Alex Featured


A story about growing up.

Today, I turn nineteen.

It isn’t a particularly important age for most people, I imagine; the afterburn of an eighteenth year full of change, from school to the real world (or halfway there, at least), from a child to something resembling an adult. I guess that turning this age also holds a lot of that for me—more than anything, Covid has led to this year being an even harsher cacophony of ups and downs, often in quick succession, and my birthday marks nearly a year since it all started. In my case, though, nineteen holds a certain significance. To explain that, I’ll need to tell a story about a friend of mine.

Lyon House, 12/02/2019.

A lot of you will know his name, but that’s not important: for the purposes of this, I’ll just call him J. By all means, I never actually knew J very well; when I joined my senior school aged thirteen, he was in his final year there. He seemed to have everything: he was Head Boy, captain of the school’s first-ever undefeated rugby team, and a living legend around campus. But what always stuck out to me was how despite all of his achievements, he was incredibly humble and down-to-earth—seeing him daily in our close-knit boarding house, he would never look down on us, the youngest in school (as most older kids, out of pride or perhaps insecurity, tended to). Sure, we never felt like equals, exactly, but more importantly he made us feel like we mattered; knowing he’d been at the forefront of pushing greater mental health awareness in school over the years, we all knew that if we ever had a problem, he would always be there to listen.

My memories of the guy are mostly pretty positive: I remember watching him charge down the rugby pitch in the final match of the season, fearlessly acting as an Eastern European maid in our house play (though the cast’s abilities were questionable, you will never see as many penis jokes in a single 90 minutes in your entire life) and screaming at the latest twist on Game of Thrones on a Monday night. As a kid, I never really got to see the other side of him: I am not sure that many did (though looking back, most of our house, at least, seemed to somewhat know). Hearing about his death, then, came to me as an incredible shock.

It’s as if it were last week, or maybe a month ago: the afternoon remains crystal clear, imprinted in my mind. It had been announced in the morning that the whole school was meant to meet later in the day: which, for a Thursday, happened to be pretty odd. I knew it was serious, obviously (this kind of thing hasn’t occurred before or since), but had absolutely no idea what was coming. At athletics that afternoon, I discussed the affair with my mates while (pretending to be) training our triple jump in the lazy, English summer sun: we decided another friend of ours had probably been busted for drugs (he’d been searched that morning and, turns out, had somehow managed to get away with it). Nonetheless, we thought, a whole school meeting would be a bit overkill, and so nobody was really sure what was going on—we should have taken the news that one of his teachers had been seen in tears that morning as a warning sign.

An ominous mood hung over the school as the Headmaster stood up to speak. He kept it brief: he announced that earlier that morning, he had heard of J’s death while on a gap year in Vietnam. He didn’t tell us how it happened: my naïve, fifteen-year-old mind wouldn’t fill that bit in until later. While I don’t recall his exact words, I can still feel the punch to the gut that I sensed the whole room, especially our house, most of whom had been living with him less than a year before, take as the news hit us; I remember the eerily silent, ten-minute walk back to our boarding house, as sixty boys tried to come to terms with their friend’s death; and I remember us getting back, collapsing onto the various benches that had been assembled outside to greet us, and crying, unable to believe that someone we looked up to and cared about like a brother could be so suddenly and unexpectedly gone.

He was nineteen years old.

Lyon House, 27/5/2016.

I mentioned before that me and J didn’t have a very close relationship. Given our ages, that was inevitable, really; while being in his house meant I knew him better than most, it’s not like we were best mates. What he did represent for me, though, was a role model. When he was at my school and in the years after he left, I looked up to him immensely; when I was that age, I thought, I wanted to be something like him. Sure, I never made Head Boy, and I was nowhere near captaining any rugby teams (never mind an undefeated season). But before and especially after what happened I was always determined to, if nothing else, try to live up to the way he inspired me, and instil that same inspiration in the kids who came after me. Because more tragic than the fact that I knew he would never be able to play another game of rugby, or see the end of Game of Thrones (although that was almost definitely for the best), was the fact that his memory would one day fade. I wanted to be a part of keeping it alive somehow, even if indirectly.

Looking up at J aged thirteen, I saw someone with the world at his feet. At nineteen, I feel just about as directionless now as I did then and I’m sure he felt nearly 4 years ago. But what’s changed is that we finally are, in a way, equals; today will be as close as I’ll ever get to seeing the world through his eyes. And in that respect, I think that my vision of his story, too, needs to change. After all, I’ve grown out of my school: my time at university has already had a huge effect on me, and starting to grow up has given me the chance to take a new perspective on the childhood I’ve left behind. Maybe now, the best way to keep his memory alive is not within some tiny country school, but beyond, in the world, by trying to change what led to his tragedy in the first place. By encouraging conversations about mental health. By deconstructing the toxic masculinity behind the struggles of him and those close to him in accepting his sexuality. By reminding people that any life, especially one as bright and inspirational as his, never deserves to be thrown away. While that’s a big ask, one I could dedicate my entire life to and still not achieve, making a difference starts with the small things; I guess that this piece is one of those.

Today I turn nineteen, and as I grow older, I realise that his is a story that I don’t need to hide behind anymore (people who have known me long enough are sick and tired of it, at this point). Nineteen is where his story ended. But mine hasn’t: I am determined to make it a force for good, in the memory of him and so many, too many, other victims of male suicide. Being a man is more than simply masculinity: looking back, I see that J carried that message, from the rugby field to the boarding house to the stage and beyond, and if nothing else, he passed it on to me. I intend to live by it. If you’ve made it this far, the most important step that any of us can take is simply to check on your mates. We, I, don’t do it enough; it’s always “what’s going on?” and never really “how are you?” And even if they’re fine, I promise that even being asked can make a world of difference—knowing someone cares about your problems does so much to lighten their load. Again, it starts with the small things; but if we can change even one person’s day for the better, every day, it stacks up. When you feel totally alone in the world, the reminder that even one other person is there with you can be all that you need.

Like all of us, J faced many challenges in his life; though he responded to all of them valiantly, in the end it was the battles inside of him that became too much to bear. I can never fully understand, but today marks the closest I’ll ever get to it—I want his memory to help me make change, however small. And I know that if I, or you, can make a difference in at least one story like his, he will be looking down with pride.

Lyon House, 10/06/2016.


If you can keep your head when all about you   

    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

    But make allowance for their doubting too;   

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   

    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

    And treat those two impostors just the same;   

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

    And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   

    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

    If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

-Rudyard Kipling

All images used are from the King’s Bruton Flickr, where they can still be accessed:
Though they feature my likeness (go have a look if you missed me), they are not owned by me. All credit goes to King’s, their rightful owner.

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