Who’s raging over masks in schools? It’s not Britain’s impressively resilient teenagers | Zoe Williams

The first professional trip I took was to Jersey, to interview a teenage skateboarder. He was slated to win some big competition, but I’m afraid I can’t tell you whether he did or what his name was. What I do remember is standing by the skate park, next to his mum, in this peculiar low island light, while he smashed himself to the ground, repeatedly, and got back up again.

Before long, his elbow was bleeding – but this, his mother assured me, was an old wound, so it opened up most days. He brushed it off – didn’t even appear to notice – along with every other brutal encounter with physics and gravity. “Well, he’s 14,” his mum said. “They bounce at that age.”

He skated into my thoughts earlier this week, while the news was ablaze with England’s back-to-school mask mandate. Educationists were (and are) justifiably upset, since they received this communication – that all pupils in year 7 or above should wear masks in the classroom – long after the media had been briefed.

But disgust at the absolute dishevelment of governmental standards was nothing compared with the rage of the anti-mask libertarians. It sounds like a niche group, but it includes many Conservative backbenchers, plus their supportive commentariat.

Teenagers, these anti-maskers maintain, have already suffered enough. Face-coverings interfere with their learning, leave them unable to communicate with peers, render them insensate to life’s daily pleasures and reduce them to a state of slavery (granted, I saw the last claim on Twitter, where the collective 2022 resolution appears to be “be more crazy”).

The thing is, my house is lousy with teenagers and I have agreed, stupidly, to stop writing about them. But I am still allowed to make the most general observations (I think). I have seen them forget their masks, try to eat through a mask, pick up a mask from the street and put it on, and flick each other with masks. But I have never heard any of them complain about wearing one.

Please don’t walk away with the impression that this generation has stopped complaining. They bellyache constantly about stupid things, such as having to spend all day in the same classroom, rather than moving from one subject area to another. “What is so fun about walking down a corridor?” I have wondered aloud more than once. It’s the journey, not the destination, they say, sagely. Corridors are where all the stuff happens. Staying put and waiting for the teacher to come to you makes it feel like primary school. Will they put up with it, for the sake of public safety? Yes, but they wish the management to know that it isn’t ideal.

They don’t complain, yet it is visible in their demeanours that it saps their life force when they have to attend school from home. They absolutely hate it when non-essential shops are forced to close. They weren’t wild about the bubble phase, when they had to self-isolate after the positive test result of someone they didn’t even like. There was a brief period in 2020 when they were allowed only on certain buses; that was a veritable assault on their human rights. But they adapted to masks absolutely seamlessly, uncomplainingly, faster than a baby adapts to a sock.

There are a load of plausible explanations for why teenagers might moan about masks less than adults. They have better hearing, so they aren’t relying on lip-reading without knowing it. They tend to have better cardiovascular health, so they are not constantly wondering why stairs have got harder.

Fundamentally, though, they are just more adaptable. We talk constantly about all the ways in which the teenage brain is like an adult brain, only less good – more volatile and impulse-driven, less able to predict consequences – and hardly talk at all about the ways in which teenagers are superior. Their entire day is structured around life’s unreasonable demands and they just acclimatise. This unruffled resilience and psychic elasticity – or bouncing, in 90s skateboarder’s-mum parlance – looks suddenly a lot more mature than what passes for maturity.

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