Teenagers don’t want to stand out from the crowd. We all know that besides parental example, peer influence is one of the key determinants of the world view of a young person. If our friends and peers see educational attainment as something to be valued then we are more likely to aspire to the same. If education is seen as a joke, something to be avoided at all costs then only the very determinedly studious, independently minded young person is going to thrive amongst that influence. Lynsey Hanley was one of those independently minded individuals, and perhaps ‘thrive’ is taking it too far, but she listened as best she could in her working class comprehensive in Birmingham, amongst the mocking of her peers.
Lynsey Hanley is the author of Respectable, part memoir, part sociological critique of social mobility. She says that she thinks there were a number of things that made her willing to stand out from the crowd, and knuckle down. One of them was her love of pop music and popular culture found in magazines. Things like whip smart journalism of NME and the lyrics of The Pet Shop Boys led her to realise that there are choices and that leaving school early, getting married young and living round the corner from your mum and dad does not have to be the only option.
In her book she cites Learning to Labour by Paul Willis a 1970s study of working class lads in a Wolverhampton comprehensive in which he identifies a culture of resistance amongst the boys he observed – opposition to school is a badge of honour amongst ‘the lads’ who are well aware that no matter how hard they try, their station in life has been predetermined by their position at the bottom of the class structure in a capitalist system. When they do turn up to school they derive their self-esteem from their peers’ approval at their disdain for school. Lynsey Hanley says ‘the lads’ were in her class in 1990s Sollihul, they were in my mid Wales comprehensive and are still in schools up and down the country.
New Writing North works in a range of schools, professional artists and writers support young people to express their own ideas, often drawing on their own lives through the creation of poetry, script, songs and rap. We take time to introduce young people to artistic self-expression and to give them opportunities to continue to develop their talent or interest outside of school over the long-term. When interviewed about the project the same thing resonates amongst participants and teachers. That by expressing their own thoughts and feelings participants got to know their peers, that they are no longer concerned about people in their class laughing at them, rather they laugh with them.
“We learnt that people write things from their heart and why would we laugh at that instead of appreciating it. We laughed but we didn’t laugh at each other, we laughed with each other.”
Student, aged 13
“People don’t normally express their feelings, we have to keep it all in. But what we have in our minds is quite serious. We have quite big things. This project has released the pressure and we can take care of each other more now because we understand better.”
Student, aged 13
The creation of art requires authenticity and truthfulness, this is what our work encourages young people to express. Having the confidence to express your ideas, in a supportive group of peers, to risk ‘standing out from the crowd’ is a pre-requisite for being able to explore the choices that may be available to you, if you don’t feel able to express your ambitions out loud, how are you ever going to pursue them?
To learn more about Young Writers’ City, see our project page.