“I’m sure you know there’s lots to learn, but that’s not your fault, that’s just your turn…”
Dar Williams, “Teenagers, Kick Our Butts”
Several of my kids started college this week. Pictures of dorm rooms and new roommates are popping up on Facebook. More will head off in the coming days – I think 8 or 9 of them in total will be freshmen this year. And back in May, about 6 or 7 of my kids graduated from college. They’ve studied abroad in Denmark, England, Spain, Japan, and France. They live here in Boston, in California, in DC, and New York, at least for now.
Of course, these are not actually my children. (For starters, I could never afford to put that many kids through college.) I’m talking about the young men and women I know through my role as a volunteer mentor. For the past five years, I’ve worked with the Diocesan Youth Council (DYC), a leadership group that is part of the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts.
My husband and I don’t have kids, and I’m not under any illusions about my role in the lives of these young people. I see them for a few weekends a year. Their parents, teachers, and communities have done the heroic work of raising them into the thoughtful, responsible young adults that they are. I get to learn from them, enjoy their company, and maybe teach them a little something along the way.
My own experience in youth group was incredibly important to me. I grew up in a large Roman Catholic church that had an active youth program, with both small group meetings and the big events – ski trips, retreats, movie nights – that are universal elements of teen programs. In the group that met weekly at the home of our mentor, I learned about keeping commitments and being dependable. I learned how to deal with awkward silences, and how to be comfortable articulating and sharing my thoughts. We were given opportunities for leadership and I learned how to disagree, and how to handle people with whom I did not get along.
People often ask me why I like working with teenagers, and why I choose to spend several weekends each year sleeping on church floors, or in uninsulated cabins in the woods, trying to convince 10 or 20 young women that they really need to stop giggling and texting and go to sleep.
The truth is, the teenagers I know are so full of possibility and energy and life that they are a joy to be around. I get to join them on part of their journey, and often the most exciting part, as they consider their future and try to discern their path in the world. It’s such a gift to witness their growth over the 2 to 3 years that we’re together, and while I’m always sad to see them graduate, I just cannot wait to see what they do with their lives.
They give so much to me and the other adults who volunteer with the DYC. They keep me connected to (and help me understand) popular culture, and they keep me honest – teenagers can sniff out B.S. from a mile away, and they don’t tolerate it. And what do I give to them? I hope my message to them is that they are loved, and they are enough. Just as they are. When they are present, they and their gifts are welcomed and celebrated. When they are absent, their absence is noted and they are missed.
There are challenges, of course. You want to be able to prevent some of the difficulties that you experienced at their age, but you can’t. You know that they’re going to make mistakes, and you just hope they make the ordinary, run-of-the-mill mistakes that most of us made when we were young, the kind you get over and bounce back from, even if you still cringe thinking about them years later.
You know things they don’t. That some of their friendships won’t survive college. Some will rupture because of an argument or a thoughtless word. Others will end for no discernible reason – over time, emails and texts will slow, until one day you notice that a friend has simply slipped out of your life. Odds are that high school romance won’t last, either, in spite of the strength of feeling and the will to stay together. Of course you can’t tell them this – they need to figure it out and experience it all themselves, as you once did.
But if they’re lucky, you know what else awaits them. If they’re lucky, they may find themselves, as I just did, visiting a friend I’ve had since I was 15 years old, who is, against those above-mentioned odds, married to a wonderful woman he first met in youth group. If they are patient and generous and allow their friendships to stretch and change and grow then someday, years from now, they’ll know the pure pleasure of talking and laughing and recalling some dumb teenage mistakes with someone who doesn’t need any explanations or backstory, because he’s been part of the story, well, forever.
But they can’t know all of this. They’re just at the start of this great adventure, and so we all – parents, coaches, mentors, teachers, friends, parish, community – bless them and send them into the world. Off you go now…