The lads, the popular girls, the weirdos and the bullies – here's what happened to all those playground cliques.
There comes a point in every young man or woman's life when they start to see the people around them getting married, mortgages and pregnant. It is at this dawning of responsibility that they must also begin to take stock of their own life choices. Luckily, seeing as all my current friends are people who moved to the city so they could act like spoilt children well into their twenties, this phenomenon is pretty much limited to the people I went to school with.
It's a shame I lost touch with them, but the kids I once shared saliva, Berols and bootleg CD-Rs of The Marshall Mathers LP with still occupy a strange position in my life. They haunt my Facebook news feed like ghosts from an alternative future – complaining about the weather, taking pictures of their dogs, checking in at the same hometown bars every Friday night, keeping me up to date with news of their hangovers.
Some – usually the ones who haven't been married that long – seem very happy with their lot, which makes me wonder if things could have been different if I'd spent the last few years developing an intimate knowledge of another human being rather than Raider Klan mixtapes. Others fill me with a different kind of sadness – a kind of sadness I feel guilty for feeling, even though I don't know how else you're supposed to feel when you see that a bright-eyed kid you used to know appears to have been swallowed whole by a depressed alcoholic with three chins, National Front membership and a crippling addiction to Mafia Wars.
I'm not saying this is necessarily any reflection on them as people – for all I know, their lives are a lot more fulfilling than my torturous existence of microwave spaghetti hoops and squat protection scheme flats. But when I compared the type of person they were at school to what they're doing now, I started to see patterns emerging. Here's what tended to happen to the groups of people I haven't seen IRL since we were all bopping to "Movin' Too Fast" at the prom.
Then: The unimpeachable kings of the jungle, the lads bossed the corridors like they bossed the designated fingering zones at house parties. They spent most of their time talking about stuff their older brothers had done, arranging fights with rival schools that never happened and having "trials" somewhere, whether that be at the county football league team or the local magistrates' court.
Crucially, the lads were unlike their American equivalents: the varsity jacketed, tankard-headed jocks. In the States, it's simply not enough to be good at sport and bogwashing quiet boys in trenchcoats, you have to be healthy and righteous and exceptionally good at school to rise to the top of the male hierarchy. In this country, half of the popular lads, with their ruined lungs and improvised weapon wounds, weren't able to reach the other side of the cricket pitch by the time they were 16. In America, the playground alphas went on to work for oil tycoons, over here they end up ram-raiding 24-hour Shell garages.
Now: The old cliche that your school years are the best years of your life quickly began to realise itself in horrible Technicolor for the lads. The cheeky Carlsbergs after training, the "crafty fags" at lunch, the Friday night Mitsis and the fact that becoming a professional sportsman is actually really fucking hard meant that their dreams would never come to fruition.
Now, they live their lives like protagonists from Philip Roth novels; high school superstars cast adrift in a world that knows nothing of their achievements. Their wives fear them, their mistresses hate them, their illegitimate children will build their entire lives around trying to not be like them. They dreamed of leading the team out at Wembley, they ended up as pixellated faces in Freeview channel police shows and Spankwire dogging vids.
THE POPULAR GIRLS
Then: You know the ones. They all claimed they would marry footballers or form girl groups, and had a tendency to label everyone who wasn't them a "sket". Seriously, even if you were the kind of girl who wore long pleated dresses and read Anne Rice books in the classroom at lunchtime, you were still a "sket". No mobile phone? Sket. Religious? Sket. Liked playing the piano? Sket. Even if the word "comprehensive" applies more to your dad's collection of private islands than your education, every school had a gang of girls who delighted in punishing other girls simply for not being them.
Now: In America, they'd probably be living a life of country clubs and Republican fundraising with the jocks they married, but this is Britain, so it's a different kind of domestic obscurity. Instead of Jackie Collins, it's Ken Loach. You'll only be reminded of their existence through the occasional charity skydive and cancelled engagement furore on Facebook. Y'know, the stuff that real people do.
There aren't many things in life that will fuck with you more than seeing the girl you once loved cradling Weird Gary from school's firstborn in her bingo wings. Firstly, there's the horribly human instinct to imagine yourself returning to her now, swanning into her life of daytime TV and scratchcards to tell her that, while she's been changing nappies, you've been out shaking hands with people who've met Beyonce. But really, are you any happier? Probably not.
In fact, your misery and disappointment are probably the only things you really have in common – she's sad because she misses the blend of fear, desire and envy she was treated with at school, you because that absence of attention means she'll never be as desirable to you ever again. But where you end up shivering to Spiritualized in the aftermath of brutal pill parties in a desperate attempt to claw back the sense of adventure that defined your teenage years, she's trying to move on and forget about the past by eking out some kind of family life of her own – something real and whole that you probably won't "get" until you're too old to really care about it.
You might sneer at them for Harlem Shaking and trying to find Kony, but really, they probably won. Again.
THE MUSIC ROOM CREW
Then: You ever sit down and wonder who actually likes Muse? Or Biffy Clyro? Or John Frusciante? Well, consider that every school in the country has at least three guys who wear Fender T-shirts and spend their lunch breaks arguing about the correct way to play the "Under The Bridge" intro. And that there's, well – I dunno – a lot of schools in the UK, and you begin to understand these bands' popularity. At first, I wasn't sure they were still a "thing", but then I looked at the line-up for Reading this year and instantly realised that these young men were still ploughing their own furrow. Still got love for Flea, still not loving electronic beats.
Now: Unsurprisingly, in this troublesome economic climate, it seems most of them are still refusing to give up the snuggly world of education;still enrolled in various obscure universities (Buckinghamshire New, Anglia Ruskin, Glyndŵr) doing studies in obscure technical bullshit (RPG Design, Turf Technology, Josh Homme studies). They all grew wavy ponytails, started Reddit accounts and became the "rock" guys you see in every Wetherspoons; studded wristbands, 3/4 length pleather jackets, talking about UKIP and dragons.
They resent fashion in all its forms; every T-shirt has to refer to something else, be it a band or a Red Dwarf character. The strange thing about this particular subculture is that it doesn't seem to be something that people grow out of. We've all had our stages with different scenes, but mostly they're just fleeting obsessions with a rebel ideal. For guys like this, it seems to be more of a long-term lifestyle choice – a monastic vow of uncool.
Then: Unless you're one of those people who was bullied by literally everyone at school (and we'll come to you later), then you'll understand that there was a key difference between the lads/popular girls and the dyed-in-the-wool bullies. The cool crew would occasionally join in with a bit of torment, but you got the impression that it was only something they had a passing interest in.
For the bullies, it was their livelihood, be they pig-faced Clearasil grunts who cried when they got subbed off in football, or wild-eyed rudegirl fishwives. Ever been to a bully's house? It's not just a John Hughes movie cliche that they always have hateful parents who make fun of them for being fat or stupid or both. I know they made people's lives a misery, but I always felt kind of sorry for them. Also, factor in the reality that without bullies we'd have a lot more people like Ollie Locke and Ed Sheeran and perhaps you'll see that the bullies weren't all bad. They provided a kind of annoying but vital service, like mosquitos or the police.
Now: Ever wonder why bouncers always like to make you line up for hours despite the club being half full and it being colder outside than a Siberian belt buckle? Ever wonder why that community support officer keeps showerfacing your barbeque? Ever wonder why it takes so long to get served in Wickes? It's because you used to get these people to smash beer cans on their heads at parties. You reap what you sow.
THE OPINIONATED TYPES
Then: From Eton to Eltham Comprehensive, every classroom has an aspiring Louise Mensch or Chuka Umunna within its ranks. A snotty teenager who, despite the fact it is impossible for them to understand the world, feels it is his or her prerogative to turn every RS lesson into a debate about Zionism at Speaker's Corner. I'm not quite sure how the opinionated kids I went to school with arrived at their chosen ideologies. Maybe it was just the exact opposite of the one their parents had tried to indoctrinate them into. Maybe they just believed whatever Fat Mike told them to.
Now: This is where the difference between Eton and Eltham Comprehensive comes into play. Because, unless you're expecting a Christmas card from the Gove family this year, all those nights spent staying up late to watch This Week aren't going to amount to much more than an admin role at the local council. Perhaps the true sign of social immobility doesn't lie in what happens to the educationally challenged, but what happens to the straight A crew. One of the cleverest girls in my school is now a community support officer. The dumbest guy at Eton is probably in the cabinet.
My boys, on their way to the prom
Then: Arguably the group that bears most relation to their American counterparts, the stoners were a strange breed. They favoured German army jackets to nylon Reebok zip-ups, Rammstein and Gravediggaz to Blu Cantrell and Sean Paul, squidgy black to cider and black. They spoke of government conspiracies, rare strains of Afghan hash and the gruesome lolz they'd seen on Rotten.com. Whenever you ran into them over the local park they'd always be doing something weird, like setting fire to a dead bird. They seemed both the least likely to succeed and the most likely to create something that would change the world.
Now: This is perhaps where the real darkness sets in. Because, somewhere in the middle part of the noughties, the kids who preferred their drugs to send them into a stupor instead of the stratosphere got into ketamine in a big way. I'm not saying the horse tranquiliser epidemic was our generation's Reagan-era crack boom, but it's certainly had a massive impact on the psyche of a certain type of British youth. We might have been turned off crack and heroin by Doherty and Trainspotting, but some of us have become enamoured with a substance whose long-term effects nobody understands, but will probably include pissing the bed by the time you're 40.
Then: While you might recall your school days as a glorious blur of halcyon memories mutated by Judd Apatow movies, chances are that somebody remembers you as a bully. It's a sad inevitability of the teenage jungle, but you were probably a cunt to someone. In school, nobody is without sin. It probably plays on your conscience to this day; that time you cut that girl's ponytail off because she had the temerity to read a Terry Pratchett novel in the playground; the time you cracked that cat o' nine towels across that chubby kid's back before basketball; the time you wound that one kid up until the impotent fury came frothing out of his mouth, eyes and nose in a snot-and-tear-drenched horrorshow of nerd rage, AKA the scariest thing in the whole fucking world. This is your burden to carry, but it's carried much more easily when you realise that everybody's guilty to some extent.
Now: Since I left education, I realised that all the most successful people I know were probably the weirdos at school. I've heard tales of models who were pushed into lockers, DJs who used to be school librarians, skateboarders who were into Warhammer. The fact is that more than anyone else, these were the people who had a point to prove. I mean, the problems they endured at school probably still engulf every single aspect of their lives to this day, but at least they're mostly out openly relishing all the stuff they were too insecure to do at school while everyone else festers in the dust of domesticity.
A teacher whose name I don't remember
Then: Despite the fact that you probably know a slew of twentysomethings who are considering getting into the profession due to its abundance of jobs, abundance of holidays and the fact you don't have to work an unpaid six-month internship first, teaching has always been a thankless task. Somewhere along the line, every teacher forgets about being like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds and becomes content with developing a vocal technique that adequately cuts through classroom chaos.
Now: Exactly the same thing, every single fucking day of their lives. So try to apologise next time you bump into them bulk-buying quarts of Famous Grouse in the Morrison's booze aisle. I know you probably want to go rub that Camberwell Foundation or print-out of your published Comment Is Free piece in their tired, sad face, but really you're just one rejection email away from having to rap the periodic table to a class of apathetic nine-year-olds with their heads buried in Angry Birds and BBM gang beef. Still, you do get a lot of holidays, so it's not all bad. Unless you're a supply teacher, in which case you're doomed to wander the Earth forever like a haunted Gypsy, pleading with people for quiet, begging children for peace.
Then: Just when did "neek" happen, exactly? When did those two staples of playground slang – "nerd" and "geek" – club together to form a newer, slightly more street composite? Whatever the reasons for this cultural cut 'n' shut, the people the expression was attributed to were probably into the following things: Dead Ringers, The Matrix trilogy, The Darkness, "random" internet comedy, slightly too short trousers, rucksacks with superfluous straps and complicated masturbatory practices. There was a crossover with the music room crew – a shared homoerotic interest in Iron Maiden and Gojira – and they were often found hanging with the bona fide weirdos, but neeks were essentially conformists; more about the facts and the figures than the feel and the fear.
Now: Been on the internet recently?They rule the fucking world.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
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