Monday, March 2, 2020

Lessons Learned on the 9th Grade Retreat

Last week, I got recruited, or drafted, depending on how you look at it, into chaperoning the 9th grade retreat. It's a huge affair, bigger this year than ever before because of a huge influx of freshmen, over 200 in the class of 2023. This creates a whole lot of positive changes, but also some logistical challenges when it comes to getting all these students onto buses, sorted into cabins, and escorted all over campgrounds to participate in outdoors activities. Just to paint a picture of what we were dealing with, imagine 9th graders out in the countryside of Umatilla, Florida, shooting bows and arrows for the first time. The thing is, I don't actually teach 9th grade, so if I knew any of these kids, it was purely by accident.

The theme of the retreat was "Trust" - trust in God, primarily, but also venturing out of your clique and trusting other peers to be good friends, trusting teachers and administration to have your best interests at heart, and trusting your family for unconditional love. Every activity had a lesson attached, and, while I'm not sure how many of those lessons found a home in the hearts of those kids, I know that I learned some valuable lessons over the course of those three days.

1) I learned that 9th grade boys are like squirrels who got into a cocaine stash, and then decided to go on a pub crawl that ended with a tasting tour of all of Starbucks most caffeinated beverages. The decision-making processes are bizarre, and everything is a competition. Sometimes it's healthy competition, like who can row the canoe fastest, or clear the most tables after lunch, or hit the farthest targets with an arrow. Often it's terribly unhealthy and immature conversations, like who can push someone into the most people in line for food, who can make the biggest ball out of brownies, and who can make the loudest noise with bodily functions after 11 pm. That last one had a clear and uncontested winner. I got so fed up that I had to look inward and ask myself if I was like that at that age. I think I may have either blocked out those days, or revised them in my memory, because I don't remember being that annoying. On the other hand, I did get beat up a lot, so I must have been getting under someone's skin.

2) The difference in maturity between freshman boys ad freshman girls is large enough to be incalculable. While the boys are trying to see who can poke each other in the eye first, the girls are off to the side trying to make Tik-Tok videos of themselves dancing and building friendships that will last a lifetime, or until they like the same boy. At the very least, the girls are manageable. They may not want to try all of the activities, but there were a lot more adventurous ones than I thought there would be, even if they did squeal about everything in nature. Speaking of nature, many female eyes were rolled at the boys acting like black-footed albatrosses in their mating dances, trying to attract the girls attention with the limited social tool kit that their short life experience has amassed. One pair of real bachelors tipped a canoe full of girls right into the brackish lake by repeatedly ramming them, after repeated warnings from both me and the lake master on his rescue boat. They were utterly surprised that they didn't get a round of laughs and the coveted "snap."

3) For all of the bravado and risky behavior of the boys, for all of their annoying silliness and inexplicable decisions, these kids have problems. When the time came for the boys and girls to split, and the real heart to heart discussion began about what it means to be a man, what it means to trust God and people, what types of things bother or challenge them, it started out with some of the boys repeating the school talking points, but evolved into a mass confessional. There were boys stepping forward, in front of about a hundred of their peers, and opening up about their lives. Some of these boys are dealing with their parents' divorcing, and knowing all of the illicit details of the breakup. They've lost respect for their fathers because of infidelity, or their mothers for the same. They've lost loved ones to the ugliest diseases, and this after they've been told all their lives that God loves them and wants the best for them. Some of them feel farthest away from God at a time in their lives when they should feel His love all around them, almost physically, attending a Christian school, involved in church, literally surrounded by Christian teachers and counselors. They're just entering their high school years with a heightened sensitivity to the competition and pressure to perform flawlessly at school, often in the overwhelming shadow of very successful and wealthy parents. Some of them are cutting themselves and having suicidal ideation. They're like little islands of depression and anxiety in a sea of Christian love. 

The encouraging thing about the whole experience, the jewel of hope in all of that despair and angst, was watching that huge group of boys rally around each kid that got up and shared, and cried, and broke down as he spilled his secret shames and fears. While a boy was talking, they were quieter and more attentive than I had seen them all weekend, with a focus that I didn't think was possible for them, and when he was finished, they practically leaped out of their seats to form group hugs around him. All of the crassness and unfounded bravado they had exuded all day dissipated, and instead they showed love with abandon. They connected through their pain and worry and supported each other like brothers. After hours of being frustrated and annoyed with them, this one experience showed me that they have the capacity for maturity, even if they don't always tap into it when it's convenient for me.

At the end of the three day retreat, after hours in the sun on the lake, after what seemed like an eternity in the biting cold evening with the wrong attire, and after a 5 hour return trip, I stepped off the bus back on campus four pounds lighter from avoiding camp food the entire time, with sunburn on some weird overlooked places, lips chapped and splitting, and a sleep debt of about 65%. But I also came back with an understanding of what these wild boys are going through every day, and what their antics are meant to hide from the rest of us. I came back with a mission to pray for them and to look more closely for opportunities to offer a word of encouragement and hope, even if I have to force it through a veneer of annoying behavior.