Time to talk shop again!
Last time I wrote about advocacy, and today, I am writing about one of my youth clubs.
Running from a youth club to running a youth club
A friend of mine described himself as ‘a youth club kid’, which means he has frustratingly good but unpolished ping-pong skills, and spent several evenings a week at a club where paid and voluntary adults created space and activities for young people like him.
I wasn’t a youth club kid, myself. I went to a junior youth club at Brock Road for some time, where I saw some friends and, with my chub and specs and bowl cut, was roundly picked on.
When I attended the senior club for the first time in Year 7, an older kid greeted me with a punch and a headlock, from which I emerged crying, never to attend a youth club again.
Until last year, that is.
I now run a youth club in town, attended by 15-25 young people, most of whom haunt the bus terminus when not engaged elsewhere. They call the bus terminus ‘The Term’. Certain officials have been heard calling these young people “Term-ites’.
Over the course of the last year, the Youth Commission has run an outreach program to connect with these young people, developing relationships, and trying to engage them in positive activities.
These young people now attend my youth club in town.
I love my group of young people. They have such character amongst them, so much sass and energy, wit and humour, and such resilience.
They are always glad to see me, generally ridiculing me on sight.
First time I met one young person, she looked me up and down, laughed in my face, then said of my jacket, “That looks like my Gran’s curtains!” Kids can be so much more fun than adults.
The cohort contains boys and girls aged 13 to 16 from The Grammar School, St Sampson’s, Le Murier, Les Voies, Beaucamps, Le Mare De Carteret and Blanchelande – paid, public and special educational needs schools, all in one space. Kind of heartwarming, eh?
The problems with domestic violence, sexual abuse, self-harm, drugs, alcohol and mental health do not warm the heart.
It is sad to see so many young people for whom these problems are the norm. Growing up too fast, exposed to things they shouldn’t be, searching desperately for solace in all the wrong places.
If I allow myself to mull the life situations I see and hear, it makes me unhappy.
So I don’t, for the most part, I try instead to focus on what I can do to support them. I have a charity behind me, some space and a little money, and with that I can provide them some solace, respite and opportunities in a safe place.
Respite and opportunity
Even the rosiest adolescence contains feelings of lostness, difference, and depression; it’s hormonally writ, part of growing up.
In the space of a day, a teenager is told what to, told off, told this, told that, by their parents and teachers and other adults all damn day. Being told things all day is tiresome.
Plus, there’s the fact that their secondary education is delivered in prison-like containment, with claustrophobic coding of everything from speech to clothes to play.
Plus, there’s the possibility of their home life being neglectful or abusive.
Plus, there’s life’s stresses – bereavement, lockdown, exams, relationships.
Plus, there’s the illusory panaceas to life’s stresses – drugs and alcohol.
Teenagers don’t have it easy. Certainly the toughest years of my own life.
I see my role in this youth club as providing respite and opportunity.
The respite is from family and school, from authority-adult interactions, from being told what to do and how to act in places they don’t want to be.
The opportunity is to create meaningful connections and memorable experiences together in a space they choose to be in, alongside non-judgemental and supportive adults.
This is why I have a dream job.
Agreeing some ground rules
So, two dozen kids from the Terminus are coming regularly to club for a couple of months.
It’s time for us to agree some ground rules together.
My colleague and I convene a meeting of all the young people – twenty-plus rowdy teenagers – and we have a conversation about rules for their club.
I put a big piece of paper on the table, and ask the group what rules we might have for our club.
One rebel shouts, “No rules!” A couple of the lads chime their agreement.
I disagree, and a couple of young people back me – thankfully! – including one whom I often task with taking the register for me. That young person suggested lots of rules, most of them variations of, “Be nice to one another.” It’s bittersweet because their home life is anything but nice.
I challenge the no-rules-boiz:
“So do you think we should be allowed to just smoke inside and swear at each other?”
This was supposed to be rhetorical, but it caused a productive debate – about swearing, not smoking inside.
Teenagers, like adults, swear. I steer them away from it, but I don’t reprimand them. They get an eyebrow raise, or an, “Excuse me?” Seldom is more required. Not for a single second do I make their welcome in my club feel threatened for low-level swearing, unless those words are used in malice – swearwords or not.
I am a youth worker, not a teacher or a parent, though you’ll never catch me swearing in front of my young people, nor endorsing it.
Their debate resulted with something like this: swearing is okay, but swearing at somebody is not okay, or abusing them because of their race or gender, and so on.
From an ethical standpoint, I kind of agree with that, and live something like that in my own personal life, though I didn’t admit as much.
Two of the rules we came up with related to that debate are, ‘No bullying, physical violence or abusive language’ and ‘Be polite and respectful to staff’.
In reality, if some young people didn’t call me four letter words at club, I would know something is seriously wrong.
I am not ashamed to say I don’t make a too big deal about mildly transgressive behaviour like this, I pick better hills to die on. I respectfully express my disapproval with no threat on the back of it, and for that the kids respect me, and generally rein it in.
I don’t know how we did it, but we got our twenty-plus “Term-ites” to agree six solid ground rules for their youth club, which for the most part they have stuck to.
I printed the rules on a big piece of paper, and they each signed their names underneath the rules.
I am proud to report only one penis was drawn between all the young people who signed it.
The remaining four rules are:
- No rolling or smoking cigarettes in or outside club – go down the road
Many of these kids vape and smoke cigarettes and God only knows what else (apparently 1 in 10 adults in Guernsey are legally prescribed dope, which many sell at dizzying premiums to young people).
One young person says to me, “The rules don’t say anything about vaping”, whilst exhaling her vape into my face. I wince, looking at her, and say, “Really?” I look away disappointedly. She took her vape outside, bless her.
- Respect the building and the property, and clean up after yourself
My cohort has not – yet! – purposefully broken or stolen or messed up anything in club.
They made the rules and they are respecting them and long may that continue touch wood.
- No heavy petting or inappropriate behaviour
There are a couple of couples at club, whom I haul in for ‘heavy petting’ – which for me means any kissing or lovey-dovey physical contact.
The kids find it funny when I shout in an imperious tone, “No heavy petting!” It made sense to stick with it. I say the same thing to the boys if their wrestling gets too rough. Generally, if there is any kissy-kissy going on, I can just make puking noises and point to the rules on the wall to great effect.
- Be positive, kind and welcoming to young people attending club
I liked this one, and am happy the young people came up with it between themselves.
The last cohort to club was attended by a young person who made younger attendees feel unwelcome, to say the least, calling them names and physically intimidating them. I told that young person they are not welcome back to club unless we met, one to one, to agree a stop to that behaviour.
My own experience of youth club as a youngster makes me zealous in this respect.
I am hyper-aware of the extent to which teenagers can be made uncomfortable and intimidated by peers, yet still, I find myself proud of my young people.
They are welcoming to all who attend club: public, private, special needs education; boys, girls, trans; English, Irish, Filipino, Thai, Latvian, Bengali, Italian. They respect and support each other. Isn’t that magical?
Stick to the rules, I will make things happen for you
After setting these ground rules, we had another session where we planned what we would like to do in future sessions. All simple things – like a movie night, karaoke, chippy on the beach, crazy golf – but things that they all seem immensely excited for.
I promised, “If you stick to your rules, I will try to make these things happen for you.”
And so it was, after lots of last-minute phone calls to parents to obtain consent, a colleague and I are ready to take two minibuses of these kids to play crazy golf.
“I’m taking a big risk here,” I tell the group just before departure, in a rare moment of faux-seriousness.
“If you behave yourselves, we can do more things like this. If you behave like animals, we won’t.”
I remember my Mum saying that she didn’t mind my siblings and I acting up at home, as long as we behaved ourselves in public.
We had 17 kids, described as “the criminals of tomorrow” by one official, playing crazy golf and tonking balls at the driving range together. No real issues – other than losing a couple of golf balls, one shoe, and two young person falling into the water.
Behave in public they did. I was elated all week after that. Enthused and amazed and excited for the future.
Sex education and chippy on the beach
We were contacted by the sexual health clinic recently, concerned about some young people coming into the clinic. After a discussion, we agreed that a visit to my youth club could be a good idea.
Though only 15 attended, club was fairly rowdy. After feeding them, I holler for attention at the start of club before our visitor’s arrival, doing my classic stand-on-a-chair for attention.
“Who wants chippy on the beach?!” A chorus of ravenous teenagers cheer back at me.
I then remind them that we have someone coming in from the sexual health clinic to have a conversation about sexual health and contraception.
One young person walks out. Another makes puking noises. There is eye rolling.
“Can we still play pool?!” says one lad.
“I already know everything there is to know!” says another.
“Okay,” I shout, “I promise I will drive the minibus to the beach and pay for chippy next week if you engage and show our visitor respect. Deal?”
There was a serious discussion had, between 15 young people, my colleague and I, and our visitor.
I asked a couple of questions, which seemed to inspire the laddy lads to be brave and ask their own, interspersed with their comments, like, “They don’t make condoms big enough for me.”
There were truly crucial conversations had, in group and in private, concerning these young people’s health and safety, conversations that evidently hadn’t been available or engaged in at home or at school.
There was silence, several times, in a room of 15 young people, respecting the openness of their peers who were asking questions and sharing with the group. These kids don’t have to be here, nobody is making them stay, I am not going to expel them and tell their parents – ultimately, they just respected each other. All I have to bribe them with is the promise of more time together. And chippy.
Funnily enough, in the process of this almost hour-long group conversation, I did find a hill I am willing to die on.
A couple of the boys – whom I love to bits – were getting antsy and making noises and trying to playfight discreetly. Throughout, I’ve peppered the conversation with, “Listening!” and “Respect!” and individual names to keep the group quiet and tuned in.
But the boys continue, and distract the group, in the midst of the visitor answering a question, and as a result the group miss the fact that some sexually transmitted diseases can show no symptoms whatsoever, for years.
“You, you – out!” I point at the boys, who look at me wide-eyed, one beginning to protest.
“OUT!” I shout. I remain completely still as they mope outside, tails between their legs, letting the silence sit just long enough, secretly revelling in the adorable shocked little faces of my blessed young people.
“So you were saying that chlamydia and gonorrhoea can be transmitted and you might not know about it?”
And we continue the conversation.
The two boys sent in a missive via another young person, “X and Y are asking if they are allowed to come back in?”
I say yes, if they keep their gobs shut, and when they come up to give me their fumbling kind-of apologies, I say, “No big deal, all forgotten. Do you think we should go for chippy on the beach next week?”
They both said yes.
“Why?” I ask.
One walks off, saying, “Because!”
Chippy on the beach it is.
We had our karaoke night too!
I whipped around club, taking requests for songs we could sing together.
Initially there was shyness, but by the end of the session, the last standers climb onto chairs to sing a few from Queen.
It’s some feeling, leaving club after belting out Bohemian Rhapsody with operatic passion, alongside kids whose private lives I know to be traumatised and traumatising, having carved out of their day two hours of good, clean, safe fun.
As they departed, one young person who regularly rips me for my gingerness and dress sense gives me a muted ‘thank you’.
That was gratifying.
2 thoughts on “My Youth Club”
Fantastic Liam, we need a few more like you, super proud of those young adults x