The kids are al­right, but make sure by be­ing part of the con­ver­sa­tion

Irish Examiner - - News - Noel Baker

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.

Pic­tures: Jim Cough­lan

Mary Crilly of the Cork Sex­ual Vi­o­lence Cen­tre speak­ing at the town hall-style meet­ing on the Is­sue of con­sent at Coláiste Choilm, Ballincol­lig, Co Cork, yes­ter­day.

Louise O’Neill told the stu­dents: ‘I think they are afraid of you. They know that you are the fu­ture.’

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