“Yesterday is a cancelled cheque, tomorrow is a promissory note, today is the only cash you have – so spend it wisely... ”
A disembodied voice recites this Kay Lyons quote over the tannoy system at Boyle Community School in Trim, Co Meath. But it's doubtful if the more than 700 students milling between classes are paying much heed to what's part of the routine school soundscape.
The Shona Project
However, in one classroom, 22 first-year girls are filing in for an uplifting message of another kind, from a fresh voice who's here in person. Tammy Darcy commands their attention from the outset as she bares her soul about how her life imploded at the age of 14.
Firstly, her parents announced that they were separating, news that “came out of nowhere” for Tammy: “I had never seen an argument.”
Soon afterwards, her 15-year-old sister Shona became seriously ill. Tammy had been out walking with her on a hill near their home in Passage East, Co Waterford when Shona sat down and said she couldn’t walk any more. “I thought she was being dramatic”, the way sisters can be, she tells the listening girls. But, after repeated efforts to get Shona moving again, their father had to be called to carry her home.
Before long, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour, which had to be operated on. It was then that Tammy lost her beloved big sister – the surgery left Shona with both physical and mental disabilities and needing 24-hour care.
Finding herself at rock bottom and vulnerable, it is perhaps no coincidence that Tammy then became the target of a school bully – a third, devastating turn of events, all during her second year at secondary school.
A bully finds the things to get a reaction from you. They are so powerful they can control not only what you feel, but what other people think about you
“Maria” was a girl Tammy used to hang around with, sometimes bunking off classes together. When Tammy, a previously high-achieving student, decided to pay more attention to school work again and distance herself from Maria, her so-called friend turned on her.
To avoid Maria’s taunting, she would spend “every break time and lunch time in a toilet cubicle reading a book”, she says. She would climb over the school’s back wall at the end of the day, to avoid Maria who would be waiting for her at the front door. “A bully finds the things to get a reaction from you. They are so powerful they can control not only what you feel, but what other people think about you.”
But, of course, Tammy has since learnt that “hurt people, hurt people”. She wondered what had become of Maria and explains how a trawl through social media showed no trace.
However, Tammy did track down “Roseanne”, a girl she herself bullied in school.
“I wanted to take that lack of power out on somebody else,” she says, revealing herself as a classic bully-victim. She urges the girls in the room to be kind to one another over their six years at school together and – equally important – to be kind to themselves.
These are the sort of insights she wishes somebody had given her at 14, she explains as she plays a video clip made by motivational speaker Brooks Gibbs, showing how not reacting to a bully can stop them in their tracks.
Tammy is running this workshop for the first-year girls under the auspices of the Shona Project, which she founded in 2016. It's named after her sister and has a tag line, "the survival kit for girls".
“I am very much driven by those times I was going through when I was 14,” she tells Health + Family afterwards. “Looking back, I lived so much of my teenage years in survival mode.”
What would have helped, she believes, is being told that negative emotions are not life-altering, they are just a reaction to events. She wishes somebody had explained to her the importance of kindness, being open-hearted and supportive and not competitive with other girls. “That would have been transformative,” she says, as would enlightenment about the concept of goal setting, sticking with things and “the importance of having extra-curricular ways of expressing yourself because that’s where you channel the frustration”.
She considered herself to be a “bad kid” in school. “That was the label I ended up with because I was acting up, bunking off, disrespecting myself.” Low confidence and poor self-esteem led to bad decisions. “Nobody took me aside during those times and said ‘are you okay, can I help you?’ That is where I went wrong. I was just surviving and kind of gave up. I didn’t think I was smart enough or worthy of going to college. I didn’t have a strong role model. Nobody told me I could or I should.”
These are the sort of insights she wishes somebody had given her at 14, she explains as she plays a video clip made by motivational speaker Brooks Gibbs, showing how not reacting to a bully can stop them in their tracks
A short, motivational video by rap artist Prince Ea about regrets of people near the end of life was a highlight of the day for one of the students present
In that frame of mind you’re “looking for somebody to fix you”. She had a baby at 18 and was then working in nightclubs. “I thought that was my life.”
But starting to go to college by night at age 25, to study for a degree in human resources management, was a turning point, as was forming a new, good relationship. She has since completed a Masters in business management in social enterprise and is in the process of completing another MA, in education.
Challenges for young women today
It’s 25 years since personal circumstances combined to derail Tammy’s life, but she believes today’s generation of 14-year-old girls have never had it so hard and that they are really struggling, as evidenced by the current “anxiety epidemic”. Many schools say second year is often when girls run into difficulties.
“You have your hormones hitting; you are meeting new friends; you are starting to think about your sexuality; you are using social media more; you’re getting messages from society about what the role of being a girl is and what you have to live up to and you’re reminded a thousand times a day that you’re not reaching that standard.”
Her concern is that “if these girls are not supported through these teenage years, they are not going to be equipped or able for womanhood, to make smart decisions”. They think they have to look a certain way and that if they haven’t got the lifestyle of YouTubers and Instagrammers, they should just give up. “So many feel they have failed even before they have reached 18,” she says, whereas she wants them to understand they are all works in progress.
Another massive pressure, she says, is the new conversation about the rules of engagement around relationships and consent. While the social norms are changing for the better in this regard, Tammy, who now has three children, aged 20, 13 and 10, believes there is less of a connect “between my generation of parents and this current [teenage] generation.”
She quotes the view of a psychiatrist who told her recently that for Tammy’s generation of 14-year-olds, the strongest attachment was still parent-child. Now it’s peer-peer but it has gone from that to peer-phone-peer. “Not only are they not having the same conversations at home, they’re having them with their friends, but they are having them through devices. It’s a massive challenge and we don’t know what the repercussions of this yet are. And we can’t help them.”
You have a unique and very responsible role of potentially being the only role model they have
While she acknowledges that both boys and girls have specific challenges, she decided to target “the ones I can understand because I lived through them”. In addition to the core workshop that Darcy delivers, tailored to the age of her audience, the Shona Project encourages participants to follow their social media, which focuses on self-empowerment and aims to be a different kind of “influencer” in girls’ lives.
The idea for the Shona Project began to crystallise when Tammy was coaching girls at a Co Waterford soccer club. She realised very quickly that girls and boys need to be coached differently. “Girls really internalise things. The girls coming to soccer, for so many of them it’s an hour a week to get out of a stressful situation. You have a unique and very responsible role of potentially being the only role model they have. So, you don’t make it about the soccer or the match; you need to work with girls to figure out how to encourage them and bring out the best in them.
“I would coach girls who were talented soccer players yet they would come off because the stress of playing a match was just too much for them. They were terrified of making a mistake; they were terrified of letting each other down.”
These were girls from all different backgrounds, she says, but anxiety about not being good enough seemed to afflict them all. “I find you go into a room full of women and you will very soon be putting yourself – and be put by them – on a hierarchy based on what you look like, how thin you are, who you married, what you work at.”
Comparisons are rampant among mothers too. How did your birth go? Did you breastfeed? How quickly did your jeans fit you again? Does your child sleep through the night?
The cycle begins early
The cycle continues from a very young age and it’s something she believes males don’t go through in the same way. It’s why she urges girls to support each other, rather than tear each other down. “There is always a queen in every class. There is always somebody who has the power. Unfortunately, a lot of the time that person uses that power in a negative way or has a negative influence.”
During the workshop, the girls are given a sheet on which to write an anonymous promise or apology to somebody. Although they’re a quiet group, they seem comfortable channelling their voices through writing and Tammy reads some of them out.
"I am sorry for saying you're ugly."
"Sorry I was rude because of what's going on at home and in my head."
"I'm sorry for sitting back and watching you and others get mistreated... on bad days, I would join in."
"I am proud of you, it's tough to write things down," says Tammy, adding that if there's a girl in school they're not getting on with, "even if you don't want to apologise to her, just say, 'hi' next time you see her".
Tammy was able to take a year's leave of absence from her job at Waterford Institute of Technology last September, after receiving a grant from the Social Enterprise Development Fund. The award has enabled her to expand the Shona Project, with the help of a voluntary board and 30 "brand ambassadors" aged 16 to 24.
Having worked with more than 5,000 pupils in nearly 50 schools around the country, she gets a view of teen girls that parents rarely have. So, what is her advice to parents?
“It’s kind of an obvious answer but it really is to listen to them. I personally feel every family should have a certain amount of device-free talking time every day. Because if your kids are going through a hard time and talking to their friends, it’s when you’re talking to them face to face over dinner that you will see that.”
As a mother of a girl, she also thinks it’s good to encourage daughters to do things such as journaling, or a creative activity, or sport. “So many parents, when it comes to exam time, think they should cut back on those activities but it’s so good for their mental health.”
Tammy’s parting gift to the first-year girls as they troop out to break time is a purple rubber wristband, on which is embossed “I am enough”.
It’s a lesson many of us still need to learn decades after leaving school.
WHAT THE GIRLS SAY...
Two third-year girls at Boyle Community School who took part in the Shona Project workshop more than 12 months ago believe it had a significantly positive effect on their year group.
"We were more friendly to each other," says one in an interview with Health + Family. "We didn't get on in first year and then we started talking more."
"I thought it was very good," says the other. "I took away a lot of the stuff she had said. I thought it made a huge impact on a lot of the girls because you could see after the talk, the girls started understanding each other more."
At this co-ed school, where boys outnumber girls by about four to one, she agrees that the female cohort of the then second year became friendlier towards each other. “We realised we were all different but got along with each other.”
Now, with their Junior Cert only months away, both say they are anxious and agree that boys don’t seem to suffer in the same way.
“I worry about just keeping up – that I am doing enough work and putting in the effort,” explains one.
Two of the first-year girls who have just come out of the Shona Project workshop are a little more reticent. The first reaction among most of them that morning was, one admits “yay, a free class”. But it “was pretty informational”, she says.
Asked what she would remember afterwards, she says the goal-setting exercise and how they had to analyse the first step they had to take to achieve it.
For the other girl, a short, motivational video by rap artist Prince Ea about regrets of people near the end of life was a highlight. And while she said she didn't have much to write on the "apology" note, she listened with interest to what others wrote.
A fifth-year member of the student council who sat through the workshop as an observer says of the first years: “They were really good. I didn’t think they would be so honest.”
In common with other fifth-year students at other schools, she sees how life experiences seem to be crowding in on children at a younger and a younger age. She believes that fact that first-year students have started social media so much earlier than her peers – even though they are only four years older – has had a significant impact.
Members of her peer group would, generally, not have started drinking until at least third year, she adds. Now she knows some girls and boys are experimenting with alcohol at 12 or 13. “It’s rough.”