A Rare Kind of Popular

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Something happens to students upon entering middle school.  It was only 7 months ago that I watched fresh faced kids, including my own, in their best attire, smiling broadly as they received certificates for completing elementary school.  Now, as some of these same faces arrive for Monday night CCD class, it’s as if someone flipped a switch and they officially became teenagers who walk, talk and dress alike.

Clusters of girls in skinny jeans, wearing UGG’s and North Face jackets and sporting pony tails, walk in tight groups, practically tripping over each other.  They’re chatting and laughing excitedly, their eyes darting around the room, assessing the others. The boys sport their own “uniform” – mostly North Face jackets, jeans and sneakers or work boots.  More clustering and more scoping out the scene. Just one year ago as an assistant,  I would have received many more  hellos from these kids.  Now they barely register that I’m present.

Although the “look” is not unfamiliar to me, as I have two kids who have gone through this stage already, it’s still remarkable to watch it in action.  It’s no longer easy for me to pick my girl out in a crowd of seventh graders as she, too, has the “look.”  Occasionally our eyes meet and I am rewarded with a sweet, if not sympathetic, smile. (She still likes me).

Tonight’s topic is social justice and how God deeply loves everyone in the world, regardless of their appearance, achievements or possessions (or lack thereof) and how God expects us all to extend that same love to our neighbors.  We have a responsibility to love and to take care of each other, particularly those who are the poorest and neediest among us.

Close your eyes and imagine what this room would feel like if we all loved each other unconditionally, the same way God loves us.  How would it feel?

It’s a question that appears to have caught them off guard.  It’s clearly a moment of thinking outside the box for these middle school students, most of whom spend each day trying to dress right, feel good emotionally and physically, and fit in with their peers while projecting an image of having everything figured out. Love one’s peers?  Whoa.

“It would feel gooooood,” said one boy, fluttering his eyelashes and wrapping an arm around the shoulders of the boy next to him.

“Amazing!” shrieked another boy who likes to get a reaction (and he got one).

“Good,” replied my daughter, when I asked her later, in the privacy of our home. “’Cuz there’d be no meanness, no sarcasm… no bullying.”  Aha.  The original question at the group meeting was meant to elicit such a response but, alas, got none.  Not even from my daughter who apparently had the answer in her head.  I have a feeling others may have had it, too.  Confidence, peace, acceptance and cooperation were some of the ideas I had in my own mind.

If we each could see only goodness in each other, the way God sees goodness in all of us, the lack of judgment and competition could free up individuals to completely and comfortably be themselves.  No one would feel the need to compare himself to others, but would just be somewhere along the path of his own journey.

But typically for teens (and for many adults), that’s not the way it works.   Survival of the fittest takes over, beginning in middle school, when it is of utmost importance to wear the right clothes and own certain gadgets.   They desperately want to be liked by others.  They want to fit in, to be smart, to make the right team, to look attractive, to make people laugh.  They want others to believe they have everything under control but in reality, underneath the “uniform” and the giggling and the silly responses to serious questions, they all have limitations that they try to hide from others.  Sensing they belong is sometimes more important than sensing the need to show compassion for someone else.

The same kid in this seventh grade CCD class who only a few years ago was shy and polite in class, tonight appears to be the ring leader among the guys, even showing no remorse for failing to save his long-time friend a seat with the group. I watch as the friend without a seat shrugs his shoulders, red faced, and searches for a free chair away from his peers. It’s similar to the second question posed tonight.  If you saw someone sitting alone at a table in the school lunchroom, would you sit with him or even ask him to join your table?

Many teens know the discomfort of sitting alone, if for no other reason than seats at a table are unavailable.  Regardless, sitting alone is not enjoyable for most teens.  Even self-assured teens don’t enjoy sitting alone.  Would you join the kid sitting alone?   It depends, they say.   How many teens would sit with a friend who was alone?  How many would sit with someone they didn’t know who was alone?  How many would sit with someone who had few friends?  God asks us to take care of each other.

Not long ago, another mom and I were talking about how fantastic the bonding is that typically takes place for the sixth grade students in our town at a week-long overnight camp.  This year, however, one student made the long trek home to sleep each night and returned in the morning.  When some of his cabin mates joked about the student’s need to go home, one student not only refused to join in but verbally questioned the integrity of the group for ridiculing this child and for doing so behind his back.  Speaking up takes tremendous courage for someone so young.   Even adults have trouble putting an end to idle gossip.  It’s much easier, although cowardly, to remain silent.

* * *

Teens might be surprised to know that everyone is more or less fighting some kind of battle.  Even those who seem to have everything going well for them oftentimes are struggling in some way.  Consider these situations:

  • The academically driven student who is secretly hurt when others criticize her for trying too hard.
  • The student who wants to succeed but just doesn’t have the passion and/or skills to do so and develops an attitude to mask his discouragement.
  • The rule-following student who doesn’t understand why the disrespectful behavior receives more approval by peers.
  • The kid who has lots of friends but feels enormous anxiety about the dysfunction happening at home.
  • The kid who will do anything to feel accepted in the “popular” crowd, even if it means severing old, established friendships
  • The kid whose family is struggling to make ends meet, and cannot afford fancy gadgets or brand name labels and feels inferior.

Things are not always what they seem.   Extending compassion and acceptance to others — regardless of how they look or act — could be habit-forming and could be life-changing for the giver as well as the recipient.  Be kind to enemies?  What is there to lose?

All teens have the potential to be popular.   By popular teen I mean those rare people who are genuinely kind to everyone with no expectation of kindness being returned.  These are the teens who smile and talk to everyone – the wallflowers, the know-it-alls, the athletes, the band geeks, the Queen Bees and even the rough-around-the-edge rebellious types.  Maybe some day, this kind of popular will be the norm.

* * *

I recently stopped at the local pizza parlor to pick up dinner.  While there, I was approached by a beautiful girl who goes to the same high school as my children.  Without hesitation, this girl approached me with a big smile, saying hello and asking me how I was.  She did not have to do anything other than wave at me from her seat yet she came over to me and showed genuine interest.  I am certain that if I were her age, I would not have the courage to do so.  I don’t know this girl well but she made me smile – and did so in front of her peers.  Now that is a wicked good teen.

2 responses »

  1. This is such a great article, sensitive issue with 3 teenage girls in my household. One which is in middle school. I remember how important it was to have what the other kids had and to fit in so I understand their emotions and where they are coming from. Everyone wants to feel included. This has been going on since the beginning of time, nothing new. I even tell my kids in the real world people view different peers differently, so it’s not just at school. My three girls don’t like fake people and are not followers so I don’t think they will ever reach any type of full popularity, but I will say anyone can become popular I believe as well. Balance is everything and hoping that with my kids happy go lucky personalities they will move beyond “mean” people. I am very proud of my girls and how they are. We feel very fortunate. It is very sad though when your kids feel like they don’t have friends or are included in school. The kids need a program (using the popular kids) and have them do something nice for someone that looks like they are not included and maybe some type of incentive program that if a teen is caught doing something nice they get a certificate or free lunch, or something that is worthy for them. I believe there has always been a hole in the system. It would be a happy world if everyone help each other like God intends us to do, but since we are human we all have flaws. If everyone could remember that as you go through life the important thing is to improve yourself first. And all else will follow. Make yourself a better person everyday.

    • Thank you, Linda. I appreciate your feedback. I do think it’s the happy-go-lucky types that fare well. I hope my writing conveyed that this is a stage in life that passes. I remember thinking certain kids in middle school and high school were unkind. Some of these same people live in my town now and are quite nice. That is why I’m so impressed by the kids who appear to be kind to everyone at that young age when fitting in means everything.

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