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162 MARCH 2004
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from the soapbox

The Presence of Mr. Fitzgerald

Karen vanderVen

Everybody in Pittsburgh – and way, way beyond – has heard of him. Larry Fitzgerald, the University of Pittsburgh football player who was the finalist this year for the esteemed Heisman Trophy. The story is that Larry is not only an outstandingly talented football player but also is a fine young man: a class act – purposeful, courteous, concerned about others. So what does that have to do with this month's Soapbox ?

There's a story I've been dying to tell and it relates to child and youth work. In November, returning to Pittsburgh from an out of town trip, I boarded the airport bus that would take me in to town. The bus was crowded, so I moved my coat aside from the seat next to me so that a man boarding could sit down. He asked me where a downtown hotel stop was and I, veteran bus-rider, said I'd tell him as we were coming to his stop. We got into a conversation and he mentioned that he was coming to town to watch his son who was a college football player. Oh, I said casually. Who is he, and for whom does he play. Larry Fitzgerald, for the University of Pittsburgh was the reply. “Oh, wow”, I breathed. I wanted to show Mr. Fitzgerald that I knew all about Larry and proudly recited my biographical knowledge of his playing statistics and reputation.

We continued to talk about Larry, his development as a person and football player, and his family's role in his development. The next day, on television, Mr. Fitzgerald, attending the big game, appeared on screen. The whole incident of meeting and talking with Mr. Fitzgerald had given me much to think about.

First it occurred to me that Mr. Fitzgerald was an authoritative parent, referring to Diana Baumrind's well known trilogy of parental behavior in which authoritative parenting is the most successful, in contrast to the overly permissive parent who does not take a stand, or the authoritarian parent who is overcontrolling and insensitive to the needs and interests of children.

Then it really hit me: Mr. Fitzgerald had presence – and obviously was a presence in the life of his son. That then got me thinking about the role of adults in the lives of youth who have presence and what this means.

I was reminded of many of the child and youth workers I have met in my workshops in which I try to encourage them to eliminate point and level systems (which are certainly a form of authoritarian practice) and replace them with activities that could reflect their own backgrounds and current interests. As these workers talked, their presence would emerge as with great spirit and animation they shared their stories. Yet, when we'd get to the idea of replacing points and levels with activities and relationships that reflected themselves as people rather than their conforming with some arbitrary and pre-established structure for handling the situations of daily living, their faces would cloud. But we need the points. How can the kids learn to behave ? How can they be “consequenced” when they act out ?

I remember one man in particular who was particularly convinced that he needed points to handle the youth in his group. One couldn't help but notice him. He was tall, broad shouldered, imposing, bristling with energy, dressed in a sweat suit – an athlete. I looked up to him – not just physically.

"What, you?" I said. “You need to use points ? Why, if I were a youth, I would want to please you. I would want you to feel positively about me. I would want to do what you expected of me. I would want to be like you. Think about it !

This man had presence, or authoritativeness, just as did Mr. Fitzgerald. He and other child and youth workers could be a presence in the lives of youth “if they just knew it. They would acknowledge that the point systems they seem so attached to limit and restrict them just as much as they do the youth.

We talk about the use of self in child and youth work. Point and level systems obliterate everyone's opportunity to bring forth the unique and rich attributes of themselves. They certainly destroy the opportunity workers have to serve as role models. Who wants to be like someone who is continually monitoring, counting, determining “restrictions” ? I hope that child and youth workers themselves and the systems within which they work will recognize the dynamic strengths workers have as people with pasts, interests, and investment in the development of their challenging clients. I hope the realize that they don't need crutches to be themselves, to do their best work, and to be the kind of people the youth want to model themselves after.

I bet Larry Fitzgerald was never on a point and level system.

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