Relating to children and young people’s ‘everyday life’ and becoming part of their ‘everyday life’

– Youth work story –

Fumiyuki Nakatsuka (Youth Worker in Tokyo, Japan)

Translated by Kaori Kitagawa

  1. Introduction

Children arrive in the classroom in the building in downtown Tokyo after school hours. Some greet staff, some don’t say anything when coming in. Some carry their school bags, some are empty hands. They have a quick break having a drink and snack offered by staff, chatting about what happened at school today. They continue chatting and start their homework. While they are doing homework, staff check the contact notebook (between school and parents), and sometimes tests and other handouts in children’s school bags. Through conversation, staff try and understand how children are doing at school, and with friends and family. If there was something concerned in the previous week, staff revisit it in a natural manner. Observing children’s doing homework, staff also think about whether children are struggling or can do more. Staff encourage the communication between children, particularly those who are in the same age groups. Staff try and build the relationships amongst children through activities such as reading and playing cards.

Later in the day at around 7pm, junior and high school students arrive in the classroom. The first thing they say is usually, ‘so tired’ or ‘I am hungry’. Without entering the classroom, some sit in the staffroom and start talking. The learning support is supposed to be until about 9pm, but there are students who don’t leave the classroom. Staff stay with them, continue chatting outside of the building, and often take them home. Even after they went home, staff stay in touch with them via email and LINE till late at night until receiving the final word, ‘good night!’

  1. Initial meeting with Miyuki

Miyuki (12 pseudonym) was introduced to our organisation by her swimming coach. She talked to the coach about the frequent arguments with her mother about study. The coach suggested, ‘why don’t you speak to Mr Nakatsuka ?’[1] In the first meeting, Miyuki’s mother dominated the conversation. In summary, her points were: ‘my daughter plays all the time without studying’, ‘she is rebellious and doesn’t listen to her mother’, ‘I am very worried about her future’. She expressed her complaints and worries in one go, even though we had never met before. Sitting next to her, Miyuki looked frustrated without saying anything. I could tell from her attitude she was thinking, ‘Mr Nakatsuka will try and control me, believing everything what mum says. Adults are all the same. Nobody trusts me. Nobody won’t understand me’.[2]

I wouldn’t be able to build trust with her if she labels me I was on mother’s side. I tried to appeal to Miyuki by explaining to her mother she should prioritise what her daughter wants to do. Despite my effort, Miyuki remained silent. As she looked she would stand up and leave the room, I changed the topic saying, ‘I want to help’. Miyuki looked at me but still suspiciously. ‘You want to go out and play with your friends after school, don’t you?’ Miyuki nodded, but then her mother interrupted, ‘I am telling her to come home first before going out with friends, but she goes out carrying her school bag’. Miyuki opened her mouth for the first time, ‘I am the only one commuting by train. It’s too much if I have to come home and go out again’.

  1. The place to leave the school bag as the beginning of our relationship

Miyuki was in a care home until recently. After returning to her mother, she didn’t change her school, and that is why she goes to school by train. I made a suggestion with a hope that I could develop a connection with her: ‘you could drop your bag at our organisation after school and play with your friends. You don’t want to be caught by your teacher having your school bag with you, do you? It may be a cheat, but it’s fine for you to use our organisation like that.’ She seemed to be surprised with the suggestion – the adult in front of her is taking a responsibility for her knowing it’s a cheat. Still, she was skeptical. I guessed she was thinking, ‘I shouldn’t agree with anything with adults’, ‘I am not going to buy that’.

I also told her mother that spending time with friends was very important for her and that this idea would be helpful in protecting her after-school safety. ‘Are you sure? Can I really leave my bag here and go to play?’ Miyuki still looked uncertain, but I assured her, ‘I will be waiting for you tomorrow’. She seemed slightly relaxed when leaving. There was no previous case like this, and my colleagues did express a concern. But I managed to convince them that my suggestion was the starting point for the building of trust between Miyuki and I.[3] Next day, Miyuki showed up after school with her bag. I said, ‘welcome back’, but she didn’t reply. She was still doubtful. Holding her bag, I said, ‘see you later’. She rushed to her friends without saying anything.

One rainy day, Miyuki came to our organisation as usual even though she didn’t seem to have any appointment with her friends. She looked bored and asked me, ‘what are everyone doing here?’ I did explain to her what we do here, but she probably didn’t want to get involved because her mother explained to her it was ‘a cram school’. But it seemed she had figured out it wasn’t ‘a cram school’ after coming every day to drop her bag. I was pleased she showed an interest in this place. ‘Many bring their homework here and finish it. When it’s done, they can relax at home, can’t they?’ ‘I see…’ For Miyuki, our organisation , which was a place to leave her bag, became a place to do her homework. In the classroom, I heard her laughing with other children and staff. There were many occasions she didn’t want to leave our organisation so I walked her to the station or took her home. While walking, Miyuki told me about school and family. It seemed she felt more relaxed talking while walking, so we tended to have our conversation while walking.[4] Miyuki told me, ‘my mum cannot cook, so we eat out or have ready-made meals’, ‘when she doesn’t feel well, there is no food’, ‘when I argued with her, I spend my time at a department store or a park till late’. She was in a vulnerable family environment, in which anything could happen any time.[5] And, ‘the day’ has finally arrived.

  1. Phonecall from Miyuki, ‘I was going to kill myself, but I cannot’

One day just after 9pm, Miyuki’s mother emailed me saying, ‘I punched my daughter very badly. She ran away with a knife saying, “I am going to kill myself”’. Shortly after that, I received a call from Miyuki from a phone box. ‘I was going to kill myself, but I cannot’, she was crying. I told her where to meet with me, and I rushed by car. I decided to take a drive with Miyuki as I knew she wouldn’t talk if I question her face-to-face. I checked if she was injured. She didn’t have any, but she explained, ‘I was hit in the face about five times, and my hair was pulled. If I resist, she would do more, so I pretended nothing was happening.’ I put her bag, in which the knife was, in the backseat and listened to her. Miyuki’s story included some surprising elements. I couldn’t decide whether to report to the children’s welfare office and the police requesting their protection or to take her back home. I knew my role wasn’t to solve the problem; it won’t make Miyuki feel safe either. My final judgement, therefore, was ‘to be there, no matter what’.[6] What I did was I offered her a warm drink and her favorite food, continued our conversation and gradually brought ‘unusual’ back to ‘usual’. This process was not about letting her avoid, forget or accept the reality, but about strengthening our trust through me imagining and understanding her ‘usual’. Eventually, Miyuki calmed down and began yawning. After confirming her mother had also calmed down, I took Miyuki home, even though I was very anxious.

The following day, I reported the incident to the children’s welfare office and Miyuki’s school. They were astonished by my report, but then relieved to hear the situation had become under control. We all agreed that organisations concerned would liaise with each other in supporting Miyuki and her mother so that such an incident would not happen again.

  1. Our ‘everyday lives’ to overlap and to merge

It seems our relationship has developed since the incident. Small and large incidents continued to occur, and we staff have been called every time. But Miyuki seems to believe the adults here are somehow different from those whom she met before. Her ‘everyday’ entails a range of issues and challenges, but part of her ‘everyday’ now overlaps and merges with that of mine and our organisation. This is a relationship in a shared space (community). The relationship differs from adults vs children, supporters vs beneficiaries, teachers vs students; it’s more about ‘being together’ or ‘living together’. We have merged into Miyuki’s ‘everyday’, and Miyuki has merged into our ‘everyday’. We have become an existence to each other that is ‘always there, no matter what’. We are now moving forward from ‘here and now’ towards ‘hereafter’ of Miyuki’s life.

[1] Building trust within the local community is fundamental for our organisation to play a role as a safety-net. This coach was also one of the beneficiaries of our organisation. His experience with us led him to think we could help Miyuki as well.

[2] It is not easy to truly ‘understand’ what children and young people really feel and think. But we social workers can ‘imagine’ that through being with them. We could say ‘imagination’ is part of youth workers’ professionalism.

[3] With other staff, I shared Miyuki’s family matters and also spent time discussing what support and measures would be most suitable for her. Thus, all staff were able to build trust with her, even in my absence.

[4] Engaging with young people outside of ‘the place’ is usually not regarded as ‘work’. Since I learned about Detached Youth Work that considers the world youths live in as ‘the place’, I have been proactively trying such informal engagement. I believe it’s also a component of youth work’s professionalism.

[5] Our organisation supported Miyuki’s mother in parallel on the relationship with her daughter and financial difficulties. As the mother trusted us, we could work together when problems occurred.

[6] On this case, liaising with the children’s welfare office, the school and the municipality, our organisation was prepared for emergency scenarios. We cannot anticipate every possible risk, but we were clear about our individual roles. My judgement was also based on my knowledge about what each institution can/cannot do.