What have I learned from work experience students? Much more than they learned from me | Zoe Williams

They got as much Diet Coke as they could drink and sometimes an ‘additional reporting’ credit. I gained an insight into a world of new perspectives

A teenager of my acquaintance is currently on work experience and obviously, as a parent, anyone’s critical concern is whether or not the teenager in question is annoying someone. But having been at the other end of this telescope, I can say that these young people are a lot more useful than they look.

Ten years ago, I gave a talk for the feminist group at a local secondary school, and I managed to offend a 17-year-old. Her complaint was so incredibly niche – I’d unfairly maligned the Socialist Workers party – that when she followed it up with a request for work experience, I was too awed to say “no”.

A person doesn’t really get much from watching me work, however. It’s 90% staring. Shortly before I produce anything, the staring takes on a dark urgency, which is easy to mistake for rage. It’s like doing work experience with a super villain in his planning stage. No explosions, just a powerful and silent malevolence. I wouldn’t be able to name a skill anyone would take from watching this.

A case of mutual upskilling?
A case of mutual upskilling? Photograph: ljubaphoto/Getty Images (posed by models)

I only even realised that halfway through the week with my young work experiencee, F, so I took her to a public meeting about legal cases against the NHS, related to difficult births, and there were quite a lot of pretty intense details related to forceps and how, ideally, they shouldn’t come into contact with a baby’s eyes. There were also some slides, which I think is the main reason she fainted. It didn’t seem like squeamishness, she was just an intensely empathetic person. After that, I took her vox popping, and she had this unerring instinct for what people were thinking before they said it, and while it wasn’t very much use journalistically – if you want to quote someone, you really need them to speak out loud – it was like travelling about with a psychic. I loved it.

A year later, I had another workie, A, who was so incredibly angelic that I speculated mildly once that I couldn’t imagine him doing anything bad, ever, and he said, on the contrary, once when he got out of his mum’s car, he cued a track and put the volume up as loud as it would go, so that when she turned the engine on, she got Careless Whisper at an unbelievable 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 elderly people. It was quite a delicate operation, this, asking strangers how it feels to be, in aggregate, the nation’s eldest. But what I learned was nothing to do with the story at all, and all to do with how unbelievably racist some people are. I have been walking up and down random high streets soliciting opinions since 1995, and never, until I was with a young black guy, have I been asked for ID, or sworn at, or had someone visibly cross the road to get away. I was so gobsmacked I got to the point of yelling at a jeweller who started closing her security shutters when we walked in (first rule of vox popping: you’re really not meant to shout at anyone), and my work experience person wasn’t surprised in the slightest.

Next was J, who was a little bit older, about to go to university; I was in the middle of getting divorced, and in all the very intense thinking of the period, the one thing I hadn’t noticed was that I wasn’t doing any work. I thought I was holding it together, but I never actually sat down, I just buzzed around, putting important things down in weird places and being unable to find them again. Concentration was a foreign country. J, incredibly gently, through a series of tactful observations and colour-coded to-do lists, reintroduced me to the concept of productivity. She is now doing a PhD on poetry informed by social trauma events (such as Grenfell), and we still talk sometimes – about things that we are working on – and afterwards, I can never remember who was asking for whose advice.

It is a trite conclusion but true: I learned a lot more than I imparted, every time. They got as much Diet Coke as they could drink and sometimes an “additional reporting” credit, and I got a world of new perspectives and, just to be kosher, a DBS certificate.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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