Learning from the Young Ones
If you’ve ever accompanied two dozen middle school students to camp, you know it’s an exhausting—but highly valuable—experience. To laugh, play, and learn alongside fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders is an honor and a joy. My middle school students teach me so much.
Here are some of the lessons my students taught me at camp this year:
The space between words said and words heard is a dangerous place.
In the middle of an intense game, words were being thrown around in a buzz of accomplishing the task at hand. We were supposed to be working together, but in the heat of the moment, we were thinking more about accomplishing a task than the value of the people we were working alongside. When a moment of offering solutions turned to a misunderstood statement of value, a heart was crushed. The intended message was “We’re near the end—some of us can rest now.” But what the student heard was “You’re not valuable.”
I’m sure you can relate to this student’s pain. I know I can. How many times have we heard in someone’s words, “You don’t matter”? How many times have others interpreted our words as an evaluation of their worth?
It’s heartbreaking. It destroys friendships.
I took this student aside, and she and I talked about how her friend’s words made her feel and what her friend might have actually meant. This girl’s friend followed her around until she was allowed to apologize. One girl was wounded, and the other carried confused guilt—both were afraid to step back into the relationship.
It is difficult to always be aware of our words, but if we can remember that the people are more important than the project, then the space between spoken and heard might shrink.
Bravery is personal and requires community.
The high ropes—every camp has some form of this torture (or thrill, depending on your point of view). There are always three groups of participants:
- The spider monkeys. These students are the first to gear up and scale the wall, the pole, or the net. They’re usually a little bummed they can’t just hold onto a bar and fly down the zip line. “Aw, man! Do I have to wear the harness?”
- The ones who want to sit this one out. These students have either climbed their fair share of walls and it is no longer a challenge for them, or they’ve climbed enough walls to know that they have no desire to relive the feeling of their stomachs in their throats as they force themselves to step off the zip line platform.
- The in-betweeners. These students want to try. They want to know the feeling of flying down the line. They want to prove—mostly to themselves—that they can scale that wall. But they are terrified.
For some in-betweeners, it only takes a nudge for their courage to rise. Others need conversations with peers, leaders, and with themselves in order to work up enough nerve. On this trip, we had a sweet girl who was all geared up and warming the bench, but she wavered back and forth about whether or not she would do the course. Leaders and friends encouraged her to give it a shot. We assured her the harness would hold her. After a few I wills and I can’ts, she said this: “My goal is to try.”
This little in-betweener scaled that course like a spider monkey—she was the fastest one! She got to the top and struck a Wonder-Woman victory pose. And when it was time for her to jump off the zip line platform, an older student walked her through it and held her hand as they both went soaring down the line. It was beautiful!
At the end of the day, this is what she said: “I was able to go fast because I knew Jesus was with me. He makes me brave.” Well, amen.
Her bravery was dependent upon her willingness to take the first step. Her bravery was dependent upon the other students who cheered for her and held her hand. But ultimately, she recognized that the source of all that helps her be brave is Jesus. This is true for you and for me, too. It’s personal. It takes community. And it all depends on Jesus.
There’s no need to worry—we’ll get to where we are going.
The drive to camp takes about four-and-a-half hours plus a stop at the world’s greatest gas station/corner store: Buc-ees. (If you don’t know about Buc-ees, take a road trip through Texas ASAP.) Overall, the trip takes about five hours—unless one of your crew becomes violently ill. Then that five-hour trip home might just become a nine-hour trip.
When this happens, thoughts split into a billion different directions: You think of parents waiting for children who were supposed to be home a long time ago. You worry about the passenger whose insides are demanding they get their moment in the sun, if you know what I mean. You worry about what they need; you are searching your history of violent illness to find a cure. You are also selfish and just want to be home, for the sake of all that is good and holy. And you are waiting for that moment, when the students will snap and the deluge of whining will begin.
Only, it never came. These were middle school students at the end of a fun but exhausting week of camp. They had plans to go to the beach or hang out with friends or eat an awesome home cooked meal yet they never once complained that they were stuck in a van four extra hours. I’m telling you, the Spirit of the Lord was upon us.
The students occasionally asked how far we were from home, but it was always in a sweet, curious tone. Beyond that, they were much more concerned for our sick passenger than they were about getting home. There was even a point (thank you, Houston rush hour) when I expressed the smallest amount of irritation, and I heard from the students, “It’s okay, Erin. We’ll get there.”
Sometimes things don’t go as planned. Sometimes people become ill and you have to slow down and take care of them. Sometimes what should take five hours takes longer.
Our plans don’t always play out the way we hoped. Maybe you knew when you were twelve years old that you wanted to do student ministry, but you didn’t get there until you were thirty. Maybe you know you’re meant to adopt your precious foster child, but the system won’t cooperate. Maybe you’re confident that God has called you to move to a new city, but your house just won’t sell. Don’t worry. We are all headed toward being home with Jesus, and we will get there—even if things don’t go as planned along the way.
In scripture, there are many places where we read about how the young brought more wisdom and faith to the table than seasoned adults. While you’re teaching, raising, or avoiding children, don’t forget that they may be the ones who’ll teach you.
What have you learned from young ones lately?
Erin Woods works with middle and high school students in Kingwood, TX. The promise of possibility makes her heart beat a little faster, as she loves to dream of what could be. Injustice breaks her heart, music stirs her heart, and anything that makes her laugh so hard that there’s no more sound blesses her heart.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.