One of the realities of youth work is that the subject of your work – young people – leave. They move on. Because of their positions in the world, because of their interests and responsibilities and obligations and ideas, they simply go on with life. What happens after a youth has left? Teachers might bask in the bright afterglow of a spectacular student or class, youth workers might feel good about a completion or transition. What about everyone else, the young people who left other ways? The ones who finished with a fizzle, or dropped out, or simply left before it was “time” – meaning the time adults defined. What about them?
Somehow they leave their mark, too. Its rubbed off on me more than once, particularly in my critical lenses. The unfortunate reality of these young people is that their absence, their departure is not their responsibility, per se. Rather, it is a community responsibility, a reflection of the inabilities of the institutions and people within them that were designed to garner their participation in the first place. For every dropout there is a failed teacher; for every walkout there is an inadequately designed program.
Oh, I know the stories we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better, largely because I listen to them and feel them myself. However, I also know those are merely the salve we put on our wounds. I remember the times, particularly when I was new in this work, when seeing a young person walk out was heartbreaking. Somewhere along the way a boss told me not to worry about it, and a co-worker laid out a dozen reasons why that person left.
But we hear from youth long after they’re gone, whether we want to or not. Like some kind of undealt-with trauma from a war ill-fought, we’ve got these battle scars that make us think a little different, act a little different, and be a little different than we were before. That’s the nature of this work, and we’re like the soldiers. And all that says nothing of the young people themselves, nor does it say anything about ourselves when we were young…