The kids are alright, but make sure by being part of the conversation
The red, blue, and neutral stage lights shining overhead might have given it a theatrical air, but for the 24 students packed into the culturlann in Ballincollig’s Coláiste Choilm, this was real life.
The students were seated in a neat circle in the school’s drama room, deep in the bowels of the building, to listen to author Louise O’Neill and others speak on issues addressed in her novel, Asking
For It, which is soon to be adapted for stage at Cork’s Everyman Theatre and beyond.
But it was far from a oneway process. In what was styled as a ‘town hall’ meeting, the students from fourth to sixth year delivered a nuanced and comprehensive overview of life as they live it.
The school had been approached about the event ahead of the world premiere of the Everyman production next month. It fits — according to English and drama teacher Tim Burke, stage productions are central to the life of the school.
“We have more than 125 kids doing drama as an extracurricular activity,” he said. “It is like it is integrated into the life of the school.”
This was echoed in the drama room. Louise O’Neill opened up her contribution by recalling her own school days and how art and fiction can be an ideal starting point for discussing tough topics. She reviewed the genesis for the idea behind Asking For
It, a book that zones in on the issue of consent amid the harrowing story of a teenager raped at a party. Her father, she said, had told her on reading the proof that it would start a conversation, and she needed to be ready.
Mary Crilly of the Cork Rape Crisis Centre picked up the baton. “You are the people who really matter,” she said to the students, “not aul‘ ones like me. You can change things.”
She outlined the still shocking statistics regarding rape and sexual assault, how consent is “black and white”, and how victim-blaming needs to stop.
“The victim-blaming is what kills me.”
She said she was “sick of your age group being called liars — why? Because you are young? That is what needs to change.”
Martin Davoren of the Cork Sexual Health Centre remarked on the stigma that still exists in Ireland regarding sexual health and how any relationship needs to be driven by dignity and respect. This isn’t always easy in the dizzying digital world of social media. More than one student referenced screenshots and unkind messages or worse.
As Tim Burke had said beforehand: “We are aware of their digital lives. For this generation, things have moved on and it’s an ethical duty to educate them about the world they are entering into.”
Back in the drama studio, Hayley O’Connell Vaughan, a 17-year-old in fifth year, addressed the group and outlined how the world looks to her and her peers. “In all honesty, I feel as though I speak for the majority of girls my age when I say it is more than a little frightening,” she said.
“As a teenage girl, in this society, it can often feel as though one is walking a tightrope between self-expression and safety when it comes to dressing yourself. We are constantly reminded that it is, for some unknown reason, our responsibility as young women to dress ourselves in order to protect ourselves.
“Maybe if more importance was placed on educating young people on what consent really means and how important it is, I wouldn’t have to analyse myself in a mirror every time I step out the door or walk home in the dark with my keys between my fingers, maybe I wouldn’t be so afraid of stepping into womanhood in Ireland. But I am, I’m terrified.”
“Hayley,” said O’Neill, “will you be my best friend?”
One theme that emerged was the idea that whatever about good male role models, there also seemed to be a shortage of scripts that men were to adhere to as they grow up.
One lad argued that a gauge of a teenager’s worth is often reduced to how well they kick a ball. One female student said that in her view, it was not necessarily her grandparents’ generation that presented an obstacle to progress in terms of tackling issues such as sex education and consent, but her parents’ generation.
Others told of how their parents were massively supportive, advocating for their children’s right to speak up about the topics that concern them, like the infantilisation of their generation, the pejorative “snowflake” barb. O’Neill summed it up: “I think they are afraid of you. They know that you are the future.”
And they are. Even allowing for the fact that there were more than a thousand other students at the school going about their business elsewhere, yet almost certainly going through the same dramas.
But in a lot of important ways and as an old band said a long time ago, the kids are alright.