My teenage crush
I used to give an assembly to teenage girls which was designed to show the mutability of human tastes and, by giving examples of what I might have had tattooed on myself at 16 and how I might now feel about said tattoo still being with me, illustrate that, no matter how certain we are of something in our youth, we may well change our views before our time is up. Growing up outside Manchester, for example, I may well have gone for a Manchester United crest only to discover that, as a middle aged mum in the South East, rugby is now my thing. I might not have regretted some homage to Shakespeare quite so much but I am afraid that Jane Austen is no longer my favourite author and Mr Darcy is not my ideal man. However, the best example and the one that gets the most reaction, has always been a photograph of George Michael, circa 1984, at the height of his teen idol status, his hair at its bouffant, blow dried best as he smiles in a white suit through a misty filter. For teens of the twenty first century, this is the openly gay soul singer with a drugs problem and a chequered history with the law. That their headmistress once genuinely believed she could marry him is a source of utter bewilderment to them; that he was once the equivalent of Zayn Malik or Harry Styles is also news. So this is always my trump card for how things change.
And then, late on Christmas Day, my teenage son, flicking through the news on his phone as we sat watching a movie, calmly announced that George Michael was dead, and my heart sank in a manner which indicated that perhaps things hadn’t changed that much after all. Much has been said about 2016 and its grim reaper quality when it comes to celebs. But this was one that really touched me. Part of my youth had disappeared. It may have been the silliest, most hormone-driven, unedifying part of it, but it was still part of my youth. And then, of course, there was everything that Michael had come to be since that time, so much of which has come out in obituaries and tributes since Christmas Day. Outed as gay in the late 90s, he faced the challenges that came with that at the time to become an inspiration to others and part of the social journey which means that the generation I currently teach would never be shocked by the equivalent news from one of their idols. His musical gifts were clearly so much more than I had seen back in 1984 and both his voice and his song-writing talents developed and impressed over time. As for his generosity, never far from the surface through projects such as Help a London Child and his support of Macmillan, it is now reaching legendary status as many he helped anonymously feel able to share their stories following his death.
Terrible as these celebrity deaths have been in 2016, they have provided my generation with an opportunity for reflection. It is tragic that we have to lose our heroes to appreciate them but it also gives us chance to consider their value over a lifetime and not just the splash they first made upon our consciousness. These lives become the measure of our own progress and concerns since we feel (perhaps wrongly) that they have been part of our own lives and growth. David Bowie’s originality, Mohammed Ali’s integrity, Carrie Fisher’s honesty and wit, these have all been celebrated as beacons of hope in what has otherwise been seen as the bleakest of years. So perhaps I was wrong to exploit my teenage crush on George Michael to such comic effect since, clearly, it never left me entirely. I might admire him for very different and, I hope, much better reasons now – but perhaps that tattoo isn’t entirely out of the question.
Sally-Anne Huang, Headmistress, James Allen’s Girls’ School