International Child and Youth Care Network
MOMENTS WITH YOUTH
Lately, after drawing (writing) a self-portrait and literally hundreds of sketches about my experience in child and youth care, I have been musing on several themes that seem to be undercurrents in many of my experiences. Inspired by my friend, colleague and mentor, Mike Baizerman, who did a lot of his own musing (see for example his column Musing with Mike in a dozen or so editions of the Child and Youth Care Forum), I try to ‘free associate’ with the goal of comparing my experiences as a youth, with what I thought in hindsight were the experiences of the boys I worked with. I do this with the belief that the major challenge in child and youth care is to understand, not to change or prove, as we are so often led to believe today. And musing helps deepen my understanding by exploring themes freely from several perspectives.
Here are some of my musings on waiting, anticipating, space and place, four themes that I have spoken about in earlier editions of this column. Please feel free to muse along with me:
Much of youth is about waiting. In my youth, I waited for someone to show up, to go someplace, or for something to happen. Sometimes I tried to make it happen; other times I just “hung out” waiting for it to happen. I would dream about and plan out the things I wanted to happen, a vacation up north, a trip someplace, a date, sex. Time passed so slowly when I waited for these things. I tired of waiting, stopped waiting and tried to make it happen sooner, which never seemed to work. Or I counted the hours thinking that would move things faster. It never did. I waited in the dentist’s office or for my father to come home on the bus. I wanted him to come but sometimes he didn’t. I didn’t want my turn with the dentist to come, but it always did. In the army reserves I hurried up and waited. I waited to be an adult, to drive, to grow a mustache, for the “one,” the girl who didn’t come, but whom I finally met when I wasn’t waiting. (Often the things that meant the most in my youth were not the things I waited for). I waited at the new shopping mall, I waited bored out of my skull, I waited, waited, waited.
The boys I worked with seemed to be constantly waiting, mainly for something good to happen. They had waited in fear based on a history of the things they waited for never really happening while something they weren’t waiting for did – rejection, abuse, the police, a slap across the face, sexual abuse, and failure. Yet they still waited and believed something good would happen. They would be saved, cared for, liked, admired, or famous despite the odds against it. Daniel, the boy in several of my sketches and my novel Floating, who is a composite of two boys I knew, waited wondering if he would be like his father while he waited for the chance to dance and show others his creativity. He tested and waited for me to hurt him. It took all my strength not to do what he was waiting for. His sense of waiting changed, slightly.
As I waited for my father to show up after work, they waited for their parents who never showed up, while my father always did, later sometimes, but he always came home. My mother was always there when she was supposed to be. I did not have to wait for her. Their mothers were rarely there when they were supposed to be. Yet they waited for them to “show up.” Even when their parents were there they waited for them to show up. Physically present their parents were often elsewhere, drunk, drugged, preoccupied, self absorbed, unavailable. The youth waited to be in their presence but no one was home. They were there but not present, around but not available, at least not in the way they wanted them to be, with care and concern for the boys and their wellbeing. Thus the boys waited for parents like the ones they thought other boys had – the parents who would never come because they did not exist. They made up parents so the other boys would think the parents they were waiting for were good parents.
These boys also waited for the system to help. Hour upon hour, day upon day they waited for someone, something to acknowledge them. They waited in line, for a placement with a good family, or for medical care. All this waiting drove them nuts. And still they waited, and simultaneously anticipated, as did I.
Like most youth, I anticipated driving my father’s car and having my own car, going up north, meeting a girl. I anticipated growing up, being free, and on my own, the days when I could do what I wanted whenever I wanted – or so I thought. I would drive away, go up north at the drop of a hat, and have my own money to spend on the things I wanted. I anticipated seeing a friend again, a girl I loved, having a cat, getting a bike, swimming, becoming a professional basketball player.
Gradually and more frequently the anticipation of the end of something took over from the beginning. For example, I would wait all year to go up north to spend time at a cabin on a warm inland lake with my family, then once I got there I would worry about (anticipate) the end. As I got older I became less and less excited about going, until I eventually would rather stay home with my friends. As a young man I drank and used drugs to stay in a place where the anticipation of the beginning merged with the anticipation of the end. Ultimately I would be let down because nothing lasted. It took me a while to get out of this and to learn to enjoy the moment, to just be without waiting or anticipating, a lesson of youth learned through experience that shaped my happiness and fulfillment as an adult. Now I have a place up north I can go to almost any time I want and just be.
The youth I worked with and try today to understand in hindsight, anticipated mostly bad things happening. Their dreams had been repeatedly unfulfilled. They had been disappointed time after time, got their hopes up only to be let down. So many of them began to anticipate these things happening and did anything they could to avoid the future. For many of them there was no future. Friends had been killed, parents jailed, the world witnessed and experienced as a violent short-lived place. Others wanted no future or past. They wanted now, because that was for the moment, the safest, least painful place. If they anticipated something bad would surely happen, and often it did. Limbo was a better place.
Like all youth, I often waited and anticipated in spaces and places where something might happen. I put myself where there was possibility. I was bored somewhere, positioned “just in case” (Baizerman, 1995, p 340) a girl I liked would show up or an older kid would drive by in a customized car and give me a ride. We might rumble, or tumble in these places, the park on the street corner. They built a shopping mall on a field next to a creek that was our ball diamond, and fishing place, replaced a place of excitement with something predictable, dependable, the same as other malls that followed. We found another place to do our thing. I sat on the shore of Lake Michigan and dreamt of being at sea, rode the train to the jazz festival in Chicago, which was like “another planet,” and hitchhiked to New Orleans, a place unlike any other I had been.
What I am is inseparable from these places, often places where I am waiting near water as in my fragment poems. They shape me, and the meaning I make of the world. I am the Midwest and New Mexico of my youth. The east side of Milwaukee, the duplexes and bungalows I grew up in. The horseback rides I took into the mountains.
My room is me. I shape this space and it shapes me. It is a predictable safe place, the room of my youth. It is also a boring place, a place of waiting, anticipating and longing to be somewhere else. Yet, I return, often, to “my room,” or the room that is me. Like others when I am away from home for too long I seek familiar places. I enmesh myself in the waters of home, the familiar walls, and long for the weather after a while. Memories are connected to these places and spaces as in the photos of my youth, learning on an oar, sitting in my father’s chair, looking like Ricky Nelson at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
I took two youth I worked with to thanksgiving dinner at Suzanne’s parents’ house. They did not know how to behave in this space and place. It was foreign, unfamiliar. Thanksgiving was not a place of happy memory for them. There had been no thanksgivings, at least not the way we remembered it, or if there was one it was not happy. They were not fed at thanksgiving. The trust that comes with being fed in general was not part of their experience. So they acted out at Suzanne’s parent’s house. Threw the mashed potatoes. I had to discipline them. Eventually they settled into the space, the home that was not their home, even though they might have wished it so. Meanwhile Suzanne’s parents got to see the work I did – the good and the bad of it, the joy and the sadness, the anger and excitement, the fulfillment mixed in with the struggle.
Like many youth today, the youth I worked with grew up in frightening places. The places in which they waited and the things that happened usually were not good. The hood, the street corner, the alleys were riddled with gangs, drugs and crime. They tagged these places to call them their own. They belonged in these places and the places belonged to them for better or worse. Home was often a cold place without enough blankets and human warmth, a place of frigidness or gushing guilt-ridden permissiveness, or both or neither. Something in these places was better than nothing. Home was not a home, but a temporary dwelling or shelter and sometimes not even that. There were no trips up north, jazz festivals, or hitchhikes to New Orleans. Or if there were it was usually on the run from something rather than to something. They got away to other places to avoid being abused and often found themselves in places where they were abused again. The spaces and places that shaped them and they shaped were not the spaces and places of a happy youth, but rather spaces of horror or of unpredictable and unrelenting disappointment. There was little sunshine in these places. Yet, they managed to find some. They turned their reservations of despair into the hood – a surreal world of crime, belonging, graffiti, drug deals, and shootings – into their own worlds. What they did in these places and spaces was not acceptable, but it was understandable. The places they hung where something good might happen even if it didn’t. The war zones they wished were the playgrounds of a happier youth. They gazed at these worlds from the nonexistent backseats of their parents’ cars, a cockeyed view, but their view…