Monday, January 09, 2006

700 Middle-schoolers and a Tired Chaperone

Me and my kids at the end of the long weekend.

I spent the weekend with 700 middle school students.

But don’t send condolence cards. I actually like working with the kids that many fear.

I’m not saying they can’t be rascals if left off the leash for too long, especially at an event like "YouthQuake," where we spent the weekend.

But I think the middle-schoolers get a bad rap. I’ve worked my church’s junior high youth group for the past four years, and guided the high school kids for a couple years before that.

I think the middle school kids are more fun. They’re old enough that you can have a good serious discussion, yet young enough that they’ll enjoy a silly game, especially if includes running around and bouncing off walls. They watch the opposite gender intently — but from a safe distance.

And the kids seem to relate well to me. I suspect that I’m not as cool as I think I am, but not as out of touch as they assume I must be. I’m enough of a stickler to make sure they follow my rules, but lax enough to bend some of the event’s rules, like blowing off some of the most boring sessions and instead conducting our small group study in the hotel hot tub.

"You’re strict, but you’re not a butthead about it," one of the kids told me. I think that was a compliment.

The annual "YouthQuake" in Lansing attracts Lutheran middle school groups from all over the state, and includes Christian bands, a speaker and breakout activity sessions.

My job is to keep the 15 kids in my group safe, semi-focused and participating. And, if all breaks right, see if they can learn something and grow spiritually.

This year’s theme verses were the parable about the foolish man who built his house on the sand and the wise man built it on a rock, allowing it to survive when the storms came. The idea is to show the kids that using their religion as the foundation will serve them better than chasing money, popularity and the other worldly things that teens crave.

It’s a good topic because they can relate to it. Building on the rock means knowing to say "No" when someone at a party offers them beer, and I was surprised that this was already happening to them.

At the end of the night I buy a stack of pizzas, and we sit around and talk. I’m always amazed at how much they open up in the discussions. I try to pepper it with example from my own life, which they seem to like, especially when I tell them about ways I’ve screwed up.

Given all that, I do realize that they are indeed middle-schoolers and fully capable of mischief. "Trust but verify" is a good policy, and it helps that I’ve done this before. This year I knew enough to confiscate all the little packets of coffee from the in-room coffee machines. They were brewing the stuff last year to help stay up all night.

And while I often fear the worst — as a protective chaperone should — they happily prove me wrong time and again. There are couple surprises from this trip.

Movie time: I try to give them some time by themselves. I’m very close by — reading a newspaper in the hall -- but that gives both of us a little break. The kids — all 14 of them — were quietly spending some free time in one of the rooms, the wastepaper basket in the door to keep it open enough so I can hear if something was going on.

One of the boys walked out to get some more snacks from his own room, and I asked what they were doing. "We’re watching a movie." I immediately feared that they had ordered some of the hotel pay-per-view movies, and you know what kinds of movies are usually offered. I jumped in, and sure enough, they were all sitting around watching something intently. I though it was a good sign that no one dove for the remote to change the channel.

"What are you guys watching?"

"‘Annie.’" someone responded.

"‘Annie’ as in the red-haired kid with the dog and the bald guy?"


Phew! I have no idea why that would interest them, but sometimes it is best to just be grateful and not to question such things.

Dirty feet: Later in the night, they were gathered in the same room and one of the girls walked by with a towel. The hotel pool was closed for repairs so I couldn’t figure out what she was up to.

"We’re having a foot-soaking party."

Say what?

Sure enough, an inspection revealed about five if them standing, fully dressed except for shoes and socks, in the small bath tub, which was filled with water and bubbles.

I considered this to be an opening to tell them the story about Christ washing the feet of the disciples, but I didn’t want to cram anyone else in the tub.

I figure if that’s their idea of being wild and crazy, I’m going to be OK.

As Christians we are called on to spread the good news. I confess that I have trouble talking to adults about faith issues, especially trying to reach out to an adult non-believer. But it's different with kids. My hope is that I can do something that will take them a little bit further in their faith walk.

At the very worst I hope they see an adult who cares about them and is very happy with his life. And maybe if this Christ stuff is working for me they'll think it might work for them, too.


adenzeno said...

Bravo-I taught middle school for 9 years- you are to be commended.

mike said...

Loved the entry Dave. As a third grade catechist I acn sort of relate. However they keep asking me what Jesus and Mary's last names are. Kids are amazing.

Dad said...

I think you should b e nominated for sainthood!

Tony Hartsfield said...

You are creating memories in their spiritual development that they will recall years from now. Bravo.

And don't worry, there's always time to be a butthead.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
adenzeno said...

I am a HS baseball coach, and have a player who wants to be a journalist- is there anyone in particular at Missouri to whom he should write in an attempt to get in? Very intelligent and writes well for a high school kid- he asked me about places that had quality journalism programs and I told him about your story. Any advice would be appreciated.
Luis Venitucci

Mets Guy in Michigan said...

Here's the deleted comment. I came home after a crappy day at work, saw this anonymous posting and deleted it. But I thought about it, and decided that a blog by a journalist should be open to all opinions.

"As Christians we are called on to spread the good news. I confess that I have trouble talking to adults about faith issues, especially trying to reach out to an adult non-believer. But it's different with kids. My hope is that I can do something that will take them a little bit further in their faith walk." Read this a few times and it'll give a hint why religion worries so many of us.

(Dave again) I've read this a couple times and can't understand what he's objecting to. Warping young minds? It was a church youth group attending a church function, so I think parents were aware that we we would be talking about our beliefs. Is it because I'm more comfortable talking to kids instead of grown-ups? Hey, I've been on three church councils. The kids are more fun because you talk, then get to play dodge ball.

Mets Guy in Michigan said...

Hi Luis,

I'm always happy to recommend Mizzou to someone, and I'm flattered you asked me.

Now, you have to remember that it's been 20 years since I attended, and none of these people will remember me. But I say start at the top, and they will either help or direct you to someone who can. The dean is Dean Mills (yes, his name is Dean, and he tells funny jokes about that) and an excellent professor who served as a mentor for me was Daryl Moen, who is still on the faculty. The main number for the J-School is 573 882-4821.