'Nevermind' by Nirvana was recently voted the greatest album of the Nineties. After the suicide of one of his pupils, Alan Roberts wants to see teenage boys turning away from its creed of 'cool', cruel introspection
Load up on guns and bring your friends, It's fun to lose and to pretend 'Nevermind' Nirvana It was a bad summer for young men in my town. Three committed suicide: one by jumping in the sea, one by leaping off a bridge, the third by rigging his car exhaust. Earlier in the year, a young man drove his car off a cliff following the break-up of a relationship. His girlfriend said she had no idea it had meant so much to him or that he had taken it so badly.
The Samaritans say the suicide rate in Britain among males aged 15 to 24 during 1996 was 15 per 100,000. Each one of them seems such a shocking waste at an age when life should be so full of promise. Last year 438 young males committed suicide, almost four times the number of females.
This summer, through school, I had my own brush with a young man's death. It still haunts me, and it seems symptomatic of many of the problems encountered by angst-ridden males living at the dusk of this century.
Brian, a youngster in my tutor group, wanted more than anything to be a gamekeeper and asked for a reference from me. I didn't want to promote gun culture, but in the end I went against my feelings, supplied the reference and patted Brian's back when he got the position of trainee gamekeeper on an estate 30 miles away.
Everyone said he loved his job. Then, eight months later in the early hours of the morning, and for no reason anyone has been able to discover, he turned the gun on himself.
He had been out that night with the family who ran the estate, and they remarked on how happy and settled he seemed. A few days earlier he had learned that he was to be retained on the estate and his future as a gamekeeper was virtually assured. Since taking the job he had phoned home regularly and his mother, step-father and 13-year-old brother said nothing was troubling him.
While at school he'd had his wild spells. The odd drunken night on the town with other lads from school; the occasional orgy of shooting birds and rabbits in the woods with his air rifle. But since taking his new job he had quietened down and appeared much better adjusted.
So what made him come home that night, place his licensed gun between his teeth and pull the trigger? No one knows. In all likelihood, no one ever will. When I spoke to his mother a week later she was barely audible, still shaking her head in disbelief.
A policewoman telephoned me, gathering evidence for the inquest, because some of Brian's friends had told them I was the teacher who knew him best. But in all truth I didn't know him. Brian could be a loud and public figure, but another side of his personality was shrouded in darkness and secrecy; the side of him that had to cope with the fact of his own father's suicide by hanging in 1992. Our private conversations a year earlier had skated over this topic. Through his affectation of casualness, Brian appeared untouched by his father's awful death.
The WPC also spoke to two of Brian's friends, Dan and Chris. Like me, but for different reasons, they felt guilt over Brian's death. "He was out of touch, living out there on that estate," Chris told me on the phone. "We were his mates and we should have been talking to him, keeping in contact. Stuff inside his head must have got out of control."
Brian was a fan of Kurt Cobain, the Nirvana singer who shot himself in 1993. His favourite song was "On A Plain", which was played at the school memorial service. Like many young men of his generation, he loved the album Nevermind and identified with the lyrics and sentiments. Cobain's songs constantly return to the idea of staying cool about life, not taking it too seriously.
Interesting word that, "cool". It's probably the central word in the vocabulary of most schoolchildren today. But ask them to be more precise about its usage and they struggle. One thing for certain is that if they describe a teacher or somebody else's parent as "cool", then that's as complimentary as it gets.
In 30 years' teaching I have found the shifts in male attitude striking. Being cool is what so many of today's males find admirable. At worst, they might be referring to total uninvolvement; at best, the cool individual is very much his or her own self, unimpressed by others.
The affectation of coolness is an essential component of juvenile masculinity today. Open enthusiasm is to be avoided at all costs. Not getting too deeply involved is the best way to keep control. As Cobain wrote: The finest day that I've ever had
was when I learned to cry on command.
The punk era also saw a generation alienate itself from the grown-ups, but the raw, aggressive energy of the 1970s and 1980s made youngsters question institutions, events and the generation gap rather than their own feelings. Cobain was into anarchy in a far more personal way than Johnny Rotten.
Punk songs were anthemic, and kids studied the words so they could sing along and outrage. Teenagers of the 1990s are far more inward-looking. They turn up Nirvana and sit with ears plugged directly into amplifiers. And it is males who largely constitute Cobain's audience.
Perhaps this all ties in with the alarming deterioration in male performance in schools over the past decade. At the root of this failure, inspectors have singled out boys' inability to verbalise to the same extent as girls. Girls see the expression of coolness quite differently from boys. Few girls see "cool" as putting a curfew on the expression of feeling or discussion about emotions.
How do we as parents and teachers make progress against the Nevermind culture? A lesson I taught five years ago might provide some illumination. The subject was feelings and when it was appropriate to show them to others. A 15-year-old boy not noted for his soft centre suddenly became animated and told the group about a recent holiday. He had befriended two Italian brothers of his age. They had had a great time, despite the language barrier - snorkelling, drinking and dating girls. The Italians came to the airport to see him off. He felt moved at their final parting and manfully stuck out a hand for shaking. The Italian boys ignored it and smothered him with hugs and kisses on the cheek. "It was great," he said. "It made me wish I was Italian."
It is the mismatch between thoughts and feelings which most disturbs me about Brian's story. Certainly, white Anglo-Saxon culture has much to answer for in this matter. If he appeared happy and at peace with himself throughout the evening before his suicide, was he intentionally misleading people? Maybe his thoughts turned destructively inward when he was alone later. Or, as a friend suggested, was his apparent contentment down to the fact that he had reached a decision about suicide and felt able to relax into it?
How many youthful painted smiles conceal mental and emotional mire? Is young life cheaper nowadays?
A form tutor is beset by extraordinary pressures, most of them associated with improving academic performance. Dealing with thoughts and feelings has moved down the agenda since the Sixties, and it is young males who have suffered most. Where will they receive enlightenment about such things, if not at school?
The village church was packed with Brian's friends on the day of his funeral. I could only hope they were able to support each other and talk to family about their feelings. This would not solve the mystery of Brian's death, but at least then they might come to terms with their own emotional confusion and not remain trapped in that alienated place where Kurt Cobain chose to end his days.
Brian's name has been changed. Alan Roberts is an English teacher in Yorkshire