Here’s a valuable tip for those of you thinking about volunteering with your church’s middle-school youth program: have very low expectations. Taking a few mental steps down the staircase of Acceptable Standards for Organizational Behavior proved to be very helpful for an executive manager such as myself in more effectively leading a gangly group of 13-year olds at my church.
I found out very early on that the weekly youth meetings of our Middle School “ministry” (please note that I use that term very loosely here) are nothing at all like the corporate management meetings I am used to presiding over. When running a meeting at work, for instance, one can expect those in attendance will listen to you. Also, you can be pretty sure that most of the time the group will show some measure of respect, decency, and collaboration.
In the end you can hope for at least a small attempt at productivity, even in the most dysfunctional of teams. However, with middle school kids, you are pretty much outnumbered, ignored, and out of control 99 percent of the time. Plus, they can be really gross. Well, the boys, anyways.
As this topic of conversation comes up from time to time with friends and colleagues, many respond with a snort of laughter. This is then typically followed with a question that asks, in one form or another, “What on earth could have possibly possessed you to dedicate your precious time and astute executive mental acuity on middle school kids? Blech.”
Good question. You may very well share the opinion of my enthusiastic friend from Starbucks, Reece, who, upon hearing of my philanthropic endeavor with those surly church tweens said to me with a palpable disgust, “No one could ever pay me enough to work with middle school kids!” She put a defining emphasis on the words “ever,” “pay,” and “enough.” Sparks of spittle erupted from her mouth like fireworks as she spoke, especially on the word “pay.” She really meant it.
Later that week, while enjoying the fellowship and sophisticated conversation of civil-minded adults at a church potluck function, I found myself cornered by the father of five boys. He had heard about my unfortunate falling-in with the middle school program. “Well, now Brad,” he said with a serpent’s grin, in between bites of celery in ranch dip, “Aren’t you lucky to get stuck leading the middle school program!”
This is a form of encouragement, right?
“My heart goes out to you. Boys at that age can be…” He was searching for a word – one to replace the word that he intended to say, a word he might have regretted using in mixed company at a church function. Instead, he delivered the following statement to me: “Eighth-grade boys are the lowest form of life on earth.”
Well, thanks for that. He ought to know better than anyone else, I guess.
That disappointing attitude happens to be the overriding sentiment of many of my professional colleagues, too. People are generally perplexed towards the circumstances surrounding my willing involvement in such a degrading form of charity. The answer is rather simple. I happened to have a middle-school age daughter who was active in our church’s youth program, and as such, at one point, I was asked to “help out.”
You know very well how these things go. In the parallel universe of congregational volunteer life, this innocent-sounding invitation to “help out” is nothing more than a devious trap. On the surface the request appears so mild and harmless. Sure, I can help out! Why not?
Eventually, though, one thing leads to another, and before you know it, no one can remember who is responsible for next week’s lesson, and you did such a great job with the kids when you went on the retreat, and where did you come up with that great game that involved the toothpaste and raw eggs, etc. etc.
Gradually, imperceptibly, you are sucked in further and further. Before I knew what had happened, I was the designated leader for our entire middle school fellowship of about 40 kids.
I’ll admit I could have walked away at any time, but there was a deeper reason as to why I let myself become so readily lured in to leading this group of middle schoolers: I felt sorry for them. There you have it. I feel bad for these kids having to be that age. It’s not their fault! Someone has got to help see them through!
Eighth grade was an especially traumatic year for me. Whenever I hear the youth group kids complaining about school, or bullies, or some other puberty-related issue, I tell them stories of my own oppressive experiences when I was in eighth grade, in 1972. They soon begin to realize just how charmed their own lives are by comparison.
Our nomadic family was going through a phase. We moved to a different state and school system for each year of my sixth, eighth, and ninth grades. Eighth grade was definitely the worst of them all. I was not the most athletic young man, so that immediately placed me firmly at the lowest ranking of the middle school echelon. Add to that my greasy hair, braces, and oversized, thick-lens eyeglasses, and you start to get a very sorry picture.
To say I was awkward-looking at 13-years-old is to be very generous. And here’s the saddest part: by the end of eighth grade, I had made only three friends – one was severely learning disabled, one was a freak of nature, and the third was the most effeminate boy in the school. Honest. That was the best I could do.
“Tell us more!” The youth group kids say, hanging on every word. They eat it up, imagining me as the dork they could have pounded on today in the hallways of their schools. “What was wrong with the freak? Did you get beat up? Did you ever find out what happened to them?”
When I walked into my first day of school in eighth grade as the new kid from out of town, I was escorted to my homeroom class, which was led by a certain math teacher, Mr. Hanson. Mr. Hanson was a short, slight man with a head like a bird. He took one look at me and did some quick calculations in his head: braces, plus thick glasses, minus self-confidence equals loser.
Once the situation was summed up firmly in his mind, he knew immediately what to do, and took swift action. Mr. Hanson called over the Freak of Nature and asked him to shepherd me through my first few days of school. This boy, if I can even call him that, was about seven feet tall and already developed, like a full-grown man. However, his face was covered with a severe case of acne, which would remind you of his unfortunate state of puberty. He was like a 13-year-old boy crammed into a 35-year-old man’s body. This meant, of course, that no other normal 13-year-old in their right mind would want to be caught dead with him.
Freak of Nature promptly escorted me over to his table and kindly offered me the seat next to him (I attended a very progressive school where the students sat at large tables in groups rather than at individual desks). I couldn’t help but notice that, while all the other tables in the classroom seated six or seven pupils, this table of eight had only two other students stationed there: a boy with an obviously severe learning disability, and an effeminate young man who was, dare I say, flaming.
Without a second thought by Mr. Hanson, I had been taken directly to the Table of Outcasts. That pretty much set the tone for how the rest of the year was going to be.
Once I was seated, The Flaming One immediately launched into an animated tale of his weekend festivities, which was dominated by the intricate re-telling of a musical theatre performance that he had attended, a show that I had never heard of before, called Jesus Christ Superstar.
I pretended to organize my notebook and pencils as he described it in vivid detail, using a variety of flowing hand movements, the highlights of this fabulous theatrical production. It was the dream of his life come true, he gushed. By the time he sashayed through Act 3, a cold, harsh realization set in regarding the fate of my eighth grade year: once I had taken that fourth seat at the Table of Outcasts, there was no turning back.
If Jesus ever showed up at our school, he would have definitely made a beeline over to our table first. He would have brushed hastily past the other tables that were filled with well-adjusted young teens, and rushed to our aid, filled with compassion.
Throughout that year, I endured my fair share of eighth-grade cruelty, but in spite of it all, survived well enough with my little band of misfits. The Flaming One proved to be a very entertaining tablemate. He was good-natured, full of dramatic tales, and against all odds, had a much higher self-esteem than I could ever seem to muster. The Freak of Nature was extremely kind to me the entire year. And the boy with the learning disability showed a great sense of humor. We stuck together, and stuck it out.
Thank God we moved again, and in ninth grade I totally reinvented myself. I filled out. I started washing my hair, got more stylish glasses, and embarked on the one sport that I was really good at – the swim team. That was the year I learned resilience.
In spite of all the chaos associated with leading a middle school youth group, I have grown to love these kids. After feeling initially terrified about how to interact with them (Am I cool enough? Will they think I’m a geek? Will I be too strict?), I soon loosened up and actually got to know them.
Much to my surprise, I’ve discovered they have distinct personalities and interesting ways of viewing the world. When you get past all the farting and punching and spitting and throwing things and obsession with celebrity gossip, you find they actually have opinions!
I told Reece, “You know, you’d be surprised that there are actual human beings under there when you look close enough.” And that, my friends, was my startling discovery about working with young teenagers. They are really just younger versions of adults. Or maybe we are older versions of 13-year-olds.
At the end of each of our meetings, before everyone goes home, we circle up in small groups for a brief time of discussion and prayer. This is the part where, in theory, you can break through all the fun and games and delve in to some serious theological discussions.
The other night it went like this:
Me: “Okay kids, time to pray. Does anyone have any prayer requests?”
Ginny: “My friend’s gramma is dying.”
Danielle: “One of our teachers committed suicide last week.”
Me: Yikes! Calmly, like I knew all about it, I said, “Okay, yeah, I heard about that. That’s real sad.”
Madison: “Yeah, she was involved in drugs and she was really depressed because her husband left her.”
All: (Excited chatter and sharing of bits of gossip. Madison knew way too much.)
Me: “Okay, okay kids, let’s focus.” (This phrase occurs quite a lot with me and middle school kids.) “All right, we’ll pray for the teacher and the family. Anyone else? For prayer?”
Louis: “We should pray that the cops catch the killer of the lady who was cut up into pieces and put into different garbage bags and thrown out of the car window onto the highway.”
Me: OMG! I just heard about this on the news during dinner. Apparently, so did Louis. Why do these kids have to be exposed to so much horrible violence? Deep sigh. I said out loud, “Yes, we’ll pray for the killer to be found.”
I paused for a moment as the kids who hadn’t yet heard about the hatchet job got all worked up, trying to get more details from Louis. “You know, guys,” I interrupted, “I wish you didn’t have to even hear about things like that. It must make you feel scared sometimes.” They seemed relatively unfazed.
We huddled real close, and prayed for the gramma and the teacher’s family and, yes, for God to help the cops find the killer, then I asked God to show these kids how much He loves them. I don’t know how or where or when, but please let these kids know God’s love. Everyone is quiet for a moment as I finish the prayer. I sense the peace of Christ piercing their hearts.
“Amen!” we all say, holding our hands tightly together. Then one of the boys farts and the kids break up into fits of laughter and disgust.