Small moments by Howard Williamson
Context of Author

Youth worker, academic youth researcher and lecturer, and youth policy adviser. Professor of European Youth Policy at the University of South Wales.




Youth work is not always about the here and now, sometimes the things that we do are recognised and respected many years later. There used to be a saying in the UK with regards to being a youth worker, “if you want to know if you are a good youth worker, wait for 1o years”. This is a short story that mirrors that saying. The effects of our work are felt by some for the rest of their lives.

Story in Full

I have done this ‘follow-up’ work – 25 years later – on a group of young offenders I studied during the early 1970s (see The Milltown Boys, Youth Work Press). Some have done surprising well in their lives, others have ticked along and there are some who have remained firmly attached to a life of unemployment, crime and drug misuse. When I go to the pub where the latter group still hangs out, I am introduced to those who do not know me as “This is How, he used to look after us when we were little”. It provokes some strange thoughts and images in my head. The thought of anybody ‘looking after’ these world-wise hard men is virtually impossible to contemplate. Moreover, I find it hard to remember ever actively intending to ‘look after’ any of them, but it is surprising what they recall in terms of my having done so.

Mal is no longer part of that group but he, like others amongst the Boys, holds to the same perspective about my role in their lives when they were young. Mal has held down regular employment all his adult life, is a home owner and has two teenage daughters who are doing reasonably well at school. When I met him again in the year 2000, his wife greeted me enthusiastically with a peck on the cheek. We had, of course, never met, although they have been married for almost twenty years. She said she had heard a lot about me. Mal thought the world of me. I could not understand why: he had been a relatively peripheral character in my original study. But, Jane said, “you went to court with him when he was 15”.

This was absolutely true. I went to court many times with many of the Boys. But Mal’s experience was slightly unusual. He had been arrested on a football trip to Bristol for possession of an offensive weapon and had subsequently to appear at Bristol juvenile court. Now it is one thing to go to another city with a crowd of youths on a football special, quite another to make your own way, alone. Mal’s parents were uninterested: he was the one who had got into trouble, he was the one who had to take the consequences. Nothing to do with them.

I offered to go with him. For me, this was just a routine component of my research. For Mal, apparently, it was much more than this. I helped him to get there, made the day a bearable trip, kept him company, and explained the procedure. The 15-year old on the football trip, an independent and tough ‘hard man’, was a nervous and vulnerable teenager on the day he went to court. I gave him support when he needed it, and he has never forgotten. What may seem, to us, to be small contributions to young people’s lives can have a significance, for them, which is almost impossible for us to imagine.