Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Kids try so hard to be cool.

I teach a weekly writing class to teens, and I know that not much has changed between my years as a teenager and theirs. Of course, technology has changed everything, but the need to be approved, accepted, and admired by the ol' peer group is still something most teenagers are after. One thing I notice today that I didn't realize so much when I was a teen is that the kids who are trying the hardest to say, "I'm an individual. I don't fit in and I don't want to fit in," are the ones who are the most desperate to be accepted! Rather than struggle with it, they just opt to be mavericks and console themselves with the mantra above. :) What ends up happening, however, is that they sabotage themselves with the very "coolness" they are trying to portray. Because they are not being themselves, they come off as fake, unfriendly, difficult people. And that distances other people from them. So, rather than investing in close personal relationships where they can know and be known, they create an invisible shield that basically invites people to leave them alone!

Truthfully, every person has a story. And most every person wants his story told--and listened to. The older I get, the more I think people are screaming their stories at us, but we don't hear them.

Maclain (not his real name) was a student of mine who had a story. He didn't share it, and no one else in our class knew his story. But I knew, and I saw him telling his story every day in the way he acted--the way he expressed and presented himself. Just 14, he needed to tell it. And he needed to be heard. But most of the other students in my class didn't pay much attention. Immersed in their own dramas (that hasn't changed!), they were too self-absorbed to notice his. When he skirted the very edge of our conservative dress code, no one paid attention. When he didn't participate in group activities, no one cared. He was simply dismissed, overlooked, and worst of all, ignored. Now, in truth, no one openly mistreated him, and he had plenty of friends outside the class. In fact, he was one of my favorite students, ripe with talent and, underneath all the black clothes, a heart of gold. But there was so much to him--so much there to know and understand and become acquainted with--so much not to dismiss.

Toward the end of the school year, I gave my students an assignment of writing a devotional. The devotionals were read aloud the following week. I had no idea what they would come up with, but we prayed that day before we got started with class, and I reminded the students how important it was to be respectful of each other. As each student began to read what he or she had written, hearts were opened and laid bare. I was astonished as each teen revealed dreams, desires, disappointments, and disgraces. I don't know if, as a high schooler, I could have or would have been willing to put myself out there like they did that day. And then, when I honestly didn't know if my heart could take anymore, in what can only be defined as a watershed moment for me and every student who was present that day, Maclain began to read the devotion he had written.

Through carefully crafted words, he told the story of his mother's death, just a few years before, from cancer. He told how he found out she was sick, of listening to her vomit and feeling his stomach tighten as he knew there was something terribly wrong. He told of the hospital, sterile and cold, so frightening to a boy not yet 12. Then he took the hearts already lain bare and he wrapped them in the story of the day when he was told that his dear mother had passed on--a day when he thought that the news would be just the opposite. Twice as he read, he paused to take long, loud, gasping breaths, like a swimmer who comes up for air before diving down to the depths again. As every eye remained fixed on him, and as every eye, both boys and girls, began to fill with tears, a hope filled the classroom. A hope that rested on Maclain's as he shared his knowledge of and relationship with Jesus Christ. A hope that parked on a God Who had just enabled the other students to see through new eyes. A hope that handed back our hearts now packaged in the certainty that we would walk away with our focus turned outward rather than inward.

With just a few weeks left in class, I saw things change, but not because of pity. Things changed because a group of teenagers learned that people are not always as they appear. In fact, they are hardly ever so. This hope-filled moment came about when someone who needed to be heard found his voice, and when those around him listened with their hearts.

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