As a kid, I was never out of the headmaster’s office. Not because I was a troublemaker…well, not in the bunked-off-PE-to-drink-vodka-outside-the-Spar way, anyway, but because I was forever “starting a petition”. Once every few weeks the poor guy would have to stifle his eye rolls as I declared “I’ll stand, thank you” when he would ask me, patiently and politely, to take a seat so we could talk things through like rational human beings.
Of course, I’m talking predigital here. If I’m honest, I’m the one guiltily stifling eye rolls at some of the petitions I’m asked to sign now by faceless, outraged fellow internet users. Then there are other petitions that I can’t sign quickly enough. (There’s a lovely piece here by Brie Rogers Lowery of Change.org detailing some wonderful petition success stories.) So the grown-ups have taken the predigitally-started petition ball and run with it, but where are the kids’ voices?
What seems odd today, is that the average, small-town, working class kid – like the one I was – doesn’t seem interested in the idea of petitions. They have a “what’s the point/no one will take any notice/they’re only going to do it anyway/you’ll just look stupid” attitude towards them. Some kids took that approach when I was an outraged teen too…but a lot didn’t. Usually, once I’d approached my peers with a scrappy piece of A4 in one hand and pen in the other, and explained what I was doing and why, I’d let them lean the paper on my back so they could add their signature to the wobbly columns I’d hastily drawn up. It brought hugely disparate groups of people together: the Spar vodka swiggers and the library geeks were united in their belief that girls should be allowed to wear trousers to school, for example. (I’m that old.)
They’ve simply become so used to going unheard that, to the average kid, the idea of effecting even the tiniest of change seems ridiculous.
It just doesn’t seem to happen now. My teenage daughter has a huge Twitter following and talks with like-minded folk about feminism, culture misappropriation, sexuality…you name it, she gets stuck in there and battles the trolls for what she believes in. When girls were banned from wearing crop tops on non-uniform day, she and her school friends were angry. Not because they wanted to make any kind of fashion statement, but because they were told they would provide a distraction; it was “inappropriate” wear. They were being sexualised. Proud of her indignation, I saw my opportunity, “Petition! Don’t stand for it! Raise awareness! Let others know why this is wrong!” I was met with resignation. “There’s no point. It’ll just be a hassle. They won’t listen. It won’t make any difference. People will laugh at us. We’ll just look stupid.” This didn’t feel like apathy, though. They’ve simply become so used to going unheard that, to the average kid, the idea of effecting even the tiniest of change seems ridiculous. The cons outweigh the pros. “People will laugh at us.” That makes me sad. How times have changed.
What needs to be done to make children feel as though they have a voice? Perhaps I’m a fine one to talk. Like many other teachers, I’ve recently walked away from the profession having become utterly beaten down by teacher bashing and the feeling that I couldn’t make a difference; the new “rigour” curriculum simply wouldn’t allow me to. I do wonder if this is what’s stopping kids from thinking for themselves. Are they being squeezed empty to be filled with rigour?
We, the “little” people, need to know that it’s worth making ourselves heard even if we don’t get listened to. But it won’t happen if we allow ourselves to become too easily ignored, too easily quashable. Let’s encourage our kids to bring back the school petition! Whether it’s arguing the case for being allowed to wear nail varnish to school, or something much bigger such as tackling the use of homophobic language, encourage them to speak up and, importantly, tell them it’s OK if they lose some battles. Most of my petitions were ignored by the people who had the power to change things, but some weren’t. What mattered was that people felt they had a voice. So the stifled eye-rolls, the defeats and the occasional laughter at our causes were always worth it, because when we were angry about something, we knew how to channel it, and we worked together to try and effect change.
Kim is a writer who enjoys celebrity gossip a lot more than she lets on.