This afternoon I took a bike ride through my local woods. The trees were zinging with fresh life, clouds of cow parsley were nodding in the breeze and my brain was clearing of its accumulated junk. Until, that is, I cycled up to the swings in the middle of the woods. Four teenagers seemed intent on wrecking them. On the opposite path was a male dog-walker and we both launched an attack on them pointing out that the swings were there for children, and not for them to vandalise. Eventually after we threatened them with the police they cycled off, waiting until they thought they were safely out of earshot and then shouting obscenities at us.
My serene mood had vanished in an instant to be replaced with blood-boiling rage. My son plays on those swings. But what made it worse was that these were quite clearly kids on exam leave from doing their GCSEs. Judging from their attire and general demeanour they were from the nearby aspirational housing estate, rather than the, also nearby, council estate.
The one upside was that when I said that the ‘swings were for small children and not morons with small brains’ (I know, hardly Shakespeare, but I was cross) one replied saying: ‘What are you talking about? I don’t have a brain’. Seriously, you couldn’t make it up.
I cycled off, incensed. I’ve taught enough teenagers and read enough social analysis to know that what they were doing was motivated by boredom and self-esteem. I also know that everyone always has a reason for doing things, and that you have to try to see both sides of the story. In their minds they were probably kicking back against ‘authority’, in this instance, manifest in council-provided swings, as a way to rebel in a small way against the school and exam system that had kept them cooped up on a lovely sunny day as they had to write an English essay.
By giving them a flea in their ear, myself and the dog-walker had punctured their aspirations to self-esteem, hence their attempts to regain it by shouting after they’d cycled off. What made me feel uncomfortable was the gulf that can appear between what in theory you know you should do and what your gut instinct tells you to do. My gut instinct was to round on the kids. What would have been more advisable would have been to challenge them calmly while allowing them to retain some element of their self-esteem. Either that or video it on the quiet and share it on Facebook, safe in the knowledge that at some stage, in this small town, their mums would have seen it eventually.
It’s easier in principle to approach a subject from an intellectual distance than it is to actually apply it in practice.