What have I learned from students through work experience? Much more than what they learned from me | Zoe williams
A The teenager I know is currently on probation and obviously as a parent anyone’s primary concern is whether or not the teenager in question is annoying anyone. But having been on the other end of that telescope, I can say that these young people are much more useful than they appear.
Ten years ago, I gave a talk for the feminist group at a local high school and managed to offend a 17-year-old. Her complaint was so incredibly niche – I had unfairly decried the Socialist Workers’ Party – that when she followed it up with a request for work experience, I was too impressed to say ‘no’.
However, a person doesn’t get much by watching me work. It’s 90% to watch. Shortly before I produce anything, the stare takes on a dark urgency, easily mistaken for rage. It’s like doing a work experience with a super villain in its planning phase. No explosions, just powerful, silent malevolence. I wouldn’t be able to name a skill that anyone would pick up by looking at this.
I didn’t even realize until mid-week with my young work experience, F, so I took her to a public meeting on legal affairs against the NHS, related to difficult deliveries, and there was a lot pretty intense details related to forceps and how ideally they shouldn’t come in contact with a baby’s eyes. There were also slips, which I think is the main reason she passed out. It didn’t sound like disgust, she was just an intensely empathetic person. After that I made her voice explode, and she had this sure-fire instinct for what people thought before she said it, and even though it wasn’t very journalistically useful – if you want to quote someone. one, you really need him to speak loudly – it was like traveling with a medium. I liked it.
A year later I had another worker, A, who was so incredibly angelic that I once slightly speculated that I couldn’t imagine him doing anything wrong, ever, and he said, to On the contrary, once when he got out of his mother’s car, he selected a track and turned the volume up as loud as possible, so that when she turned on the engine, she got Careless Whisper to an incredible decibel. He was too pure before the expression “too pure” existed.
I took him on an expedition to Rother, which had been named the place in the country with the greatest number of old people. It was quite a delicate operation, asking strangers what it feels like to be, on the whole, the oldest in the nation. But what I learned had nothing to do with history at all, and everything to do with how incredibly racist some people are. I’ve been walking the main streets at random seeking opinions since 1995, and never, until I’m with a young black man, have I been asked for ID, or taken an oath, or someone visibly crossed the road to escape. I was so stunned that I got to the point of yelling at a jeweler who started shutting his security shutters when we walked in (vox popping rule one: you really aren’t supposed to yell at anyone) , and my work experience wasn’t surprised in the least.
Then there was J, who was a little older, about to go to college; I was in the process of a divorce, and in all the very intense thinking of the time, the only thing I didn’t notice was that I wasn’t working. I thought I was holding on, but I never really sat down, I just buzzed around, put important things in weird places and couldn’t find them again. The concentration was a foreign country. J, incredibly smoothly, through a series of tactful observations and color-coded to-do lists, reintroduced me to the concept of productivity. She’s now doing a PhD on poetry informed by traumatic social events (like Grenfell), and we still talk sometimes – things we’re working on – and after that, I never remember who asked whose advice.
It’s a trivial but true conclusion: I learned a lot more than what I transmitted, each time. They got as much Diet Coke as they could drink and sometimes “extra reporting” credit, and I got a world of new perspectives and, just to be kosher, a DBS certificate.