Middle Schoolers are weird and I love it. Insecurity, self worth and body image issues run rampant causing these “tweens” to act in strange and inexplicable ways. My youth group traveled to BigStuf summer camps last year in Panama City; it was there that I had the opportunity to engage in a conversation with a student who seemed to struggle with insecurities that were very much the opposite to those of her peers. I ended up giving her what seemed to be a reverse pep talk. I guess there is a first time for everything.
Where I am very used to encouraging 6, 7 and 8th graders to be confident in who they are even through the awkward teenage stages and to overcome the feelings that they are ugly or too skinny or too fat and all the usual teenage insecurities; I found myself face to face with an 8th grader who was not, in fact, awkward and whose peers could not keep their eyes off of her, not because of her gawkiness, but because of her natural beauty.
Racially ambiguous, flawless skin, petite figure, stylish fashion sense, a welcoming smile…this kid has a lot going for her when it comes to the outward appearance alone; that’s all before getting to her fun personality and sense of humor.
“I just feel like everyone is always looking at me, trying to figure out what I am. And I’m like humble and stuff…so I don’t really know like…what to do…” she explained.
Well what do I say to that? The usual, “you’re beautiful because you are God’s creation” doesn’t really apply here. Neither does the, “Your body is going through an awkward stage…hang in there and you’ll grow out of it,” speech.
This is where I’m thankful that as a Small Group Leader, you can never get too much help or too much training. One of the authors that helped write the book Lead Small taught an hour long leader training at summer camp that year. In the session, one of the things he said that stuck out to me was, “Change is not an option, but how you respond to it is. You can either ignore it and drift nowhere, hold on and let it drive you where you don’t want to go, or make an adjustment so you can move in the right direction.”
So here I am standing next to this frustrated 8th grader and it hits me, she’s struggling with how other people are treating her regarding her appearance and it is affecting her feelings and the way she views life. The way that she is letting other people effect her is the same way that we as humans get bent out of shape when change happens. But just like we must learn to accept that change is not an option, she has to learn that her God-given beauty is not an option either. She can’t change the fact that people are going to double take when she walks down the street and she can’t change the fact that people are going to want to know what combination of races created her gorgeous skin tone, eye color and the placement of her cheekbones.
She has the option to ignore it and just drift through life, miserable. Or she can hold on to the discomfort and anger she feels and let it drive her somewhere she does not want to go in life. Or, she can make an attitude adjustment so that she will be moving in the right direction.
After getting through that whole thought process, I was at least able to use the classic ending of, “You just do you no matter what,” but it was really interesting to see how every person struggles through these “tween” years regardless of whether they are considered pretty or awkward.
At the end of the day we all have to come to the conclusion that we are going to be in charge of our attitudes about things that happen in life and the ways in which we react to them. There may be a different journey to that conclusion for all of us, but we get there nonetheless.
Through that one conversation with one student I saw the importance of being open to establishing community with a student and building relationships. That one conversation was the only time I talked with that student during the week. Every other time we crossed paths it was simply in passing, but the foundation is there and the door is always open. That’s when “leading small” gets big.