Common ground or foreign land
I realised today that neither of us really belongs here, neither of us is “at home”. I live on the other side of town, a half-hour’s drive away. You live in an area with which I am not at all familiar. The Centre, on the other hand, is really nowhere. It’s somewhere between a railway yard and an industrial area because nobody from my side of town wanted it there, and the Centre felt that they needed a bit of air between them and your part of town. I leave my home behind whenever I come here, and you have left your home behind by coming here. We are both strangers — both to this place and to each other.
Also, I am amongst my colleagues. My “peer group” of adults who work here share a history, learning, a career, a set of values, plans, methods ... all of which you would find pretty incomprehensible. You likewise are amongst your colleagues, and your “peer group” of kids who are staying here share a history, experience, knowledge of a culture, a set of values, ways of being in the world ... which to us are equally inscrutable.
These “similarites” only emphasise our differences.
It occurs to me that my first “act of subversion” was to welcome you to the Centre when I admitted you. I rather arrogantly assumed this proprietary status: this was my place or our (the adults’) place. You were the visitor. (I should add that at college we were taught how wrong this is: we learned about territory and power differentials and assigned status, and the theory was interesting, but somehow that learning didn’t get as far as the practicalities of how we relate, of how you and I are with each other when we meet, when we are together.)
I was even more at an “advantage”: I knew all about you. I knew you were coming to this place, I had been told the reasons why others had decided on this radical move in your life. I had even had discussions with senior staff, supervisors and colleagues about things you had done, problems you had and even some “labels” with preliminary ideas as to how we should go about working with you ... But you knew none of us, and nothing about us, when you walked in the door.
And I have to tell you that in your first weeks here I considered you to be standoffish. Distant. Even surly. Hadn’t we been friendly and inviting? Hadn’t we gone out of our way to make you comfortable and at ease? It was my job to work with you, and you were to my mind unfriendly, un-cooperative! My frustration probably made it even harder for you to “settle” here.
Today, when I realised that neither of us is “at home” here. But whereas I have worked in this place for some time and am very familiar with its geography, its people, its philosophy and my “fit” with the place, you were starting from scratch. I wasn’t giving you credit for that. I also realised that I value deeply my right to choose those with whom I share my time and my life. I wasn’t allowing you that.
I was taught that child and youth workers act in loco parentis with youth in their care, and that in that capacity we may act directively in relation to the law and in matters to do with the safety of the youth and others. But that beyond this, we should seek to be “persons of influence”. Again, in our training, this theory was interesting in the lecture room, but it was short on practical follow-through as a way of being on the floor. In fact within our own program it was ambiguously applied, for management and senior staff often seemed to expect us to “see that” the youth do this and “tell them” that they “must” or “can’t” do that.
If I am going to be a person of influence in your life, I am going to have to show far more respect for who you are, what you think, how you feel about this and that, what your life and circumstances expect of you, and what you hope for. To do this, I must drop my advance “knowledge” and get to know you and give you the opportunity to get to know me. I must try harder to turn this “common ground” of industrial wasteland in our inhospitable town, this foreign land, into trustworthy territory. And in place of my largesse in welcoming you and “admitting” you, I must wait for you to invite me.
I shall start today.