The Ugly Story about a Duckling

When I was eleven I asked Alan Deegan who was in my class to carve our names in a heart up high on a tree. Now I was so in love (in the eleven year old sense) that I thought ‘sure why wouldn’t we have our names carved on a tree’ that happened to stand like a leafy tower in a well-maintained hedge that separated the national school and the church. Back then (pre ‘stop & search’ & knife crime) boys in the country tended to have pen-knifes and so Alan, probably afraid to say no, climbed that tree, and etched our names together and forever. Well, that was the plan!

The next day I was wondering what the commotion was around ‘our tree’ until I saw some of the first class had drawn the principal’s attention to our names. Tell Tales!! Well, both myself and Alan were about to be ‘beheaded’ in an age-appropriate way. First off, the school ladder was brought out and I was instructed to hold it as Alan made his way to the top. And all the school were brought out to witness the undoing of the love etch. Yes, he had to scrape our names out of the tree. (Can you imagine an eleven year old climbing a ladder today in school?) Then we had to go to every class and tell them how we should not have done that. (My poor younger brother!) And finally Father Gilmartin was called in by the school. Yes, maybe a bit of an over-reaction! We were given a talking to by a priest who put the fear of God in God himself! But, to this day I don’t like anything etched into a tree or hammered – even those cute fairy doors. Why? Because whilst the principal might have over-reacted in the way he went about teaching us a lesson: it worked. I have a great respect for trees. Poor Alan, he barely managed all the attention. He was one of those boys whose cheeks went firey red if you looked at him. I found it so lovely but he probably was ashamed of it. We never spoke after that day! I found a respect for trees but lost my national school Prince Charming to a shared silence. 

The recent theft and selling of ducklings evoked diverse emotions and responses. There were the rational voices: ‘Cop-on if you are a parent of one of these kids!’ to ‘Sure they wouldn’t survive long anyway with their mothers!’ to ‘These boys are future serial killers!’ to ‘They are victims themselves of ‘nothing to do’. (Rolling eyes!)

So, let’s lay it out there and see can we figure out why in one case, a group of boys would steal ducklings away from very upset mother ducks and get on their bikes and whizz them through city traffic believing they would be famous with the video clip they were about to up-load! To add to the story, can we figure out why a group of boys would use their bikes to trip up women running for a train or to push one onto a line. The ‘figuring out part’ can tie you in knots of explanations and then throw you into a mental maze of disillusionment with life, where the only relief comes from those irrational thoughts of ‘that’s it, I’m moving to the Aran Islands’.

I recall writing an article on unprovoked attacks on the streets of Galway City. Interviewing young men who had jumped up and down on someone’s head (who agreed to be interviewed) was both stomach churning and insightful. The answers would start with ‘I dunno why I did it…’ to letting me in on tactics, ‘We would say the fifth lad with black hair would get it, to ‘They were weird anyway!’ Always find the ‘weird’ and ‘freak’ justifications interesting when one would question how weird is the act of intentionally setting out to hurt someone who you don’t know. The current Cornation Street story-line – based on the real-life death of Sophia Lancaster: a sweet and smart young woman who was engaged in a conversation by a group of young people who decided to kill her because she was ‘weird’ in their eyes, is a poignant reminder of how young people justify bullying, violence and even death. Weird being: she read a lot of books and didn’t do typical street wear but liked to be different. Oh yes, different! Why do some people have an emotional explosive reaction to difference?

Anyway back to the theft of baby ducklings and the boys with the bikes and on the bikes. You see, each of us have dealt with some sort of issue/issues as children, as teenagers, as adults but how many of us have taken the turmoil or hurt we felt and loaded it up to project it on to an innocent person or animal? How many of us have experienced complete boredom and gone out and knelt down by the canal and shoved ducklings into our pockets or  threw a lady under a train? Anger, hurt, frustration or boredom doesn’t explain these events. Choice does (unless their is a cognitive disability)! Every minute of every day we choose how to react, and yes, we often have knee-jerk reactions that might not always be justified but most of the time we go ‘sorry about that!’ SORRY! Another key word. Without remorse more ducklings will be stolen to die terrible deaths and more people will be victims of unprovoked attacks. 

So, how do we deal with the negative choices young people make? Is it too late? Not if you’re facing a toddler today who screams and screams and you can manage to delay gratification for his/her demand or even introduce the word ‘NO’ in a positive sense and show them  ‘it’s not the end of the world’ word. ‘No’ often means, ‘I care enough about you to not give into every demand’. You see if we introduce ‘No’ in nice ways like ‘Maybe another day’ or ‘Not for now’ or ‘We’ll see’ at a young age – the bigger ‘NOs’ will be more digestible as they get older. So, maybe if your son/daughter doesn’t get their way with a person who prefers not to have sex, they can manage ‘No’, and say ‘sorry, I understand!’ rather than sexually assaulting that person, or maybe when they hear the word ‘No, I don’t want you mixing with people doing drugs/dealing drugs,’ or ‘No, a duckling does not belong in this house and no, you won’t sell him for five euros!’ They’ll digest the ‘No’ with ease as they have had plenty of practice as children.

The truth is: guardians and parents are now afraid to say ‘No’ and it is that word deficiency in the family home’s vocabulary that has probably contributed to a lot of cruelty to animals and people. There is an insatiable, selfish, need gratification that develops that doesn’t do ‘No’ and it’s very ugly. It’s akin to a horror vacuum where no morals, empathy or compassion can grow. Attempts are made to fill it with activities and acts that don’t sit well with most of us. Yes, there are exceptions. I know of parents/guardians who did everything right and things still went belly-up! 

So, I guess this is where consequences come in: those implemented by bodies outside of the family home. When we tell the world that we won’t control our behaviour, that responsibility has to be handed over to someone outside of you. After all when young people choose to act illegally or cruelly, well there has to be consequences but not just with fines, or ASBOs, or time in a juvenile detention centre: there has to be some other remedy, one that helps intervene in this ‘choice behaviour’. Like the boy in Dublin who tortured a hedgehog and served no time. Why wasn’t he instructed under supervision to work with an animal charity for a number of hours. Empathy can be grown but not in a dark needy vacuum with no interventions. We have to intervene urgently with what exists in these vacuums of ‘I can do what I want because….’ The ‘becauses’ don’t actually matter because we are all products of ‘becauses’ and they might explain our emotional scars but will never excuse ‘scarring’ another because of them. 

I’ve come face to face with boys/young men cruel to animals and let me tell you, whilst my heart raced, and my head said ‘run’ – my heart stayed for the animal. And no, it doesn’t always work in your favour. But one time it worked. A pony was being beaten to move, by a few young lads. I happened to be there feeding as the horses/ponies here were eating weeds, bark, moss. So, I grabbed a bucket of hard feed and handed it to one of the boys. I got the usual ‘she doesn’t know what a bucket is or hard feed’ lines and yes, they were right but I said, ‘well, she is going to know now!’ I got him to give her some of the nuts from the bucket first and then got him to shake the bucket and walk ahead and the pony started to walk. I saw a glimpse of pride in that boy’s eyes and of course I left without my bucket and a bag of feed as they all wanted to try it with the other ponies. With a warning they would kill them with too much feed, one boy was put in charge of that. So that bucket and hard feed gave those boys another choice: not to just hit her to move but to shake a bucket. I’m aware that their old ways might always pull stronger but at least they were shown ‘another way!’ Three years later, last Christmas that passed, I was invited into a national school as a boy had something to give the sanctuary. I was given a drawing of a horse and twenty-five euros donation. The boy who handed it to me was one of those boys. 

The Ugly Duckling (the story) has a lot to teach us about not judging people by how they look and being happy with ourselves. The last few days has taught us more: there is nothing ugly about ducklings. There is simply too much ugly behaviour out there. 

I learnt at eleven, we can’t just go around and mark our names on beautiful trees, and the consequence of doing so thought me that valuable lesson. Lessons we learn as children often do last a lifetime. Lessons in empathy and respect will help lessen both animal and human abuse.

  • (please note, site where I fed has been reported to authorities many times & please ignore the lack of proofing… no time on the ranch! x)

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