This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…
Confession time: I was a truant. In my final year of school, I was rarely there after lunch on Fridays, never at “study periods” and would just randomly leave school at other times.
Attempts to discipline me weren’t very successful, largely because I ignored them and also because I was passing everything, as well as being engaged in other school activities.
Truth was, I wasn’t an “entitled little snot”, or a “loser”. I was really unhappy. My parents had separated. I had peers who were struggling with various issues and a very close friend who had suffered a big loss.
I was miserable and I didn’t know what to do about it. Obviously I made it through. It took me a few years (and eventually some therapy) but despite what Fraser High School Principal Virginia Crawford might’ve predicted, I’ve never been to prison, been raped, been unemployed, committed or been a victim of domestic violence, committed suicide, or had serious health or drug problems.
What I wanted, now I reflect on it, was someone to ask if I was okay. To see past the willfully disobedient, sharp tongued persona, and offer to help.
I wanted someone to listen. Not talk at me.
Admittedly, this was nearly 25 years ago now. And I was also fortunate enough to go to a high decile school in a white, middle class area. I had opportunities and resources available to me.
But even then, if my headmaster had stood up at an assembly and told me that as a “truant” I was likely to end up failing at life – not to mention being raped and abused – unless I bucked up my ideas, I would’ve walked out too, and joined the protest.
Now I have no doubt that Virginia Crawford meant well when she tried to point out what truancy can lead to. And she certainly has had plenty of support for her “tough love”-style speech: albeit from rather predictable quarters.
But when are we going to wake up and realise that yelling at kids who are struggling is not only unhelpful, it’s dangerous?
How many of the 137 young people, under the age of 25, who died by suicide last year were told exactly the same things Virginia Crawford said by the caring adults in their lives?
How many of those 137 were called “losers” and “entitled little snots”?
We, the adults, the teachers, the headmasters, the parents and even the broadcasters and newspaper columnists need to shut the hell up and stop telling young people what’s wrong with them.
We need to stop trying to scare them into obedience.
We need to shut up and listen.
Because telling students who are struggling that their lives are going to get worse is not only ineffective, it is depriving them of hope. And without hope, why would anyone turn up to class and strive for a better future?
Or indeed, dare to believe they have a future at all.
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