I don't normally write about my work with young people, and that's because normally the young people I tend to work with are quite vulnerable, have different needs or deserve better than me blabbing their business to strangers for page views. Recently I’ve relaxed my position a little, working with young people seems to be a big part of my life and it's getting more difficult not to share. Over the summer holidays and autumn half term I’ve been working on the NCS, a government funded programme to turn young adults into engaged citizens. Not before traumatising them, apparently. I won't use the kids I work with names though, “she” or “her” will have to be enough.
“I’m not going any further” she’s serious, her tone is flat.
“Well you can’t go back that's where you went in” I try to say it in a kind way, she looks at me with wet angry eyes.
“I’m not going back either” she says, and to make it final she looks away staring and shivering. The float devices and wetsuits make it awkward to hug or even offer a shoulder but I push my bulk against her side into the rock, away from the edge, acting as a windblock , and hoping to penguin some warm into her.
“Well you can’t live here on a cliff can you” again I try to be kind and lighthearted but she's just stares and shakes. Good lord, I think I’ve broken this one already. I remember her earlier looking up and saying with as much authority as she can muster
“I don't like heights and I really don't want to go in the sea” Now I look over, she's crying, making her five foot frame look a lot smaller that it is, folded into the corner of a rock on a sea ledge.
Shes can't weigh more than 10st soaking wet, and that I know from experience because I just pulled her out of the ocean. It took me thirty or so seconds to climb down to her after she lost her footing and fell in and ten more seconds to jam my hand into a crevice so I could reach down and haul her out. when she fell in she was too shocked to be scared, her eyes were wide and mouth open like she couldn't believe where she was. But that forty seconds was enough to get the wind beaned out of her by a wave twice the size of her head.
I should point out here that while shaken she was in no real danger - the float device she’s wearing could keep a decent sized piano above the water and ironically now that her wetsuit had got wet she’s likely to be warmer than any of the rest of us in a few minutes - but now isn't the time to explain any of this, her worst fear for today have just happened. We’re coasteering, making our way around the a section of the Anglesey coast on a blowy day in October, being led by a cheery type of man that wears shorts in all weather.
I catch my breath and try not to think about how high up we are, I normally say I have a “healthy respect” for heights which is bullshit masculinity for “really quite scared”. It's not even my fear, it's secondhand fear passed to me from my mother, who would scream even if one of us would climb onto the second step. I look over at my tiny shivering charge and she’s talking to her friend now. The instructor sticks his head down from above
“Right the next bit is going to be a bit difficult”
“The last bit was difficult” she shouts at him, there's pleading in her tone but something else too, anger. I hide a smile and think back to the shy dot I was introduced to two days ago.
The instructor’s capacity for understatement once again takes me aback, the next bit we have to climb around a corner blind, while he tells us where to position our hands and feet. I’m the last person again and she is in front of me, every step of the way while she is doing it it she is looking me in the eye and telling me she can’t, while steadily and surely inching her way to the next ledge, she makes it and smiles. It's my turn, the rock is practically sheer with only a thin crack for toe holds. I try not to look scared, I have no idea if I succeed. I make it the last foot or so by throwing myself at the ledge to get it over with. When I'm settled and unclip myself from the safety rope I look down. It’s a good 15ft down a sheer cliff. If the corner hadn't been blind I would never have done it. She hits my back.
“Well done Danny, I’m proud of you.”
And this is why I love to work with young people, where adults are great at selling themselves, to the point where they can only ever really disappoint. Young people will suprise you with their courage, their heart, and a not yet tarnished hope for themselves and the future.