In the early 1980s the international child and youth care conference sponsored by the School of Child and Youth Care at the University of Pittsburgh concluded with a recommendation that child and youth care adopt qualitative research as a primary method for researching and understanding the work. Since then the field seems to have grown in acceptance as a profession along with the growth in acceptance of qualitative research.
Today there are numerous descriptive and interpretive methods of qualitative research that help us understand our own experiences while we understand the experiences of others. Many researcher/practitioners, including myself, have turned to story and narrative to explore and show the work in contexts that resonate with the way our interactions occur.
Much of the movement in this direction coincides with the emphasis on meaning making, or the belief that we all build and shape ourselves in the world through our own narratives that are constructed with unique cultural, familial and community experiences. To understand one another we have to understand our own story and how it biases our interactions while we listen with curiosity about others as we try to speak across the spaces of our experiences.
The emphasis on narrative and story, one can argue, is also an outgrowth of the way most workers talk about their shifts after work when they sit down to reflect with one another. They tell stories to give their interactions tone, texture, humor, and pictures that are required to understand their interactions.
As exciting as this development is we have to proceed with some caution recognizing that most narratives and stories are “made up,” or fictional accounts constructed from events the tellers choose to include from memories or notes that have become a bit fussy and/or illuminated with time. All memories have a quality of not being entirely “real” simply because we can never remember everything and or tell everything exactly as it occurred, and we choose to include or leave out parts. Meaning is made by the occurrence of an event and our reflection on it. Furthermore, most memories don’t come to us in neat stories or narratives with clear beginnings, endings, or plots. They come instead in fragments of thought or images juxtaposed with other fragments, a sort of collage of memories in which one memory evokes another memory, insight, or emotion.
What we (youth and us) feel is to some degree is made up from many images, emotions, and experiences, mostly in the present. Youth are often trying to tell us what they feel, think, and see from a flood of experiences that manifest themselves at that point in time, just as we might be flooded with memories and experiences of our own. This is their/our reality then, not forever, and not exactly as it was ever in the past.
If we want to fully understand, therefore, we have to open to what they are telling us, using our senses as much as our minds. “What are the images, behaviors, and metaphors they present telling us?” we ask with our eyes, ears, noses, feelings, and heads. If child and youth care is a developmental, experiential, and existential process of human interaction that occurs in multiple contexts, then part of the challenge is to take it for what it is without fitting it into a story or model or practice technique. An expression of anger or joy is an expression of joy as it is in the present as influenced perhaps by multiple feelings of anger or joy. Similarly an insight is an insight arrived at in from many past moments or experiences. These emotions and insights are also works in progress, changing from one moment to the next with new experiences and discoveries.
This is why it is so important to listen with undivided attention and to be open and available to mirror back our experiences of them while simultaneously being aware of what others and our surroundings are mirroring back of us. The same can be said about us. The meaning we make of our interactions does not necessarily come in a story, or linear narrative. To know these moments we have to, as I wrote last month, detach ourselves a bit in our reflective work and get into the experience of being in child and youth care in the moment so we can feel, read, and see what is being told from our unique perspectives.
This is also why I have moved from telling stories to writing reflective sketches in which I fragment and juxtapose my experiences as I explore youth work and my own youth unfolding over time, such as in the following new version of a sketch I have worked on for some time:
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(1959) Russo and I ride the North Shore electric train to the jazz festival in Chicago. He has a brush haircut; I have a duck’s tail. we’re both wearing leather jackets. The landscape is a blur, an endless stream of farms and telephone poles. To pass the time I drum on my knees while he bums a cigarette.
(1990) “I’m thinking of getting my ear pierced like you,” I say to my son, Devon, on the Charles Bridge in Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution.
"You'll just look like a middle aged guy trying to be cool,” he smiles and hands an earring back to a young woman sitting on a blanket.
We leave the bridge and walk past Kafka's father's store to a pub in Old Town where we are seated with two young Hungarian men. Devon speaks to them in French. One’s a carpenter, the other a tailor. “They know where I can get a Soviet Army coat," Devon says.
"Go ahead, I'll meet you later on the bridge.” After he leaves, I stay and have a sandwich then return to the bridge. The night sky is clear, the water calm. Behind me an old man is playing the accordion, his arms opening and closing the billows. I look at the castle where Vaclav Havel, the reluctant president, a playwright who wrote for the Theatre of the Absurd and later as part of a liberation movement from a prison cell, lives, and wonder if he can find time to write.
“What are you thinking?” The light is at Devon's back. He’s wearing the long Soviet coat, his tall silhouette, faceless, his voice smooth, like the water that flows under the bridge.
(1959) The reflection I see in the train window on the moving countryside is the face in my favorite photo of my mother taken before she met my father. She is smiling coquettishly from beneath the brim of the flapper hat. I comb my hair back into my duck’s tail, jut my jaw out, and take a sideways glance trying to look older.
(1990) “My ageing was very sudden. I saw it spread over my features one by one, changing the relationship between them, making the eyes larger, the expression sadder, the mouth more final, leaving great creases in the forehead. But instead of being dismayed, I watched the process with the same interest I might have taken in the reading of a book. And I knew I was right, that one day it would slow down and take its normal course.” I read in Harper and Row’s 1985 edition (p.4) of Marguerite Duras”, The Lover while looking for a way to write my experiences.
(1959) Slowly the farmland fades into brown-brick buildings, then taller and taller buildings. From the train station, we walk inland. The city is like another planet: canyons of skyscrapers that block the sun, drunks, students, and businessmen all mixed together. We arrive at the Chicago Stadium early and toss coins with two other boys. Soon men in cardigan sweaters and women in evening gowns begin to arrive. Between us, Russo and I win a buck. By the time we finish, the stadium is almost full. We mill around, find our seats and wait. Eventually, the buzz of the crowd gives way to the mellow sound of Coleman Hawkins' saxophone followed by JJ Johnson, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Afterwards, still high on the music, we walk toward
the lake. Outside a nightclub a picture of a woman with tassels on her
tits is framed inside the cutout of a star.
"You boys aren’t sixteen much less twenty-one,” the doorman says to Russo.
Russo starts to argue. I pull him by the arm. On
Michigan Avenue, he proclaims the Prudential building the tallest in the
world. We cross the street into Grant Park. A bum hits us for a quarter.
At the marina, a man with a torn jacket is fishing.
“Catch anything?” Russo asks.
"No, not yet,” the man says. You can see his broken teeth when he talks.
“What you using?” I ask.
“Bull,” Russo says.
The man reaches in his jacket, pulls out a package
wrapped in wax paper, unfolds the paper, and shows us the bacon.
"Never heard of that before,” I say as the man puts the bacon back in his jacket.
The man looks at me. “Probably a lot of things you never heard of.”
I turn my back to the lake like I heard Miles Davis
does when he plays.
“Where you boys been?”
"At the jazz festival,” I say proudly.
"No kidding. I used to play jazz.”
“What instrument?” Russo asks.
“Where did you play?” I ask.
“Why’d you stop?”
"Lost my timing.”
(1997) I stand across the street a moment longer. A light is on upstairs in my former writing teacher’s house. Boxes can be seen in the window. The rest of the house is dark, the basement and the first floor, where, sometimes when I sat across from her at the dining room table and read my work to her I could anticipate her response.
I used to make her laugh. It was easy. The slightest innuendo or hint of humor would set her off, in those days, when she laughed. She saw things where there wasn’t anything. Always lurking, beneath the surface, there was something, for her, in a word or scene or image. Where I saw only the word or scene or image, she saw something more.
But there was nothing like now other than the sorrow. So I walk to the bookstore on the corner where I used to go after a lesson and read the jacket cover of Camus” first book, A Happy Death, reads: “For here is the young Camus himself, in love with the sea and sun, enraptured by women, yet disdainful of romantic love, and already formulating the philosophy of action and moral responsibility that would make him central to the thought of our time".