in a completely stretching gesture, i spent last weekend with middle schoolers. not just an hour or two but the entire weekend, friday through monday. living with them. sleeping on a bunk, eating with them, and hanging with them at free time. i learned a few new dance moves, got called “adorable” a lot, and, above all else, grew.
the venue was an amazing coastal camp facility (go twin rocks!) and the event “jr high jam” (sponsored by northwest yearly meeting of friends). i had been asked to speak and said yes because several families who i love have middle schoolers that would be attending. it seemed like a fantastic opportunity to get some bonding time with them away from our normal fast paced meet ups. when i said yes i didn’t really think much about the fact that there would be far more middle schoolers there than the ones in knew and that i would be responsible for 6 sessions of teaching time.
my first session friday night felt to me like a colossal failure. while i could tell that i had captured a few kids’ attention and interest, others were talking over me, making bizarre faces in response to my silly visual aid (“hello my name is” stickers stuck all over me), or were clearly all-together checked out. that night, as i lay sleeplessly in my bunk until the very early hours of the morning, i realized that i’d rather speak to a room of 500 adults/ph.d.’s/m.d.’s/academicians than this room of 50 kids. i felt completely out of my element. i wasn’t sure i really had what it took to capture the attention of this age group and felt insecure about my ability to give them anything substantive that they would remember. i felt defeated and had barely begun. committed to the task, however, i rolled out of bed the next morning and attempted to ready myself for the upcoming session.
this time, things flowed. as i made my way through my material i began to realize that there was very little that was different about this “audience” than others i had been with in the past. as i spoke from what i knew (what it is like to be a very flawed and less than perfect person in a world that promotes idealized notions of beauty, intellect, and ability) to who i saw them to be (very flawed and less than perfect people in a world that promotes idealized notions of beauty, intellect, and ability) they responded. over the course of the six sessions we shared together i came to some important awarenesses about what middle schoolers, actually what all of us, need.
what middle schoolers we all need:
1 people who see amazing/good/true/unique/frequently overlooked qualities in us and call them forth.
whether we like to admit it or not, we are all prone to sizing people up and responding to them from there. it’s human nature. it’s hard to wait to notice how people are inside before we respond to their outsides. it involves being uncomfortable and not being in control of any given moment.
i was blessed by the insights these kids who had never met me had about me and felt challenged to live into these things more fully. on the flip side, unlike their parents or the other adults in their lives, i was getting a little away-from-home snap shot of who these young people were. with no prior experience with many of them i was able to simply look for the positive things i saw and affirm them. i had the freedom to observe them without preconceived ideas of how they would behave and find uniquenesses to validate in them.
to the kid who likely has a difficult time focusing and attending i was able to say, “you really seem to be able to do a lot of things at once. i can tell you’re listening to me and you’re also trying to get your neighbor’s attention and you’re folding your note paper into an airplane all at once. wow. what is that like? is it a helpful thing to have such a wide focus or does it make life hard?” to the student who hung back and seemed uncomfortable with the constant group setting i could say, “i am so impressed that you participated in recreation today. i get the sense that that wasn’t easy for you. way to go!!” to the kiddo who is constantly being told not to doodle on her notes or fidget while listening i was able to say, “do what you need to do to be able to pay attention and remember. if that includes standing up and pacing in the back, do it. if it means drawing while i talk, do it. your body is doing an excellent job of giving you clues. how can i help you listen to them?”
we all benefit by encounters with people who see us with new eyes and who call out what they see in loving ways in order to help us learn and grow.
2 to see amazing/good/true/unique/frequently overlooked qualities in others and to call them forth.
these 11- 13 year olds needed to see things about me and be able to comment on them. they needed to be able to see that their words impacted me and touched me. they needed to be respected for their opinions and thanked for the relational risks they were willing to take when they spoke relationally with an adult. similarly, i needed to see amazing things in the kids who couldn’t sit still, who were inflexible and/or entitled, or who acted in less than respectful ways. it stretched me to look at this group of people to whom i felt completely out of touch with eyes for what would connect us and what i could relate to.
it’s easy to assume that those we haven’t yet learned to relate to are “wrong,” “different,” or even “bad” and, therefore, miss opportunities to stretch ourselves and grow. there is something very powerful, however, about being flexible enough to risk meaningful communication with people who are very different from us. the vulnerability in doing this invites others to be authentic in return. from there, genuine connection can occur.
3 safe spaces in which to practice living into these amazing/good/true/unique frequently overlooked qualities.
it can feel very difficult to try on new skills/traits/abilities within the context of people who know us well. unwittingly these familiar people are likely to comment on our “rehearsals” and we are prone to take these comments as underhanded criticism. for instance, when you’re an introvert trying to learn how to navigate social situations, the significant others in your life might over-praise your efforts making you feel as though your introversion is not acceptable. the spaces between how we’ve trained others to think about us and how we’d really like to be can be scary. when we are navigating these spaces, moving from old habits into new ways of being, we need open, affirming, and non-judgmental allies around us.
4 new ideas and information that challenges us.
we all need information that is a bit beyond our intellectual grasp. left to ourselves we gravitate toward that which is familiar or easily understood. doing so keeps us stymied.
before i had met this group i had a strong notion of what i thought they could handle. over the course of the weekend, however, i found myself adding much more sophisticated content to my talks. the reality was that the more complex information i introduced, the more the campers seemed to engage and attend. our brains work on the principle of “use it or lose it.” it’s important to ask more of ourselves than we think we can expect at times. it, quite literally, grows us to do so.
5 opportunities to try new things.
one of my favorite experiences of the weekend came in our final session. it was monday morning and we’d been together since friday afternoon. we had learned and eaten and played and lip sync’ed together and we were preparing to depart for home. i had been talking with them about how to be their most authentic selves for the weekend and how focusing on being loved (by God, by those that genuinely know and care about them, and even by them selves) could provide them with an always available comforting space. before they left the retreat i wanted to give them the gift of teaching them how to access that internal place in a very real and practical way. i knew i was taking a huge risk and that i might fail miserably but i chose to go with my gut and ask this assembled group of kids to spend 10 full minutes in a completely silent contemplative prayer exercise. the three boys who had sat up front and struggled to pay attention all weekend said, outloud, “there is no way i can do this. no way.” one staff person looked at me like i had lost my mind. i went on anyway. after the first three minutes with some giggles and wiggles the room became completely silent and still. by the end of the time over 3/4 of the students had smiles on their faces as they lay on their backs, eyes closed, imagining the sturdiness of the LOVE i was asking them to imagine. if i would have listened to my fears i would not have given these kids this opportunity to stretch themselves and they would not have been able to feel the success of such a mature feat.
we all need spaciousness when it comes to taking risks. we benefit from experiences that are new to us. leaning into these keeps us flexible, empathic, and actively engaged in life. it also makes us mature.
this week, might you look for opportunities to experiment with and explore this list? might you ask others for what they see in you, or speak into someone else’s life in meaningful ways? might you stretch yourself intellectually or experientially? and, above all else, might you nurture safe spaces for yourself and others in which to get that which we all really need?