What I’ve Learned In Middle School

My mom retired from 37 years of teaching. While she always pushed me to get an education and start a career, she constantly advised me against being a teacher—mostly because teachers get unfairly compensated for their work and the sacrifices they make. But I also think she advised against it because of the emotional toll it can take.

She knows what it’s like to have a 5-year-old boy tell her that his step dad touches him and hurts him. She knows what it’s like to teach a 6 year old how to hold a pencil because his own parents have never spent any time with him. She knows what it’s like to be attacked with hugs every morning by droves of love-starved kids who spend their evenings in front of a television while mom and dad scream, yell and hit each other in the next room.

Yeah, teaching’s not easy. I can see why mom steered me away from it. And although I didn’t chose it as a profession, a few weeks ago, I was asked to teach the middle school Sunday school class at church. I didn’t have much experience, but I was looking forward to a chance to connect with the kids at church since I’ve only been there less than a year.

And what an awkward stage for kids, eh? Not a child, not yet a teen (erase any reference to Britney Spears that comes to mind), I knew I was in for a challenge with this age group. Not only would I have to stand on my head, juggle three balls and pass out candy bars continuously just to keep their attention, I would also be responsible for sharing the timeless truths of God’s Word and being an example to them by the life I lead, not just the words I say.

That’s no small order — especially for a 24 year old with no experience. But I was up to it and accepted the role.

Yesterday was my fourth time to teach. I was embarrassed because I couldn’t remember all 25 of the kids’ names, so to get to know them a little better, I passed out an informal survey, asking them what their favorite bands and foods are, the best part of their day, what they’d buy at Target with $20. I asked them what would make the class better; what they worry about; who they would like to see come to church with them; what they don’t understand about church; and one question they’d like to ask God.

A couple hours later eating lunch alone in my apartment — leftover pizza and a Diet Dr. Pepper — I read over the surveys, laughing at the funny comments and feeling my heart sink every time a kid wrote he wished his parents to come to church with him.

But the answers to "If you could ask God one question, what would it be?" were especially poignant. I think I was expecting to hear silly questions with easy answers. Maybe it’s because of Sept. 11, maybe it’s because the world is an increasingly jaded and evil place, but their candid responses weren’t from the world of cereal boxes and Saturday morning cartoons. They ripped to the heart of every person’s soul, not just children’s. The questions these children readily offered as their major fears are questions and fears and insecurities we all have as adults; we’ve just learned how to gloss over the issues. We’ve learned how to operate around these questions. But we haven’t learned how to answer them.

One girl asked, "Why am I ugly?" She is one of the most beautiful girls in the class. Things don’t change as we get older, do they? Funny how this girl’s Sunday school teacher spent 10 minutes in the church bathroom before service trying to fix that one curl that wouldn’t cooperate and wondering why no matter how hard I try to look good, I’m rarely satisfied with the outcome. If I just lost five pounds, if I just spent some time in the tanning bed, if my face had a little more definition, if I was just a little taller, if I just had money to buy cooler clothes.

We don’t change as we get older. Fears and insecurities don’t go away just because we get older or smarter.

A handful asked, "Why are people so judgmental?" It’s not hard to see why some would ask this in an age group where kids crucify you with giggles and smirks for a mispronounced word when reading out loud or taunt and name-call when a new haircut turns out less than flattering. Kids are brutal.

But I don’t think the question was about why their peers are judgmental; it was probably more of a reflection on the people they see around them; the people they may grow up to be: the fathers they hear tear down their wives in front of them at the dinner table; the religious leaders they hear condemning people struggling with sin; the grandparents they hear making racial slurs; the politicians they see giving favoritism to the well-connected and wealthy; the teachers they see play favorites.

How do you teach a child when you don’t have it together yourself?

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Wow, did I really give that prize to the girl who tells me she loves me and thinks the world of me in the class? What about that disruptive kid in the back corner with a rough home life whom I’m constantly sending out in the hall? Do I give him a chance to win a prize when we play a game? Do I judge him because of the challenge he presents me? Do I favor the girl who complements my teaching?

Am I equipping them to be better than the people they’re afraid of growing up to be now?

The overwhelming majority of the responses to "If you could ask God one question, what would it be?" was: "Am I going to heaven?" second only to, "When are you coming to get us from this horrid place?" "When will this tragedy end?" and "When is the end time coming?"

I was the age these kids are when the Gulf war was in full swing about ten years ago. I remember the fears I had about the world I was growing up in. But what I don’t remember is ever growing completely out of those fears.

While my prayer life matured over the years and my faith has grown to know I’m in God’s hands and that my protection is in Him and not in anything in this world, deep down, I know the questions these kids are asking still swim in my own mind. How can I offer any type of assurance and comfort to these questions when I lay in bed at night whispering, "Jesus, please save me," because I’m unsure of my own salvation?

I’m finding that I can’t offer answers. But I can do something even more powerful. I can identify with them. I can invite them on the same journey that I’m on—the journey that takes you to peaks of confidence and the valleys of insecurity. I can invite them to learn together with me to trust in the grip of grace instead of the fears of man.

While I didn’t learn all I needed to know in Kindergarten, I’m finding out in middle school that you never will learn all you want to know. I’m learning to embrace the essence of faith instead. All this thanks to a bunch of prepubescent school kids who wear their hearts on their sleeves — it’s about time I take a lesson from them.

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