It’s a fairly harmless question, no ill will intended, and yet it raises the hair on the back of my neck. It’s sometimes an exercise in self-control because I’m tempted to answer sarcastically to make a point and likely offend the inquirer which would achieve nothing. But the fact of the matter is I’m not crazy, I’m not brave, and it doesn’t require courage to take MY group of junior high students out in public on an activity or event. Myself and the other adults that have committed to investing in the lives of young teens who are not our own are regularly affirmed for our bravery and courage to take 30-40 junior high students out to the beach, the mall, wherever, and asked afterwards if we survived. I’ve said it before from the pulpit but I’ll say it again here. We have a good group of kids.
Just this weekend we took 34 of them to the mall to do Christmas Shopping. No one “got lost”, was left behind, was a nuisance, or tempted us to purchase one of those kiddie leashes usually reserved for toddlers. Personally I had a group of 11 of them with me, and it was quite enjoyable and easy. They stayed together, they communicated with me if they were going into another store, they knew where to wait for the rest of the group if they finished in a store ahead of the rest of us. They didn’t complain about little stuff, they were patient with one another, they were polite and courteous of other shoppers, didn’t break anything including the hurricane simulator that they managed to stuff way too many persons into, and no one sneaked out of the movie we went to see as a group. I really didn’t even have to keep track of them because one of them took it upon himself to keep tabs on everyone else (in a way that didn’t get under their skin) and keep me updated on who was in what store in the vicinity that we stopped in.
This past weekend was not an anomaly of their normal behavior when we take them out in public. It is what we’ve come to expect, because that is what they’ve consistently demonstrated. As I said to one of the other adult leaders, “In nearly seven years of working with this group they’ve never given me a reason.” They’ve never given me a reason to be suspicious of them, so naturally I become a little annoyed and even irritated when people talk about them in a way that assumes that they are nothing, but trouble waiting to happen. I’ve been thinking about why I get irritated by inquiries of my survival, and affirmations of my bravery and courage, and here is what I’ve landed on.
1. I can only speak for my group. Common consensus is that Junior High age kids don’t have a long attention span, are combative of authority, are squirrelly and extremely difficult to manage. While I can’t speak for early adolescents universally I can speak for the group that I work with, and I would say that they are a joy to work with. Their attention span can be very long as long as whatever it is their being asked to sit for merits the attention. They thrive with well defined boundaries and feel safe when they know they can trust those in the positions of authority.
2. I don’t know what they’re like at home. But I know that they come from good homes. Whether it be two parent or one parent homes, the overwhelming majority of students I work with come from families with parents who take the role of parenting seriously and are not trying to be their child’s friend. Certainly all of them test their parents at home as is only natural for adolescents. However, many of them are mindful to represent their families well, and have been warned of consequences for not holding to a certain behavioral standard when under the authority of other adults they’ve been entrusted to. I’m thankful that across the board the parents within the local church body I am a part of make our life easier as youth leaders by holding their children to a high standard in the home. I’m grateful that though some students may push it at home with their parents they know how to act when their parents aren’t around, because of their parents.
3. They listen. They hear when you sell them short. This is something that I was guilty of when I was lamenting (on a previous trip) how a previous class spoiled us as adult leaders because there were a handful of them always intuitively stepping up and looking for ways to serve the group (which is uncommon amongst any age group). It got back to me that some of the students overheard this and were a little hurt because they interpreted it as me not being happy with them and not liking them as much. The innocent comments of survival bravery and courage are most often made in the presence of the students and I can’t help but consider the inference they must hear. I imagine that they hear that adults think they are nothing more than wild animals that are hazardous to your mental health. Early adolescents are understandably insecure enough with all the changes they are undergoing without it being inferred that to spend time with them means your very survival is at stake, and requires bravery. The last message any early adolescent needs to receive is that they aren’t normal.
So if you happen to ask me, even in jest, if I survived a youth event, or compliment me on my ‘bravery’ for giving my time to spend with Junior High age students and I hesitate or look puzzled for a moment you know why.