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LEARNING ABOUT MYSELF: FIRST EXPERIENCES IN SCHOOL-BASED CHILD AND YOUTH CARE

Roger Pylypa

Abstract

Somewhere between the end of youth and the beginning practitioner lies the student, who is beginning to engage in a process of growth we call child and youth care work. This is a first-person account in which the author describes experiences in a school-based practicum setting, and examines the learning that can never be taught in class.

She bent her head forward so that her long red hair covered her face, which had turned just as red. Thirty adolescent faces were watching her. She clung to the arm of the male next to her. I should have asked someone else.

"Can anyone help Dana ó what are some qualities of a good volunteer?" Now I was patronizing her. Where were the right words? I tried to hide that I was at least as nervous as she was.

I had been looking forward to my practicum. This concept ó half course, half realityówas to combine practical experience in the field with course work and support from the School of Child and Youth Care. The latter included a one-hour weekly seminar with other students, where we could discuss our joys and woes in our respective settings. Theresa told us of the bureaucracies between floorboards at the local hospital, and Marcie described her fascination with the Native Friendship Centre. I sometimes even put in a word or two about certain redheads in the Buddy Network

The Buddy Network was just what it sounds like: a network of buddies. Elementary school children who might benefit from an older friend were chosen for the program by their parents. These "little buddies" were paired with "big buddy" volunteers from a high school In Victoria, British Columbia. They, in turn, were assigned to one of four child and youth care students, such as myself. We matched them with their younger counterparts, provided workshops, and talked to them about their match-ups, or anything else in life, for that matter. As students we were provided with an on-site supervisor, with whom we discussed plans, problems, and ways to maximize our learning. You may call her our "big buddy." if you like.

I walked through the busy corridors of the school, as students banged shut their lockers and hurried to afternoon classes. The high school was relatively modern, hallways and classrooms were carpeted, as opposed to the "tinny" feeling of bare floors in my old high school. The office was surprisingly accessible; students could walk through freely, and there was even an adjacent classroom. I remembered when I was in school, when the office counter was the boundary beyond which students dared not tread.

It was the same feeling when I entered the staff room, or used the staff washroom. I had not been in high school for six years, but the reversal of roles was somewhat strange. I could now reserve audio-visual equipment or book classrooms! Perhaps only details, but these gave me a feeling of power, as well as an uncomfortable responsibility. If you "messed up" as a high school student, the teachers and counsellors were there to help. I was no longer permitted the luxury of such errors, however.

The staff was helpful, especially Ted, the vice-principal and coordinator of school programs. He was always willing to assist the practicum students if we needed classrooms, equipment, or use of the school gym. He also had the final word on who could enter and remain in the buddy program. Two school counsellors were available if a crisis developed and they assisted us in screening students for the program. The family management teacher, from whose class most of the buddies were acquired, discussed with me what was being covered in class, and offered occasional words of support.

Because the Buddy Network was a school program, there were adjustments which needed to be made. Some of these included lunch-hour make-up exams, school outings, the photography club, classes, around which all our plans had to be arranged, and other Inconveniences which distracted students from attending meetings. On the positive side, there were always rooms available for special events, and a source of revenue from hungry teenagers at our Buddy Network bake sales.

My own classes at the university Included courses in applied developmental psychology, case management, working with groups, and family systems. Needless to say, I would have been lost without them. The practicum itself had a critical course component: each child and youth care student developed a personal "learning plan." Using this plan, we were required to provide evidence of learning in eight areas, such as "normative developmental perspective," "report writing," and "use of relationship." For example, my report-writing abilities were steadily improved by reports I would compile on how each "buddy" match was progressing. I would use both my supervisorís and course Instructorís feedback to make adjustments and improvements.

Twenty-one parents from a local elementary school requested that their children be involved In the program; however, I had only seven high school students In my group. The school principal, counsellor, and teachers chose those "most in need." Five were eight-year-old boys, all involved in fights at school. All but one had single mothers as parents. ĎThis boy," the principal pointed to a piece of paper, "could use a strong male role model." I figured that I could match him with Danny, a Grade 12 honour student. "And this one," he continued, "could use a strong male role model, too." By the time he was finished, all five of the boys had been identified as needing strong male role models. I looked at the school counsellor. Six of the seven high school buddies were girls.

My first task with the children was to interview them with their families, in their homes. We would discuss the program and the childís interests. Activities agreed upon by both buddies would be the basis of the two to four hours per week they would spend together.

File In hand, hair perfect and pulse accelerating, I knocked on the first of the seven doors. The mother, two of the children, and a big dog answered. Marian welcomed me and called her son, Michael. I wondered what a tough eight-year-old would be like. He came in, and quietly introduced me to the two cats and the family fish. He showed me his art work, stuck on a crowded wall shared with three other children. Michael said little during the Interview, although a younger sibling expended a great deal of energy bragging about his brotherís fighting achievements. For a single mother of four and babysitter of even more (her car seated eight), Marlan showed remarkable patience.

Every house had the television on. There was the boy obsessed with Nintendo, the girl who hated blondes, and the father with astonishing trampoline abilities. There was Teenage Mutant Ninja everything. Then there was Maxwell.

Eight-year-old Maxwell lived with his mother and grandmother. He relied on attention, and seemed over active. He liked to talk, and in this he was similar to his mother. She was 27, and worked as both a waitress and a security guard. She was struggling to get by, living with her mother but without a car. She told me how they had lived in a supportive Native neighbourhood in Calgary, and how she felt much less secure about Victoria. This feeling of insecurity was worse now, after a friend of her sonís had been hit by a car. The world was not particularly trustworthy.

"No one touches my son, no one does anything to hurt him," she warned, "I have to really feel I can trust the big buddy." Maxwell bounced on the sofa. "Mo-om, donít be such a worry wart." He shared none of her concerns. She laughed. Despite her anxieties, she had a laugh that would draw attention from a distance.

The most challenging aspect of my practicum was running a group meeting for my seven high school buddies. The first such meeting occurred after my supervisor and I had Interviewed each one of the 30 applicants, following, the day-long orientation planned by all four child and youth care students. That was where Dana had been embarrassed. Now it was my turn.

We all sat at the table. The five who had shown up glanced around the room, occasionally checking out the others for a brief second before scrutinizing the far wall again. I disturbed the quiet, explaining the content of the meeting, what I felt my role was, and the fact that I was also learning. It had been well rehearsed, but the audience reaction was not what I had imagined. I asked them what they saw as their roles. Ten eyes stared blankly.

"When do we get to meet our buddiesí?"

"Well, um, after Iíve finished interviewing them and their families. Maybe two weeks."

"Oh."

This was followed by a third round of silence. I took the opportunity to distribute a long list of workshops I could present at future meetings. The topics ranged from "self-esteem" to "working with difficult children." I asked them to each check off five they might like.

One girl, Marlene, checked three, and the rest combined for two more. Somehow sensing their lack of enthusiasm, I asked what the matter was. "Well, we know all this stuff. We covered it all in our family management class." I resisted the temptation to question how they could have already studied 20 topics in the first few weeks of school.

Their eyes found isolated spots on the table. Mine were searching theirs for a connection. It would not happen this time. "Okay, thatís everything." I said. Immediately they were out the door.

They did not understand. I had put a lot of work into this meeting. It lasted only 15 minutes. I avoided sulking as they left. Marlene was the last to leave. "Donít worry, it will improve when we all know each other better. Itís just the beginning." The youth counseling the worker. And she was right. Perhaps it was I who did not yet understand.

A week later, I paired the elementary buddies with their high school equivalents, based on similarities in interests and preferences of the high school students. Marlene and Michael were easily paired, as were the two Dannies. In fact, six of the seven match-ups seemed to fall into place. By process of elimination, only one pair remained: Dana and Maxwell.

Dana and I met at the mall. "So, whatís this kid Maxwell like?"

"Oh, youíll like him." I wondered if Dana was one who Maxwellís mother would find "trustworthy." I looked at her. I myself had doubts. She reminded me of the "breezeway crowd" at my own high school, the place where all the intimidating-looking smokers "hung out." At group meetings, she had been one of the quietest, her face changing colour at any suggestion I might make that she speak. She had been the last to contribute and the first to leave.

Yet, when I spoke with her in person, she was different. During the walk from the mall to Maxwellís home, she told me about her family and their trips to Halifax: lobster catching, playing with the children, summers with friends, (far from Victoria and homework assignments). In a ten-minute walk, she tore away my prejudgments, and I learned about myself.

Dana and I sat on the sofa, Maxwellís mother on the floor, and Maxwell began on the sofa as well. His grandmother was in the armchair at the opposite end of the room. As I made Introductions, Maxwell began telling what probably was his life story to Dana. Occasionally I interrupted him to discuss the program.

Dana had been quiet, trying to listen to Maxwell, his mother, and myself at the same time. She sat still, smiling often, acting too polite. Maxwellís mother was undoubtedly scrutinizing the nervous adolescent on the couch. The room had become very silent. Dana was staring at the ashtray on the table.

"Do you smoke?"

There was a pause. "Yes." Dana glanced at me.

"Good." She offered Dana a cigarette and took one herself. "Iíve been dying for a smoke."

Maxwell began telling a story about his mother and a cat they had in Calgary. His mother kept him quiet for a few moments; she had her own stories to tell. Even the grandmother got into the action.

The rest of the hour was spent In competition as to who would tell the next story. Maxwell spoke the most, bouncing around and describing everything in detail and as vividly as possible. He lost the spotlight whenever his mother had a tale to share. She laughed her hysterical laugh with Dana all evening. And when the grandmother spoke, everyone listened. The child and youth care student in me considered the control structure in this extended family. The rest of me laughed along with the others.

My supervisor, Diane, and I met weekly for feedback sessions. In addition, the three other practicum students and myself met with Diane every Wednesday morning to plan events and discuss each otherís caseloads.

"Most of my buddies donít show up to my meetings, and they really donít want to be there. I donít know, I feel like giving up." Gina was almost In tears. It could easily have been me, but I was slower to self-disclose. "My girls really donít care ó but my guys, my guys are great." Her eyes were sad but wide. Gina epitomized many practicum students: frustrated, struggling with learning, but with an optimism that carried her through. It was reassuring to have a comrade so similar to myself.

Diane turned to Sarah. "And how did your meeting with Dale go?"

"It was tough, a little scary. He really opened up to me about himself. Itís frightening what these kids can go through." I could relate. What I had seen and heard already about some of these children and youths, put the task of the three term papers (by Friday) In perspective. She continued her story, and her voice indicated she had handled the situation effectively. Sarah was the confident one, for whom everything seemed to go well. I tried to learn what it was about myself that could be like her.

The other member of our group was Catherine, a mother of two. She added an element of experience to our otherwise green group. "Joanne hasnít seen her buddy for three weeks. Last time, she told the mom she couldnít because she had to work. Then the mom and the little buddy, Mary, saw her Instead with some friends. Mary was in tears." Catherine had had plenty of experience with tears. "I spoke with Mary, who felt rejected, with the mom who felt ó letís call it angry ó and with Joanne. She didnít seem to understand how serious this was. It was hard communicating with her." Such were the crises not mentioned In the course outline.

It was my turn. Self-disclosure was not my forte. "Cindy and Gerry are getting along really well. The two Dannies go skating every Saturday. Marian loves Marlene. And Maxwell and Dana have been together more than anyone." I smiled.

"Max, isnít he the one whoís having behaviour problems at school?" Diane wanted more than just a peachy summary.

"Yeah," Catherine added, "he took a run at one of my big buddies at the skating party."

I stopped smiling. "Max looks for a lot of attention. Yet his mother spends much of her time with him, that Is, when sheís not working at her two jobs." From class I recalled the ecological systems model. "Also, she seems to draw a lot of attention herself. I think she needs it, too."

"And how does that make you feel?" Diane did not want my analysis, she wanted my feelings. She would not let me cheat on self-disclosure.

"Well," I looked at Gina, "I guess I feel a little helpless. I mean, here I am, phoning parents, running a group, planning events ó but I donít feel like Iím really doing anything."

"Youíve been communicating with the kids, and helping when problems arise."

"But I donít feel like Iím using any skills: part of the time, yes, in some ways. I just donít feel like Iím making that connection. I want to prove to myself that I can relate to them In a "child and youth care" fashion. But the connection is not there. Take my group, for example. The kids donít respond. I spent five hours preparing the last meeting and It bombed." There were a few gasps. I knew that I had tried far too hard in that preparation. I knew that I should have put the onus on the students to maintain their meetings. I knew that I should just relax and be a little more natural. I knew these things somewhere inside, through my courses and readings and experiences. But I did not understand them as a part of myself until I discussed them at these supervision sessions, and listened to others discuss themselves. It was here that most of my learning took place.

The Christmas party was the last event of the semester. Big and little buddies, parents and school counsellors were there. Even Santa made an appearance. He handed out candy canes, we ate cookies, and the children drew Ninja Turtles on the blackboard. Marian caught her son writing the work ĎJEERKS" on the board. She promptly walked up to the boy. I wondered what measures she would take. She simply picked up an eraser and quietly corrected his spelling. Only a Buddy Network mom could do that!

As we all left to go caroling, the elementary school counsellor confided in me. "Maxís behavior has been getting a lot worse lately." We headed towards some houses. Max could not wait to sing: "Joy to the world! The school burns down!" His mother and grandmother tried to keep him quiet, but he began again with another variation of a Christmas carol.

When the more traditional caroling began, Maxwell refused to sing. His mother and Dana tried in vain to convince him to join the others. Eventually he moved away from the rest of the group, complaining that he was not permitted to sing his own lyrics. Dana and Maxwellís mother continued to press. I too felt compelled to find a way to control him.

Eventually, Maxwellís entourage gave up and walked by themselves. They were noticeably embarrassed by his behavior. I wanted to search for something in the literature that would tell me what to do. I did not need to. Instead I began to think about what Maxwell was experiencing.

I gave up on control and chose to respect Maxwellís decision not to sing. Then I wondered if something inside him did not want to take part. Perhaps he wanted to be Involved, but of his own volition. I decided to give him that chance.

Michaelís biggest fighting fan, his seven-year-old brother Donald, was now in need of Christmas carol lyrics. His buckteeth flashed as I knelt down and sang with him. I knew that Max would be watching. I stayed with Donald for several songs, ensuring he had a proper view of the lyric sheet. It was all I needed to do.

When Max finally joined us, he told me he wanted to sing Silent Night. It was the only carol he really knew. "Silent Night!" I screamed. "Weíre gonna sing Silent Night!" Maxwell hung an arm around my neck and sang with me the rest of the night. On the other side, Donald sang "Joy to the World! The school burns down!" I did not care. I had found the connection.

This article is reprinted from The Journal of Child and Youth Care Worker, Vol.6 No.2 1991, pages 39-46

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