What are midges for?

22nd July 2005 at 01:00
It was a moment of madness that made me reply "yes", when asked if I wanted to accompany one of our local high schools on a Columba 1400 "ambassadors week" in Skye.

It was years since I had done any youth work or gone on a trip with teenagers. Six days trying to find myself with 12 teenagers whom I had never met is just crazy. How would they cope with a politician? Would they even care? Would they talk to me? Could I talk to them? Just how big would the generation gap be?

The journey began as I feared. The cry of "are we there yet?" echoed round the bus as early as the Edinburgh bypass. The sweet consumption washed down by copious quantities of our "other national drink" could have fed Belgium, and my offer to share my CDs was met with something less than polite derision. I thought my "Greatest Hits of the 70s and 80s" would have gone down well until it dawned on me that they weren't born until the 1990s.

Day two began with a full breakfast for the adults and more of that alternative national drink for the teenagers. They were awash with the stuff; being hyper understated the consequences.

The Columba staff decided that we needed to understand what our core values were, the things that we believe in. Such deep thinking requires no distractions, so they took us up a hill. Unfortunately, it was pouring with rain. As I sat in a small clearing trying not to lose the will to live, I decided my core values were staying warm, dry and at the bottom of any hills. As ever, the teenagers were more insightful, asking the philosophically challenging question "what are midges for?", to which there is no answer.

We played non-competitive games to warm up. These games are supposed to be non-contact sports but they were more like American football meets all-in wrestling. Sadly, I was the worst culprit. Perhaps I was finding out something about my competitive streak or, as one teenager put it, my competitive six-lane highway.

The groups' excessive consumption of liquid girders was the discussion topic that evening. Amazingly, the group decided to impose a ban on consumption of said beverage for the rest of the week.

This was without prompting from the Columba 1400 staff, who merely facilitated. The only downside would have been a significant drop in that company's turnover, but it did lead to one teenager telling me: "I've never been this calm."

Day three. Tuesday. It's always Tuesday. My previous youth work was slowly coming back to me. No matter the trip, Tuesday is when the chaos begins.

And it did. Lots of rule breaking, challenging of boundaries and very little sleep. One pupil was moments away from an early return home.

But somehow the staff turned it on its head. The youngsters stayed and the conversations were better and deeper than before, even mine with the teenagers.

Day four. Raft building. My nemesis. Whoever first invented raft building as a team-building exercise should be tied to one and set loose in mid-Atlantic. My competitive streak kicked in; I took over and managed to lead the team to glorious defeat.

No matter how hard I try, no matter how well I remember my Boy Scout knots, the barrels always break free.

The evening was spent eating chocolate bananas and playing a game that involves putting as many marshmallows in your mouth as you can and saying the phrase "fluffy bunnies". Sadly, it's one skill from my scouting days that I have not lost.

In among this unhealthy eating was a conversation led by the Columba staff about our ethical choices. The subject of "would you ever grass your mates?" was the topic of debate. The conclusions are varied but significant taboos are challenged and some new choices are made.

Day five's theme was perseverance. That should be the theme all week. We experienced what perseverance means through an all-day simulation game of running a small island. It brings out everyone's megalomania. One participant dreams of converting a disused tin mine into a cross between Disneyland and Alton Towers. Another applied her eco school experiences to completely reorganise the island's eco system. Imaginations run wild and suddenly all things seem possible.

The final day was a moving celebration of what we had all learnt about ourselves and our place in this world. As I watch my new teenage friends receive recognition for the great potential they have that this week has helped them appreciate, I find myself thinking: "That was brilliant, I would really like to do it again."

What has that place done to me?

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