Voices from the class of 2020: ‘We are flying under the radar’

The pandemic brought school-leavers uncertainty but also space in which to grow

Eoin Kelly, Elizabeth Osikomaiya, Jack Goodman, Tara O’Sullivan and Amy Birmingham, who were all due to sit their Leaving Certificate exams this year. Photograph: Alan Betson

Eoin Kelly, Elizabeth Osikomaiya, Jack Goodman, Tara O’Sullivan and Amy Birmingham, who were all due to sit their Leaving Certificate exams this year. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Elizabeth Osikomaiya was “buzzed” about the prospect of schools closing for a few weeks in March, as “sixth year was driving me crazy”. Little did she know they would never be back.

She feels the class of 2020 has been “floating about” ever since and “nobody has the answers” to what their immediate futures might look like. She understands the Government has been preoccupied in coping with the pandemic, but “a lot of things are happening to youth right now and it’s like we are flying under the radar”.

“Hear us a bit,” Elizabeth, who wants to study politics and law, pleads on behalf of teenagers everywhere. For the 60,000-plus students like her who were due to sit the Leaving Certificate, it’s hard to feel they have actually left school.

“I wanted to be dressed up in my school uniform and crying with people I thought I would never cry with. I wanted that; I wanted to rip up my uniform; I wanted people to sign my shirt. I didn’t get that.”

It’s like running a race that you never complete. “The race is finished, but you never got to cross the line. You don’t get that feeling of being done.”

As teenagers were cast adrift from school and all the routines, friendships and supports that go with it, the Soar Foundation was concerned too many of them would disappear into dark rooms, “getting lost in video games and box sets”, as chief executive Mark McDonnell puts it.

A non-profit organisation that aims to help teenagers grasp life at the most exciting but challenging stage of their development, Soar believed it was dangerous if there was no outlet for the pandemic-induced emotions racing through young minds. It created a #groundedforgreatness platform on several social media channels, including YouTube, on which some could voice their emotions to normalise a range of feelings for many thousands of their peers.

McDonnell feels strongly about how blaming teenagers – supposedly “for endangering lives” according to some headlines – has been rife both in social and mainstream media. Little attempt has been made to understand what it’s like at their age to be living through a pandemic. “That’s adults comparing a 17-year-old’s reaction to a 57-year-old’s reaction to what is happening and I think that is really unfair.”

While the class of 2020 got attention for a while, that was “probably for an adult purpose – it was discussing exams”, he points out. “I feel we haven’t stopped and listened and heard from teenagers about what their experience is in all of this. And also to look to them for solutions.”

Elizabeth Osikomaiya says any “blatant racism” she encountered growing up was generally from the older generation. Photograph: Alan Betson
Elizabeth Osikomaiya says any “blatant racism” she encountered growing up was generally from the older generation. Photograph: Alan Betson

Elizabeth, who contributed most eloquently to one of those sessions, Time to Listen, dealing with racism in Ireland, says  that when she found herself “over-thinking” everything during lockdown at home in Lusk, Co Dublin, she tried to do more.

“I do not run for no one, but during this quarantine I was doing jogs and a half. I thought I was going to run like Usain Bolt because I had nothing else to do. I have been cooking, baking – failed attempts at everything. I bought a sewing machine and made my own clothes – they were not nice,” she roars with laughter.

She was more creative with her writing, mostly poetry, as she had the time to “intrigue myself”. She didn’t really miss socialising with friends as “I had access to them”.

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th and the ensuing awareness-raising through the Black Lives Matter movement “set a spark in my generation”, says Elizabeth, who has talked to friends, and in the Soar session, about her experiences of being Nigerian Irish.

Any “blatant racism” she encountered growing up was generally from the older generation. “I can kind of understand that, especially as I am first-generation Irish and they are just getting used to that.”

Among the younger generation “it is more subtle”. If she calls people out on it, she finds herself being accused of being too sensitive. But if she stays silent, prejudice will continue unchecked.

Yet, she has always felt she could not be too emotional or she would be labelled “as an angry black woman, which is already a stereotype. I always felt I had to keep myself in check.” Her parents warned her about the need to keep her head down “because they are concerned about my safety”.

“It’s like this cycle that is unbreakable – either you talk out or don’t talk out, and either somebody else is going to get the backhand of it or you’re going to get the backhand of it.

“I know nothing aside from Irish culture – yes, I have African influences from my parents, but I was born in the Coombe hospital and I have been in Dublin my whole life. I am comfortable here, but then there’s a day and I get a sudden reminder that I shouldn’t be, or they don’t want me here.” It hurts, she adds. “If you want to hate me, hate me for me, but don’t hate me for something I have no control over.”

Here are a few more voices from the class of 2020 about a summer of living with the fallout from the Leaving Cert that wasn’t.

Getting time to mature

Amy Birmingham: “In work I began being myself and it felt freeing and I really enjoyed it because people did actually like me for me.” Photograph: Alan Betson
Amy Birmingham: “In work I began being myself and it felt freeing and I really enjoyed it because people did actually like me for me.” Photograph: Alan Betson

The reopening phases have been “really difficult” for Amy Birmingham (18) in ways she never expected, having been “really happy during lockdown”.

At school, in St Peter’s College, Dunboyne, Co Meath, she was always thinking people were looking at her and she would be wondering what they thought of her.

“It was definitely a nice relief to get away from what I thought was judgment, but it wasn’t really, it was just me being, I suppose, insecure.”

Having struggled with mental health issues since she was 16, she was determined to use lockdown to work on herself. She also got loads more work done at home than at school where “I would be always talking”.

When it was finally decided the exams would not be held, “I remember sitting there and crying. I was so frustrated because they had told us it was going ahead – all this work and then they said they weren’t going to take into account the work we did during lockdown, I was just so upset about that.

“I think the challenge was who was going to put the work in when nobody was telling them to do it and nobody was looking?”

#GroundedForGreatness

However, within 24 hours of that announcement, a very welcome distraction was an unexpected call from a local Spar inviting her to an interview and she ended up getting a job there. She finds it easy to sit and do nothing “and when you’re sad that’s the worst possible thing you can do. You just let your thoughts get in on top of you and start to get overwhelmed.”

With a job, “I had to get up and get on with it. It kind of taught me that if you’re feeling the whole world is against you, life goes on.”

What’s more, she is enjoying it. “I really didn’t like school at all because I always thought I had to be a certain way for people to like me, which was really just all in my head. In work I began being myself and it felt freeing and I really enjoyed it because people did actually like me for me.”

Amy has found the return to socialising with people at Gaelic football training much more challenging. It’s a sport she has taken very seriously since childhood and which, inadvertently, sowed the seeds of a binge eating disorder.

She was on the under-14 Meath team and, after hearing warnings about eating junk food, “I had the idea in my head that if I did not eat healthily, I would not be good at football. It started out quite innocently, just me eating more fruit and vegetables.”

But “one summer I ate nothing but vegetables every day and obviously that is not healthy”. She had counselling but going into CAMHS at age 17 for cognitive behavioural therapy proved to be the turning point. “Ever since that, I have felt I can deal with things a lot better.”

Yet, returning to the Meath minor team this summer, she had the feeling of being sucked back into her 16-year-old struggling self, rather than “the me I am now. I am finding that very difficult and that is the thing that is getting me really stressed.”

She had a relapse a few weeks ago but thinks it was almost a “self-test” of how far she has come. “That’s done and I moved on. I don’t rely on my eating disorder as a way to cope anymore.”

The Soar Foundation, which she first encountered at the age of 16 during a transition-year workshop at school, has “played a massive role in my recovery”, she says. “During that particular workshop, I came out to everyone, I said I was gay. That was big.”

She had come out to a few people when she was 15 but not a wider circle.

She was invited to join Saor’s new Hustle programme, part of which was a weekend in a very remote spot in Kiltegan, Co Wicklow. “It was the best experience of my life, I made so many friends.”

Not being able to choose what she could eat, she recalls feeling she had no cares in the world. “I remember one night just laughing and laughing, I literally couldn’t stop. I knew in that moment that Soar is the thing that is going to end up helping me, a lot.”

She went on Tinder during lockdown, “not with a view to really trying to meet up with someone. I only adopted that mindset a few weeks ago.” The day we talk, she is planning to go out with somebody she met online – “We’ll probably go get coffee or something”.

Hoping to study social work at college, she is relaxed about how the first year may go. The big gift of lockdown, she adds, was time – time to mature.

‘Gradually it has got better’

Jack Goodman: “I got a bit more confident and I’m not really sure why.” Photograph: Alan Betson
Jack Goodman: “I got a bit more confident and I’m not really sure why.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Jack Goodman (18) should have been in Malta with friends the day we speak, but he isn’t fretting about all the post-Leaving summer plans going awry. They didn’t lose money on the hotel booking and he’s optimistic about getting a refund from Ryanair. “I am happy enough, we will do something eventually.”

Meanwhile, he is glad to have a summer job, at a law firm where he had done TY work experience and which is near his home in Santry, Dublin.

For him, the most difficult period of the coronavirus crisis was “at the start, when we were trying to study from home and you couldn’t see anyone. When the Leaving Cert was cancelled it felt like that was pointless and that was hard as well. “I think it might have been harder on girls because they seemed to work too hard at home and then, when it all came to nothing, they were all very disappointed.”

The biggest challenge for him mentally was not being able to see people face to face. “I couldn’t remember what it was like to be out with some of the people because they are just very different online.”

He’s in a relationship but they waited until June 29th before they felt comfortable meeting up properly again. They had seen each other before that but were social distancing until then.

He has attended social events in recent weeks, such as birthday parties, where numbers have exceeded the recommended limits but he was able to sit outside. “You have a level of responsibility to yourself to keep yourself safe,” he says. “I was at a party, there was a lot of people there, so just two or three of us walked down to the Chinese to get out of the house.”

Does he worry about contracting the virus? “My family think I am quite cautious. I worry about when I go to visit my grandparents, I wouldn’t want to go into their house or sit in the car.”

Overall, life’s “a lot easier” than when schools first closed and he is seeing benefits from the whole experience. At least, “I am now. I wouldn’t have been saying all this at the start; gradually it has got better.

“I think I have grown a good bit and able to cope with things better over the time. I got a bit more confident and I’m not really sure why. We’ve had time to grow ourselves.”

Having more time to think was “probably a bad thing at the start but over time it ends up being a good thing”.

With psychology and law being his first and second college choices, he wasn’t sure about the idea of predicted grades at first but after a week or two he was happy enough. He reckons he can trust his teachers at St Aidan’s College to be “fair enough”.

When the results come out on September 7th, 19 years to the day he was born, he is hoping “it will be a good birthday”.

‘I’m just moving on’

Tara O’Sullivan: “Within lockdown it was easy to follow the rules, no temptation ever.” Photograph: Alan Betson
Tara O’Sullivan: “Within lockdown it was easy to follow the rules, no temptation ever.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Doing the Leaving Cert had been a “certain thing” in Tara O’Sullivan’s life for as long as she could remember. And then it wasn’t.

The weeks leading up to the May 8th announcement that the Leaving Certificate exams had been cancelled and replaced with predicted grades were “awful”, she recalls, “the height of the stress”. When, on the eve of the announcement, Irish Times education editor Carl O’Brien reported that this was what was going to happen, she didn’t want to know.

“It was official but not official and I was actually so mad. I was like ‘I don’t want to hear or read anything until it’s official . . . no, no, no’.” She wasn’t satisfied until she had sat and listened to the entire government press conference on the Friday.

“I know what they mean when they talk about student mental health. I was just walking around the house, crying at any given moment and really not thriving. But time heals, it is what it is, I can’t change it. I’m just moving on.”

Before that, she had had to cope with seeing her father hospitalised for six days with Covid-19. “Maybe it was kind of childish and naive of me but, in my mind, I was, ‘He’s going to be fine, he’s a healthy person.’ It did stress me out looking back on it, but I wasn’t letting my brain go there.”

A part-time job in a convenience shop is keeping her busy. “It’s easier to compartmentalise and distract yourself when you have something to distract yourself with.”

Tara has great faith that her teachers at Loreto on the Green will give them the best grades possible. Law and politics in Trinity College is her first CAO choice but thinks she will more likely get Business, Economics and Social Studies.

In what was supposed to be the summer of her life, “there is a sense of limbo”. She misses feeling part of something, with no school and extracurricular activities, although she is back playing lacrosse.

There is also the uncertainty of reopening. “Within lockdown it was easy to follow the rules, no temptation ever. I think it’s getting harder and harder for me to take this as seriously as my rational mind knows I should.”

While “I am always wearing the mask on the bus and that kind of stuff”, part of her wonders should she being doing more, such as avoiding going to town at all costs? She is trying to stick to “less variety of people” in socialising, meeting up with roughly the same 10 people all the time.

Politically, she believes teenagers are in a “weird” space, as adult voters have more clout. She felt Leaving Certificate students were a priority for the Government for about two weeks. However, “it really didn’t feel that good – all it meant was it was in the news and everybody thought they had an interesting thing to ask me about.”

She believes it’s important the voices of young people are heard, not because they know better than adults but for diversity. “Young people don’t know more – they know different stuff and when you put it all together, it ends up being more. If you want to know about young people’s lives – ask young people.”

Youth leader

Eoin Kelly: “I have to say we are not in the worst place.” Photograph: Alan Betson
Eoin Kelly: “I have to say we are not in the worst place.” Photograph: Alan Betson

This was shaping up to be a great summer for Eoin Kelly (18) from Baldoyle, Co Dublin: after the Leaving he had a job lined up as a cinnire (youth leader) in the Donegal Gaeltacht and then was to represent Ireland in the Ultimate Frisbee World Championships in Sweden.

The consolation prize now is going to Galway for a few days with friends. An only child, he missed having a sibling during lockdown but “I was in contact with my friends, so it wasn’t that bad”. He thinks some of his peers struggled.

“You’d see them wanting to meet up more, even when we weren’t allowed, just because they wanted to see people, which is understandable.”

Even now, spontaneous socialising is difficult. “You’re wary of what you’re doing all the time and where you’re going and how close you are to other people; it’s tough.”

He is glad to be back playing matches at Naomh Mearnóg GAA club in Portmarnock where it’s his first year on the senior team. “It is something where we don’t have to social distance either, which is good.”

Having been to Zambia last summer with his school, St Fintan’s High School in Sutton, they have heard since how people there are struggling with the pandemic, “all cooped up in slums”. This has helped give him perspective.

“I have to say we are not in the worst place,” says Eoin, who is hoping to study biological and biomedical sciences at Trinity. “We’ll see what the teachers do,” he adds wryly.

Finally, like a number of the others, he feels sorry for the fifth years, who have lost so much time and face an uncertain sixth year.

Maybe it is time now for the sympathy for the class of 2020 to be passed on to the class of 2021.

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