Immediately before I started writing this, I went on to my town’s community Facebook page. It took approximately one minute to find what I was looking for. A discussion filled with comments on how the young people are a “disgrace”, that they’re filled with “the usual excuses”, and how they shouldn’t “wonder why they get a hard time”.
Maybe I am slightly biased – I am a young person, after all. Now, a well-meaning adult might remind me that I don’t smoke or drink, have never littered, and have managed to go the entirety of my teenagerhood without being seen in a tracksuit. That I volunteer in community groups, that I am an activist, that I get good grades and have nothing in common with those “hooligans” who consider themselves to be gang members, who drink in the park and litter and break things and have become exiled from their community. But I do have something in common with them. I went to school with them.
And here – right here – is one place where we were let down. In the rough-carpeted, scratched tabled, yellow-walled halls of our schools, some of us got let down. You may as well, as Einstein said, have pitted fishes and cows against monkeys and squirrels to climb a tree, because not everyone is going to make the race for those A’s and H1’s, and nobody can tell me about how “not everyone wants to try” because some of us were let down long before the Junior Cert. Children have a natural will to learn, a need to learn, and that has been stamped out by the time they reach secondary school. I can barely remember a time before I was pegged as a gifted child, and that means that there are children who found themselves, as soon as standardised testing came into their lives, falling behind. And then they reach secondary school, and without proper support, fall through the cracks and act up, but instead of being supported they are punished, till they begin to skip school, and drop out when they can. They’ll hopefully find a vocation, and that, that right there is where you may see these young people thrive. When they are finally given support.
Still, they leave school at the end of the day, and where do they go? They become the community’s so-called enemy. They’re not going to do homework or study, why should they do that? It’s not like they’re worth anything in school, or so they think. I could write a whole other piece on how our education system fails the young people of Ireland, but that’s for another day.
The community’s enemy. I was recently talking to a fellow Girl Guide leader from a neighbouring unit, who was telling me about the teenagers in her town. They used to hang out outside the community centre, in plain sight, before a Mosquito alarm¹ was installed to deter them. She was as disgusted by this as I was. Where, she pointed out, will they go now? At least down by the community hall, they’re safe. Now the only place they can feel welcomed is in the woods, with ledges and uneven footing and no lights, where they face more danger to themselves than they’ve ever posed to the community. She told me that, to her, it seems like her generation has forgotten that the young people are part of the community too, and not against it. I in no way condone some of the more violent or disruptive acts done by some young people, but adults should stop using these people as an excuse to hate an entire generation, and should instead look at how they handle these instances.
The young people of Ireland deserve places to hide out that aren’t the forest at night. I’ll preach this till the day I die. I’ve preached it to teachers and TDs and everyone in between, and I’ve heard and seen first-hand how having a youth space, a safe space, can change a young person’s life. Teens who went from drug addicts to youth workers. LGBT* young people who only found the courage to come out within these spaces. And people like me, who’ve been able to travel, make dozens of new friends, and, more recently, to become a leader to dozens of younger girls, and watch them grow and learn, and become inspired. And these spaces exist, they’re out there. YMCA, Foroíge, Scouts, and my organisation, the Girl Guides. But there is a flaw in these, and that’s availability. There isn’t an organisation in every town, and some that do, suffer from a lack of spaces. There are three thousand girls on waiting lists for the Irish Girl Guides. These organisations need volunteers. They need funding.
Another thing young people need is their parents. I recently watched a TEDx talk by Roy Petitfils titled “What Teenagers Want You To Know”. The answer was simple: teenagers want to be seen and appreciated by adults, especially their parents. Children and teenagers alike need their parents to talk to them, to listen to them, to be there for them. To see them as people in their own right. Parents need to understand what influence they have over the lives of their teens, and to learn to use this influence in a constructive way. Some adults will complain about and shun those who get drunk in fields and forests, but not see how they’ve always surrounded these people with a toxic alcohol culture, where “just one more” is synonymous with a good time.
The truth is, though, you can’t expect one parent to sit down and be the sole guide in a teen’s life. They have friends, they have teachers, they have the mass media, the internet, and they have entertainment. It takes a village to raise a child, a nation, even, and that nation needs to stop making the young people its enemy. We need more resources to help parents and teachers alike start a conversation with their kids about alcohol and safety and more (while remembering to not be pedantic or lecturing), we need more safe spaces for teens to hang out and just be teens, we need to really examine our education system and see how we can reform it to support all students, not just some, and we need to make sure that these young people are welcomed in their communities, that they are seen by them for all the right reasons.
It is no secret that, when supported, teenagers can do incredible things. And I’m not just talking about the big names, like Malala Yousafzai, and Emma González, and Greta Thunberg. I also mean teens closer to home, who live in our communities, and many of whom I’ve been lucky enough to meet over the years. Young people like Alicia Joy O’Sullivan, who has represented Ireland at climate summits in the United Nations, like Eboni Burke, an education activist who has worked alongside President Higgins in his youth campaign, and like Ciara-Beth Ní Ghríofa, who turned her own experiences living with autism into in app² which is bringing hope to children with autism, and their families.
Teenagers are changing the world. And we, as a nation, need to look at how we are treating them, all of them, and not just the ones we like, the ones like me. We need to look at the ones we are forgetting about, that we are dropping, that we are endlessly criticising without construction. We need to look at how we treat them, and learn to do better, so nobody gets left behind. Trust me, your life will be so much better for it.
¹A machine that emits a high-pitched noise that only young people can hear