Sweet sixteen

What's it like to be 16 in 1998? To find out, Rose Shepherd did the obvious thing: she went along with her tape recorder and a full set of prejudices and asked 16-year-olds. She was surprised time and again. Photographs by Florian Jaenicke

Who wouldn't be 16 again, given the chance? We'd all do it so much better

second time around. But the whole point about 16, of course - the whole bloody, ineffable sixteen-ness of it - is that you only get one crack at it. There are no rehearsals, and no encores. That's what makes it so fraught.

It's a funny age, 16, when you are not yet entirely an adult, but are no longer still a child - or you are, in some measure, both of these. You are old enough to marry if your parents permit it, old enough to start a family, but you have to be l8 before you're deemed responsible enough to vote, or have a drink in a pub. Boys and girls can have sex - but boys and boys must wait two years, and girls and girls ... well, they don't, do they? Parents worry about young flesh in old hands, but it's to peer pressure that teenagers most often succumb. Then there are drugs. And there are gangs. Bullying. Suicides. The exigencies of fashion. There's acne. Anorexia. Ecstasy. There's Aids, and lesser ills. All this we know because we read about it over our morning cornflakes. It must be hell. How do these kids bear it? Who, after all, would be 16 again?

To find out, I asked 16-year-olds themselves, and I was surprised time and again. They are so very clear in their opinions, "Definitely," they say. "Oh, yes, definitely, definitely." And they're moral, with a developed, if sometimes idiosyncratic, sense of good and bad, right and wrong.

Were they economical with the truth? Would you blame them if they were? They have a right to their secrets, and doubtless their accounting to their friends is rather different from their accounting to the Independent. Your mates are so important at this age. It is in them, more than parents or siblings, that they confide. And with what urgency! Mobile speaks to mobile, for no thought can be left for many minutes untelephoned. Everything must be endlessly discussed. They were all conscientious about school work, citing GCSEs as the biggest pressure.

All but Michael had easy, open relationships with their parents. Boys and girls had equitable friendships, they valued each others' company. As for sex, if they're at it like knives, they give no hint of it. If you were looking for something to worry about, you might point to incipient alcoholism (most admit to drinking; some not wisely but too well). On the whole, though, their views and attitudes are heartening. In an age when we tend to demonise our kids, it was good to meet them and to talk with them. It was also, for me at least, a lesson.

`There are pressures - it's always at the back of your mind that someone might pick a fight because you don't look right'

Edward Butler (left) lives in the village of Ingatestone, Essex, and has just passed 11 GCSEs, which he took at the Anglo-European comprehensive school there. He lives with his parents, elder sister, Zoe, and brother, Luke, 15, and hopes to do A-levels in economics, history, and computer studies or art history, before going to university.

Since I've turned 16 I've calmed down a lot. We used to go to pubs and drink as much as we could for the sake of getting drunk, but now it's much more to relax. We're not meant to drink alcohol, but nobody challenges us. I drink beer, I don't like spirits. In a couple of years' time we can start going into clubs, but at the moment there's a lack of things to do. We go to the cinema in Chelmsford, but it gets a bit repetitive. We've had a fair few parties lately. We've been celebrating finishing our exams and our results. Nothing can quite prepare you the lead-up to an exam. All this work looms, and you've got to do well, to be able to do A-levels and go to university. It gets really heavy.

There's a group of boys that are close, then there are girls we socialise with. Nothing serious ever happens. I've fallen for girls, but in a casual way. I enjoy girls' company. They're easier to talk to about some things, they know what you mean and can answer you better. Guys do take you seriously, but they have their own problems. I don't see how people of my age could raise a family, but I do think they are responsible enough to choose to have sexual relationships.

I know if I wanted to talk to my parents, I could, but I'm a person who likes to keep things private. They're very easy-going, but they worry about me. They need to know where I'll be. If I was staying at someone's house, they would want the phone number. But they know I won't come in at a stupid time.

They do fund me. I have pounds 60 a month and apart from that if I had no money, they'd give me some more. It mainly goes on nights out. I don't smoke. Of course, I've tried it, but I don't see the point. I know a lot of people who do cannabis, and I haven't seen any bad effects from it, but I'm completely against hard drugs.

There are so many social pressures these days. You have to look a certain way, and it's always at the back of your mind that someone might pick a fight because you don't look right. The whole school gets on, there's no big gangs or anything, but there is pressure to fit the part. I don't especially like clothes. I like to look fashionable, but that's as far as it goes.

I'm happiest when I can forget about everything and have a laugh with my friends.

Jenni Simpson (above right) lives in Kidbrooke, south-east London, and plays bass guitar with the Llama Farmers. Her brother, Bernie, 18, sings, and is, she says, `like my best friend'. She attended Thomas Tullis co-education school and she has just passed 11 GCSEs. She has taken a year out to tour with the band, and has doubts about going back to full- time education.

I'm really, really pleased I did well in my exams, but it's just for myself, really. I'm already doing exactly what I want to do with my life. I just thought I'd see how things went in the summer holidays, but it's been brilliant. We've had record labels interested, we've been meeting with label representatives, and we practise every day. Next week we're travelling up to Glasgow, then Nottingham. We've got some skanky Transit van, very rock'n'roll, and we stay in B&Bs. We've done lots of festivals, we did Glastonbury, Reading, T in the Park in Scotland, and one down in Bude. Glastonbury was amazing - playing to a packed tent.

The band is my social life. You have a good time, and you work, and get paid, so you couldn't ask for anything better. I do have a boyfriend. We've been seeing each other for a couple of months. He's in a band as well, and he comes along to the gigs. What's weird is when you go and play a gig, you're signing autographs and stuff, then you come home and have to creep in so as not to wake mum and dad. I'm still in touch with my old classmates, and family life is just as it always was. Me and Bernie are quite good around the house. We do the the laundry and washing-up, but neither of us can cook, so that's our parents' job. They think what we're doing is fantastic. They knew this was what I always wanted to do, and that I take it seriously. They come and see us perform all the time.

At the moment I'd say that I won't go back and take A-levels, but it's difficult to tell because this could go really well, or it could all go horribly wrong. I have no money whatsoever. At the moment I've got 40p. My parents help, but I try not to push it with them. I smoke now and then, but it's too expensive. And I drink, yes. When you're doing sound checks there's nothing else to do. Nothing heavy, though. And I think drugs are completely uncool. That's just my personal opinion.

If I can just play the music I enjoy playing, and make a living, that's the perfect lifestyle. I don't want to be fabulously rich, and I'm not bothered about being famous, or everyone knowing my name. I'd just like to have respect, really, for the band. My only fear is of it all suddenly ending. I'm happy. Sorry if that's boring.

`I had about five Long Island Teas and fell in the pool. Everybody in our generation drinks quite a lot'

Hortense Sheppard (above right) lives in with her parents in Victoria, central London, and is a boarder at St Mary's, Shaftesbury. She has just passed nine GCSEs, and hopes to do A-levels in English, history of art, and art or history. She would like to go to Edinburgh University, but has no career plans.

For my gap year I want to go to Africa and teach little children, but I don't want to get paid or anything. That would kind of defeat the purpose. I'd like to go with a friend because I'd be a bit disorientated on my own.

My girl friends are important, but I think I get on better with blokes. At school, you get kind of bored with the bitchy comments, although generally we get on really well. At exam time everyone gets so competitive, it's like, "Got to work, got to work." It's terrifying when you realise you've got to do GCSEs. I didn't want my parents to be ashamed of me for failing. Now I've got my results, but my father isn't very pleased with my grades.

I do enjoy school, but I think I'll enjoy it much more next year, because I'll be doing the subjects I enjoy, and sixth-formers have much more freedom.

Money goes quickly. I get pounds 80 a month, but I can spend it in two days. I don't spend a lot on clothes. I spend it on taxis coming home at night, because Mummy doesn't like me walking.

My mother locked me out once, not on purpose, she just thought I was already inside. I was with a friend and I was so upset. We ended up sleeping under Tesco's for about three hours. I thought, "From now on I've got to be really nice to homeless people because I know what it's like." And for about a week I gave them pound coins and everything. Then I thought "Hang on, why should I give my money away?"

Smoking takes a lot of my money. I smoke too much, I think, but a friend lives in Gibraltar so she brings me duty-free, which are cheaper. I tried to get a job this summer, but it didn't really work out. I applied to French Connection, filled in the form and everything, but they didn't get back to me.

I've kind of got a boyfriend, I'm seeing someone at the moment, but I don't really like him that much. I think I have been in love once, but it didn't last very long. He was quite nasty to me, so I just kind of forgot about that. I don't think that sex and drugs are a great worry. If you don't want to do either, you don't have to.

I definitely have to lose weight. I went to Majorca this summer, and the friend I went with is so skinny, I was thinking `Oh, my God, I'm just going to get anorexic.' I didn't eat much the whole week. We drank Long Island Tea - that's coke, gin, vodka, lots of spirit, tons of stuff. I had about five of them, and fell into the pool. I think everybody in our generation drinks quite a lot.

I'm much more independent now, and don't spend a lot of time at home. We go to Oriole's, a cafe on Sloane Square, or to Henry J Bean's for lunch. And in the evenings we meet up at the Rat and Carrot off the King's Road. The King's Road is the place to be.

I'm worried about not getting a job when I'm older, and that I'll be like some bum who doesn't have any money and is on the streets. I remember when I was little, I always wanted to be nine. Now I'm 16. It's all just flown past. Suddenly, the end of school seems closer and closer, and you're getting more and more scared, because school seems so safe.

I always wanted to be an actress. I don't want to stay like this boring person that no one's ever heard of. I want people to say "Wow! Hortense Sheppard." But that's not going to happen.

Ghemisola Ikumelo (left) was born in Nigeria but grew up in Newham, East London. She took 10 GCSEs at Plashet School for Girls, and plans to study English literature, sociology and performing arts for A-level. She lived for a time with her father, but now lives with her aunt and four older cousins, aged from 22 down. She successfully auditioned for the National Youth Theatre, and has been performing in a play called `Kissing Angels' at the Edinburgh Fringe.

In primary school I wanted to be a lawyer. But we did a Nativity play, and none of the girls wanted to be Mary because that would mean having to kiss a boy, so I said "All right, I'll do it." After that everyone said "You were so good", and I thought "I could get used to this." I loved to be the centre of attention. Then, in secondary school, I started taking drama as a subject, getting encouragement from my teachers, and seriously thinking this was something I could do.

My cousins are nice to me. If they're going out to a restaurant or something, they'll always take me with them but most of the time we stay in and cook, because we all cook well. In the culture I come from, girls tend to be brought up to cook and clean. The chores get split pretty evenly. If there's dishes lying about I'll wash them, if the room's a tip I clean it up,

There's no one to say to me, you must do this, you must do that, but common sense tells me what time to come in and what not to do. I can appreciate people sometimes wanting to drink, to be social, but why just drink to get pissed? Then, if people want to smoke, that's fine, but just don't do it around me. A lot of my friends from school are Asian, and their parents do tend to be a bit strict about going out clubbing and things. Nigerian parents are a bit the same, so we don't go out much, just to the cinema, or we talk on the phone. Clubs aren't really my thing, anyway. I just love sitting there watching movies. All the old musicals. I'm a bit sad like that.

I don't think I've ever been in love. I'm a bit of an unromantic person. When I see my friends crying over boyfriends I say "Get it together, it's just a guy", but I suppose if I was in love I'd probably understand.

I still sometimes worry that acting is such a tricky business to go into. You might be working for six months and then be out on your ear, with no source of income, so maybe I'd be better off doing something like law or psychology. But at other times, especially during shows, when you're around people who act, who love it so much and are so confident about it, you just think why the hell not? I'm not sure about going to drama school because they are quite expensive and it's so hard to get into them, whereas if you have a degree, no one can take that away from you, can they?

Because I don't live with my parents, I get a Giro. I don't get paid for this show, but I never really find myself stuck for money, because there'll always be food in the house.

I'm happiest when I'm doing something with my life. I could never see myself sitting doing nothing. I just love doing a live show like this, there's an adrenaline rush. I definitely want to see my name in lights. I want to be on Broadway. But I'm also a bit of a realist - I know that after the show I'll have to go back to school, get my head down and start studying again.

David Cohen (left) lives in Wimbledon with his parents and his younger brother, Nick, 14, and goes to King's College School. He did 10 GCSEs, is a year into his A-levels in physics, chemistry and IT, and is about to turn 17. Eighteen months ago he told his parents he was gay, then he came out at school. Since he was six he's dreamed of being an airline pilot.

British Airways takes people from 18, so I'm going to apply to them, and at the same time apply to university. Then, if I get into BA, brilliant. If I don't, I'll do a degree, then try again. Everyone takes exams very seriously, especially at my school. It's very exam-orientated. They give us every pass paper known to man, and we analyse them. It's an excellent school, though. I get very little abuse. I came out in November, December. I was doing media stuff for Stonewall [the gay and lesbian campaign group], so I went to my headmaster to ask him. He said "It's fine, that's excellent, and if you ever have any problems with bullying, come and see me, because we take it very seriously." You think about coming out, and plan it, then it happens in a way you didn't expect. We were talking about what we did at the weekend, and I said, "Oh, I went to GAY", which is a nightclub, and the obvious question followed.

I came out to my parents when I was 151/2. They said "Are you sure? Maybe it's just a phase." They were concerned that I was pigeonholing myself. But they've been fairly supportive. I can come home whenever. My parents worry a bit, but they just say "Be careful." They're concerned about drugs, although I've never taken them. I've never even smoked a cigarette. I drink vodka and coke.

I get an allowance of pounds 100 a month, and I have a summer job at the National Sports Medicine Institute, which is great. I have more freedom than I had a year ago. Before I came out at school, I would go to clubs at the weekends, and I was almost like a different person. Now I've managed to reconcile the two halves of me.

I've had a couple of boyfriends, but only one serious relationship. I thought it was love, but looking back, I'm not sure. I was 13 before I could put a name to it, but I think I've always known I was gay - or known something. If, at 16, you're old enough to have sex with a woman, marry, have a job, why can't I choose to have sex with another man? It should be my personal choice. I wouldn't have unsafe sex, it's just crazy.

During school time I go out just at weekends, or in lunch breaks. We'll go for a coffee. I'm addicted to the stuff. Double espressos from Costa's. My parents buy my clothes. It's wonderful if my mum's in a good mood, we'll go shopping. I love shopping. Leave me at 8 o'clock in the morning, and you'll have to tear me away at closing time.

When am I happiest? Well, in a gay bar or gay club with friends. Or in front of the computer. I'd like it if I could have someone, just to be there, to do all the things you would do with a partner. But not more than a best friend, if you know what I mean.

Michael (right) comes from south London and has a younger brother and three younger sisters. He is living in the Centrepoint medium-stay hosteI in Vauxhall. He expects to be there for up to eight months, and is planning to go to college, to take nine GCSEs, before taking A-levels in art, science and computing. His ambition is to have his own architect's practice. At 16 he has no automatic right to benefit - just one of the anomalies of being very young and homeless.

Earlier this year, my mum threw me out of the house because she said I was a bad influence on the younger kids. I was getting into trouble at school, getting into fights. She did warn me, but I didn't think she meant it until she told me to go.

At first I slept at friends' houses, but in the end I had nowhere to stay, so I slept in the park. The weather was foul. I was very shocked, I couldn't believe this had happened. I had come away without any of my clothes. I'd go back and my brother and sisters would let me in when my mum wasn't there, so I could get some of them. I went to friends for money. I didn't have the confidence to ask strangers. I didn't meet anyone else sleeping rough. In the end, I got in touch with the Home and Away Project, who referred me to Centrepoint, and they sent me here. Now I can start to think of the future. I want to be an architect and I might work abroad, in Florida, maybe. My favourite building is the Empire State Building.

I left school before I could take my GCSEs. I did find the subjects interesting, and if I'd worked harder I'd have got my exams, and I wouldn't now have to be going back to do them. I've certainly learnt from this, I know my mum does love me, it's just her way of making me see sense.

When I was at home, I used to read, play video games. I played basketball, I also worked in an electrical shop at weekends. Now, here, I have my own room, I can read, it's starting to feel like home, and I'm making new friends. My only worry is finding myself out on the street again.

When am I happiest? When I'm sleeping.

If you leave home at 16 you are seen to be `at risk' (as, indeed, you are), and the law says you should be returned home. In England and Wales and Northern Ireland, you must have your parents' or guardian's consent to move out. If you have problems at home, and are contemplating leaving, you can ring Childline for advice (0800 1111). Centrepoint publishes a valuable free booklet, `The Leaving Home Guide', for any young person in this situation. Write to Centrepoint Central Office, Bewlay House, 2 Swallow Place, London W1R 7AA, or telephone 0171-544 5000.

`She did warn me but I didn't think she meant it until she told me to go'

Kitty Brennan (below) lives in Brentford with her mother and her elder sister, Bea. Her parents are amicably separated. She goes to Chiswick Community co-ed state school, has just passed nine GCSEs, and has been playing the piano since she was six.

I'm definitely doing art and photography for A-levels, then it's between theatre studies and music. I'd quite like to go to the London College of Fashion, but then I'd miss out on university, and I would like to do a performing arts degree. I know acting isn't a good choice because it's so hard to get into, but it's just so tempting. I'd love to be famous.

And I sing as well. All my friends are really musical. We were going to make a little band, we sorted out some chords and riffs and bass lines, but it just never happened, it was really sad. We will do it eventually though ... It would be such a nice thing to do. I also quite want to be a make-up artist on films and TV. I've done some work experience and really enjoyed that. I was an extra in a film called Us Begins With You.

Although I'm quite good friends with girls who go to single-sex private schools, they're definitely more sexually advanced, they don't know how to be just friends with boys. I seem to have loads of friends who are boys - like 50/50 boys and girls. Not many of my friends are dating. There's 15 of us, and no one's got a steady boyfriend. We mostly go to clubs, or down by the river and have a few drinks. I haven't been asked for my ID card for two years now. On Wednesday I went to the Leopard Lounge in Fulham Broadway, but I like to go out quite locally, because you see friends you haven't seen for ages. I know loads of people go out to pull, but I've never done that.

I do get some pocket money, but it's never really been fixed. If I need something, I'll get money from mum. I've worked in a hairdresser's, and I do ironing, babysitting. At the moment I'm doing reception work in a hairdresser's, and I sometimes work with my dad in Portobello market.

Mum hasn't given me too much freedom, or too little, it's been just right, really. I think she knows I'm on the right track, so she doesn't feel the need to lecture me. Like everyone, I've tried smoking, but I don't smoke. And every 16-year-old has tried ganja or marijuana, but I wouldn't do it as a regular thing. I don't get drunk that much either, except on holidays and things, and almost every other weekend. I'm not a beer or wine person, so I end up spending my money on spirits. I got really pissed on vodka and Red Bull in a club the other night. That was nice.

I don't do much around the house. We used to have a lot of rows about who did the washing-up, so now we're hiring a dishwasher for pounds 3 a week. I tidy up sometimes, if my friends are coming over, and my room is always tidy. Mum will come home and say "What have you done today?" I say "I tidied my room" and she says, "Yeah, well, that's for you. What have you done for me?" I was quite stressed out during my exams, because I'm a last-minute person and I hadn't done enough revision, but I haven't been really depressed for ages.

I'm happiest when all my friends are there, and I'm that little bit tipsy, and everyone's in a good mood. Things get ruined so easily. Boys get into fights, and the police come, and that spoils the whole evening. I had a really good time at my birthday party. It was at Janet's Planet. It was a joint party with my friend, and I had to lie and say I was 18. When you've got all the feel-good music, Seventies stuff, and you can sing along ... yeah, I have a really nice life.

`Things get ruined easily. Boys get into fights and the police come and that spoils the whole evening'

James Pope (left) lives in Wimbledon with his parents and two younger sisters. He goes to Harrow and has just passed nine GCSEs. After A-levels he hopes to go to university. He has no set career plans.

I can only say good things about Harrow, because it's got amazing teaching, and it's broadened me in every way. It's not only schoolwork, there's a whole lot of out-of-school things to do. Sports. And acting. I love acting. I've had a couple of small parts in school plays. We did a funny thing where we all played women putting on a production of Macbeth. The more I do it, the more I enjoy it, but I don't think I want to go to drama college. I'd like to do A-levels in English, history, Latin and theatre studies, get qualified and take it from there.

I think I'll take a gap year. I want to travel, but with a purpose, not to do that typical public-school thing of just wandering off to India or somewhere. I'd like to make something useful of it and maybe learn a European language. My uncle lives in Vienna, and German, I think, would be very useful. Or I could work in Paris, learn French.

I get an allowance of pounds 40 a month, and to supplement that I've been working as a temp in the City. It's called being a "para legal', but it's just boring stuff like photocopying. I choose my own clothes, but I don't have to buy them out of the 40 quid. I don't buy that many clothes. I don't much like shopping, it doesn't really appeal to me.

I like seeing friends. Playing chess with my granny in the garden. (She's living with us for a bit.) If I ever want to go out, I've got a friend at school who knows the right parties and things, he'll tell me where to go. The school gives you more freedom, the older you get. But when you're living in a set routine, it all seems to fit. By 10 o'clock it's lights out, but you're absolutely knackered, anyway. I think it's a lot easier to say you don't fit in than to try to fit in, but in the end it's worth it to try. I do respect the limits on me - although I'm not sure my house master would agree.

I haven't fallen in love yet, although of course I've had crushes. "I love you" is a big thing to say to someone. You'd have to know them fairly well. When you're with a girl, you don't have to think about sex the whole time. I'd much rather feel I had girl friends and boy friends. I definitely value female company, although I'll never understand what goes through a girl's mind.

I don't smoke. I've been in a pub occasionally. Everyone feels under pressure from what their friends are doing, and I wouldn't say I was immune to that. Things like what your friends are wearing, who they're going out with, what they think of other people ...

There's a lot of hard things about growing up, a lot that's daunting, knowing that there's so much to do, and so many choices to make. Leaving school, getting a job, leaving home, these are big changes. But I do feel privileged to go to Harrow. I'm very lucky to be there, and I appreciate being given those opportunities

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