The Polite Rebellion of our young Kiwi school leaders
Eighty-four school leaders offer a snapshot into a generation for whom social media and social issues demand they try to change the world. Photos by Lawrence Smith.
When Jed Melvin charges up the rugby field, ball tucked under his arm, his features are staunch, determined. It’s the physical side he loves: ‘‘Body on body, just getting a hit in.’’
Flick through his Facebook and Instagram profiles and this is the side of the Orewa College head boy you’ll see. Athletic, confident, playing sport, laughing with mates.
Jed is one of 84 student leaders from 48 schools across Auckland surveyed about their lives, goals and fears for
Polite Rebellion –a Stuff investigation into a generation of school-leavers.
They grew up online. Adults might use social media, they say, but older generations just can’t understand what that constant pressure and connection really means.
They may not be willing to give up digital technology – they can’t, really, it’s their entire cultural currency – but they’re acutely aware of the toll it’s taking. For these teenagers, the stubbornly high suicide rate isn’t just another grim statistic. It’s personal.
Several of the surveyed students say nearly all of their peers have experienced mental health issues; 85 per cent say they’re ‘‘very concerned’’ about mental health and youth suicide and the remaining 15 per cent are ‘‘somewhat concerned’’.
After seeing his mates grapple with their mental health, Jed knows what a what a difference it makes for young people – especially guys – to have someone to talk to, and he wants to be that person.
The 17-year-old plans to be a part time youth worker next year as he juggles an engineering degree and a burgeoning rugby career.
Climate change and the environment is another of their biggest worries – 41 per cent say they’re very concerned, 52 per cent are somewhat concerned and seven per cent are neutral.
They’re also nervous about leaving home. Only 26 per cent see themselves living in Auckland long term. Many anticipate having to leave the city they love and have grown up in because there’s no way they’ll be able to afford to live here.
While they say they love Auckland’s diversity, many say casual racism and prejudice is an issue in the city.
These young leaders are prepared to tackle the things that worry, intimidate and scare them. They’re acutely aware of the prejudice, inertia and ignorance that threatens their futures. And some of them are angry.
Theirs is a modern insurgency. They’re more likely to organise online than in the streets. They will win arguments with reason, rather than rage. Theirs is a Polite Rebellion.
Papatoetoe, South Auckland has been Tuitofa Aloua’s home for all of her 18 years. The area’s diversity has always made her feel accepted, she says. As the head girl of Papatoetoe High School, a member of the local church youth group and a representative on the Otara-Papatoetoe Youth Council, she’s a leader whom young people in the community look up to. But having earned a Pacific Academic Excellence Scholarship – and a spot in the University of Auckland halls of residence – she’s about to leave home to study health science. While Tuitofa is a high achiever, she’s concerned about coming up against Auckland’s racist underbelly – that she might not get the same opportunities as her Pakeha peers. ‘‘Where I come from, my identity, might be a barrier,’’ she says.
Orewa College head boy Jed Melvin, 17, says a culture of comparison fuelled by social media takes a toll on teenagers’ mental health. And what’s making matters worse is that older people are silencing his generation. The young rugby player wants to encourage his peers – especially guys – to speak out about mental health.
Jesse Tuhaka, a student leader at Ormiston Senior College doesn’t yet know who she is. ‘‘I’m scared of being an individual because a lot of what I do is guided by my parents,’’ the 18-year-old says. ‘‘My parents, my job and my school expect a lot from me. I have to work to find how to balance that so I don’t, you know, explode or something."