen teeth, frizzy hair (which in itself was a 90’s trend), nervous giggles and the promise to remain BFF’s come what may – all our unique quirks silently reflected our solidarity for one another into this new phase of life which continued into the next 5 years.
I snap back to the present day, as the bus pulls into my former school, and watch the Coombe girls’ students board in tribes. Their entrance commands attention – arife with confidence throwing sass like confetti – including the younger students. With ties amiss and the once mandatory skirts replaced with an option for trousers – the much more casual uniform is fashioned with pride. Oversized rucksacks are replaced with trendier bags. Fingers that once fiddled nervously with hair, are now tapping away at smartphones, often doing so whilst not even looking at the screen.
Only the cooler and more rebellious girls in my era (as we knew them), dared to challenge the no-make up rule to the extreme, experimenting with foundation shades away from their actual skin tone. Yet today, glimpses of make-up, albeit quite subtle, emerges as the norm on many more faces than I was accustomed to have previously witnessed. I suddenly feel like the misfit all go over again – clad in my combats, jumper, bomber jacket and hot pink Michael Kors bag. Feeling like a complete fashion faux pas, I notice how the only visible frizz on the lower deck of that bus is sitting in my messy hair bun.
Conversations of the latest music trends and tik tok celebrities run parallel with political issues, feminism, and plans to combat global warming – reflecting a new breed of teenagers with a wider sense of awareness of the world around them. Detecting the older students outside the bus stop casually vape, I recall how my friends and I, at the peak of our rebellion, would collectively scramble enough change for a £2 pack of B & H – the former clearly being the smarter choice (or how about just not smoke at all!)
Is this generation of 12-16 year olds the ones to contend with? I wondered, would I have made smarter choices in life if I was void from my blanket of naivety? As a 13-year old, the most distraught I had been was when I lost my bus pass, disillusioned from the world that was evolving around me. Today, in addition to social media being drip fed into every device, important discussions and tools around consent, safety, mental health and gender equality are thankfully familiar to a younger audience.
My journey into town on this bus is somewhat bittersweet – I am slightly envious at the streetwise and sharp-witted attitudes I sit so meekly amongst. Nonetheless, I still relish the simplicity, and yes admittedly the gullibility at times, that shaped my key teenage years.
Birthdays that mattered remained recorded in our minds and paper diaries – not Facebook reminders. We’d wait hours on end for a date or our best friend, as the only form of contact was a public payphone to a home number. Hours of reading in the corner of the library attributed to our history projects before the existence of the world wide web was actually world-wide. The absence of digital aids and social media not only boosted my thirst for knowledge, but created a sense of resilience and made me appreciate those memorable school years.
I arrive at my destination and look back at the crowd remaining – who knows, maybe 30 years on, one of these girls may be sitting in this seat with her own 213 bus route to nostalgia.