THE CULTURE OF ALCOHOL IN RELATION TO SECONDARY AGED PUPILS: a feasibility study
Report submitted to funders in 1989, John Schostak, Richard Davies
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Analytic Profile No. 6. Debbie.
The way in which Debbie is introduced to a community of educationalists is as an emotionally and behaviourally disturbed (EBD) pupil. Her referral came via an educational psychologist following a period of disruptive and aggressive behaviour which culminated in her permanent exclusion from mainstream schooling. This should be borne in mind when reading the following. This is because after a period of immersion in the culture of an off-site unit which focuses on individual potential her responses have been of a young woman approaching maturation more rapidly than her EBD status would apparently signify.
In the case of Debbie we have very little data on the subject of alcohol. In
some respects, given her life experience this should come as no surprise. Drink
in the midst of the plethora of disruption and rejection of her life, seems
to comes low down on her list of priorities as a matter worthy of discussion.
Debbie appeared to have no interest in the subject, even gave the impression
of surprise that there should be any concern with drink beyond the realms of
dangerous excess. Thus, this profile will differ from the others not only in
terms of the extremity of the experience of a girl whose family disintegrated
around her requiring her to be taken into care, but also as one of the profiles
in which it was hardest to establish sufficient reference to alcohol to enable
direct analysis. Crucially this profile shows us alcohol as insignificant in
the context of other pressing concerns. It shows us in terms of what one might
easily (and conventionally) surmise as extreme vulnerability to substance abuse.
Nor, does one suspect, is it likely that Debbie would be anxious to withhold
information about her encounters with alcohol. She is extraordinarily forthcoming
about other equally if not more sensitive issues. This contrasts strongly with
John above, who, one can see, presents issues par excellence for alcohol education:
the routine weekend drinking, occasionally very heavy; the uncritical accomodation
of "blottodom'; the career associated with alcohol from an early age (the
contraband era and so forth); the desire and willingness to do as others do
whilst sharing the presumption of a peer culture whose social life is predicated
upon 'having a good time', 'having a laugh' with its deep affinities to the
consumption of alcohol (as it pertains indeed at all levels and in most groupings
in occidental society); and all this in the context, as unlike Debbie's as one
can imagine within the limited horizons of this study, of stable family, of
place-rootedness, of regular schooling, of steady ambition, of security and
To talk of Debbie's 'orientations' feels in some respects impertinent and perhaps is missing the point; rather as if one might speak of the orientations of someone who has been pushed down some long, vertiginous staircase by those that were meant to be trusted. The orientation in both cases will be to anything that serves the purposes of present survival in the context of deep and potentially abiding pain.
She is explicit about what she considered it necessary to do for survival. Her contemporaries in the home lay at the centre of her strategies. More research is required to determine the sources of the power of her peer group within the system of care to which she was allocated and/or why she felt it so necessary to accomodate herself so completely to their demands and expectations. Once the family has broken down (in Debbie's case twice) the individual must either turn towards 'the other', the world, the outside society or withdraw. An important effect of such a movement is to direct the individual away from the family. Debbie, by not taking up the option of withdrawal, which may not have been possible in the compressed spaces of residential care, thus became dependent upon her peer group for survival to an extent that does not apply to any one else in these profiles. This might explain some of their power over Debbie. The peer group at first resisted the newcomer, maintaining a preliminary state of estrangement, leaving Debbie dependent upon staff. She "sat in the staffroom" rejected by family and peer group alike. Obviously an untenable situation and gradually she was allowed into the peer group . By her own account this required her to undertake a number of rites de passage including smoking, stealing and losing her viginity. Alcohol did not appear to feature and this may be related to age and economics. She was thirteen when she first arrived in care and one presumes the scope for earning extra money was not as extensive as it was for say Chris, or John, for example (see above) living as they do in the' ordinary' community with its economic opportunity for youngsters.
Again, one must be wary of talking of 'orientations' when interpreting the decision making of someone in Debbie's circumstances. She describes herself as a naive, 'country' girl of very limited experience before she came into care. She was intensely vulnerable to isolation once she had arrived there. Indeed the other youngsters (particularly the girls) made it quite clear that she was a potential enemy until she had proved a friend. There was an initial ambience of undoubted hostility. We are talking about a nightmareish experience, Dickensian in its resonances, in which the decision to smoke, steal, lose virginity (or whatever else hypothetically might have been required such as glue sniffing, drinking or sundry other forms of health endangering behaviours) had little or nothing to do with the intrinsic merits or attractiveness of any of these options. What they provided were tickets of entry to the zone of survival.
But now three years on, at the age of 16, she is a daily, heavy smoker of roll up tobacco, acknowledges the effect upon her stamina, regrets the money, shows no sign of or commitment to giving up, regrets the expenditure and regrets the loss of her virginity. One could therefore speak more securely of her orientations now because she has in a sense 'survived' the transition into care. One may distinguish between habit, what she has done (what has happened), is doing (what is happening) and her orientations. Survival has been achieved but she continues to live amongst the remnants of that achievement. These do not necessarily correspond to her orientations, indeed, may oppose them. Now, although she is a smoker, she sees smoking in different terms expressing a new orientation, that is, as a habit, expensive and health damaging. Perhaps one could say she has recovered her former orientations as the naive country girl who first came into care. She had 'tried' a cigarette at the age of five in one of those precocious early one-off 'experiments' common to many children, but she came into care essentially a non smoker reluctant to start. She lost her virginity in an experience/es that she describes emphatically as 'horrible'. She now regrets that loss. A key educational issue is to be found in the lines of tension between regretted remnant and opposed orientation. In a sense this runs parallel to the problem of the tenuousness of information in the health education domain, i.e. the healthy messages do not reliably carry from the learning situation to the decision making context. Debbie for example smokes heavily and 'knows' it is bad: the remnant opposed by the orientation. Any educational response to Debbie's predicament which concerns itself with issues of health and personal and social development has to include how much Debbie already 'knows' and how much the humane assumption of her 'good' corresponds to her own sense of what she is worth - which may be so undermined as to render her largely indifferent to the vagaries of personal health. PSE, or health education for Debbie must begin by returning her experience to her, with a restoration of a strong and indubitable sense of her own value. Anything else is secondary.
Nevertheless, Debbie's situation and experience throws light upon the nature of those of the other youngsters represented in these profiles. The extremity of her case shows certain issues, structures, shaping influences and so forth with an unusual distinction. But these are all at work in the biographies of the others. As we have argued elsewhere in this report, there is more to drink than drinking and there must be more to alcohol education than alcohol. It could be said that all the profiles show the secondary nature of substance use and abuse; that it is merely one of the multitude of emergent properties of a life. What they show are degrees of vulnerability that are not always predictable nor always unexpected. What enables Chris to 'experiment' and then safely withdraw? Why does Laura seem to lack that safety of disengagement? What is the nature of the changing orientations of someone like Debbie in relation to smoking (that is: What is the educator addressing when handling the issue, for example, of smoking, in the face of someone like Debbie?). Why was 'the Wild' so much to the taste of the younger Ernie and why did its dangers not repel him?
2. transitional event(s)
Debbie lives in a world of quite clearly structured transitions related to her living circumstances. That is the institution supporting her has designed a career of maturation, developing independence and increasing responsibility integrated with the material conditions of the residents' accommodation. Every year, depending, of course, upon behaviour, the youngsters are moved on to a different bungalow, a greater independence until finally at the age of 18 they move out of the system of care and into their own rooms in a large shared house in the city. The questions that might be developed with Debbie in talking both about herself and other youngsters who have undergone the experience of residential care could be related to the 'fit' between the institutions' terms of maturation and those of the individual. A person living out their 'adolescence' in the family home will not experience such 'concrete' stages of transition intended to measure, mark, sustain and symbolise the growth of the individual in institutional terms, i.e. non-individual. Debbie provides a wholly different story of structurally determined 'growth' to those provided by the others represented in these profiles. There are structural determinants in their stories as well, of course, but none have an equal strategic and defining power over the life of the individual. Such an individual living at home will discover growth retrospectively and the experience will be evolutionary and surprising, rather than controlled and foreseeable all the way. Development will not be marked by signs on the road declaring "You are developed to this stage and to these criteria. You will now change". For Debbie growth and its marking transitions are, along one dimension, deeply impersonal.
Within the overarching institutional transitions of her life, Debbie also experiences the customary train of significant moments of adolescence, of critical decisions, of border crossings from one state to another. But for Debbie, key examples of these, almost universal amongst adolescence, such as smoking (the first image-oriented cigarette rather than childish experiment), sexual encounters (losing virginity), have been characterised by violence and informed by the exigencies of survival.
There is clearly a great deal more that can be said about the life of Debbie in relation to transition. The shoplifting expeditions for example. This involved, at first, a particularly sharp experience of transition. She was, she declared, very frightened ("I was shitting myself"). Fear was not and never has been a reliable inhibitor of actions. Fear indeed adds a dimension of excitement to activities; becomes one of the necessary ingredients lending value. But it remained a property largely of the moment of transition, first times. The shoplifting became easier, not only technically (it was easy to do) but morally. The most crucial feature of these expeditions were their capacity to allow intensely dependent collective activity. The impression one gets from Debbie's account, is that one shoplifted for others. In other words, it was not a self for self action (therefore harder to justify morally) but a self for others action (requiring little moral justification. It was a good). The shoplifting in a context of rejection became an emphatic way of being-with-the-world as well as being-in-the-world. The emphasis is constructed from the criminal or anti social character of the act; it carries the charge (in two of the senses of the word) of being-against-the world. Evidence for the link between her experience of the home, of her mode of survival within it , and the shoplifting seems to be provided by the fact, according to Debbie, that she has not 'nicked' since leaving the home two years ago. Clearly an educational response to the issue of shoplifting in relation to Debbie would have to address its social function in her life, it's perceived necessity. This would be in a sense unconnected to the criminal or moral issue of the acquisition of property through theft (which might been by Debbie as either 1] irrelevant or 2] providing the essential group-binding ingredient of danger). Otherwise Debbie and the educator would not be talking about the same thing; in other words it becomes possible that the educational act takes place in a context of cross purposes.
3. Career objects/aims/values
Until her move to the off site unit for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children, her preoccupying career has been with survival and belonging and the attendant intensity of involvement with the strong peer group at the home. This has since given way to a greater independence, a reassurance and stability, and a commitment to completing four GCSEs. She presents the appearance, as we note at the beginning of this analytic profile, of a young woman approaching maturity. There is a sense of self- acceptance; she does not require the support and protection of a group. Her life now revolves around earning money ( working at a supermarket) and completing her GCSEs . In the meantime she seldom goes out and is looking forward, in just over a year's time, to fully independent accommodation in the city. Her year at the special unit has been thus far successful in returning to her a sense of her value, of her right to be responsible for her life i.e. that she can have a significant measure of control over her fate; and of the value of being a member of a supportive educational community, in which all participate freely and, as far as possible, with equal determining rights. She has been given responsibility for her learning. She is still smoking heavily.