Thoughts for My Children As They Start Another Year of Junior High

first day

Well, kids, here we are.

This is the year.

If there is one thing you know about me, it’s that I try to be optimistic in all things. But it’s time you were aware of something: there was a day, 12.5 years ago, when postpartum hormones were still pumping through my veins. I touched your beautiful, soft, apple-shaped cheeks and I wept. And then I wept some more.

The tears would not stop. And the reason was because it hit me that one day I would have both a seventh and eighth grader in my house. And the idea of what you – and we all – might go through during that potentially crazy, heart-wrenching, unpredictable season scared me to death.

That day has now come.

There are many things that comfort me in this inevitably terrifying time. First, despite a few concerns here and there, I actually still really, really like you. Don’t get me wrong. I knew I would always, always love you. But the liking you – really enjoying you and wanting to be around you? It’s still there, too. And in fact, it’s stronger than ever. Thank you for that.

You two are some stunningly smart, quirky, kind people. And you really do want, day to day, to make good choices. I’m not as terrified today as I was when you were babies. But I have to be honest, I’m still pretty darned nervous about this year. There’s just so much potential for heartache. And disappointment. And hurt.

I wish I could safeguard you against the pain that will inevitably come at some point this year. (And the pain that came last year, too, come to think of it.) That’s impossible, but I wanted to at least share a few tips/ideas for you as you enter this season.

Humor your mom, will you? (And maybe someone else out there will find comfort in these, too.)

Don’t Worry About Being Popular

I know I tell you this one all the time. But I just want to emphasize it to you once more. I could care less if you have one friend or 1 million. Popularity is a crock, because the thing about popularity is that it’s fleeting.

I had a co-worker years ago who always said, “Everyone loves a winner until they win too much.” There’s a truth in that. People love to build you up and then tear you right back down. It makes them feel – sadly – more important.

What is popular one day will be unpopular the next. And the ways that you have to contort yourself to fit the constantly changing standards of popularity just plain aren’t worth the damage that is done to your soul. Make decisions that you can live with and feel good about. That is all that matters.

Do Your Best, But Don’t Worry Too Much about Recognition

Maybe this one will surprise you. I know Dad and I have a wide streak of competitiveness in us. We like to win, and we like to see you win, too. (You may have noticed this from years of hearing us scream like maniacs for you in soccer/baseball/football/basketball/volleyball/swimming.) But the thing about prizes and recognitions is that often, the focus is on doing better than others. And in life, there will be times that you will be the smartest or the most athletic or the most successful in the room. But there will be many more times that you won’t be the very best around. Someone is usually worse, and someone is usually better.

That’s how life works. (Besides, if you are always the smartest or most capable person in the room, you are probably in the wrong room, because how in the world will you ever learn anything?)

Another problem with setting your sights on being recognized by others is that sometimes the deck is stacked against you. It’s no secret to you that some kids and families get special treatment – maybe because of whom their parents are, or what they have, or the pressure they have applied behind the scenes to get special treatment. Other times, you might be overlooked because, while some might find you to be lovely kids, you inevitably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. You aren’t for everyone, and everyone isn’t for you. Sometimes this includes grownups. And that’s ok, as long as you are respectful of the authority they have been given over you.

You can’t control many of the factors that go into being picked for awards or recognitions. You will win some and you will definitely lose some, too.

So, instead of trying to beat others, try to be your very best. Think about how you want to finish this year. What do you want to end the year knowing that you have done? What do you want to have learned? How do you want to have behaved? What experiences would you like to have had? Focus on those things. That is what you can control and that is what will serve you best in life and in learning.

The Most Interesting Adults Often Had the Most Awkward Junior High Years

The people I like the most seem to have one thing in common: junior high was hell on earth for them. They were awkward. Their skin was weird. Their hair did strange things. They stumbled and stammered. Their teeth didn’t quite seem to fit their faces for a season. They were sensitive. Maybe they cried more than others thought normal. Maybe they snorted when they laughed. Or had really, really runny noses. Maybe they liked cartoons or Star Wars or Dungeons and Dragons a little more than other people thought was OK.

And in all that weirdness and awkwardness, they developed actual personalities. They became some of the funniest and most insightful people on the planet. Maybe their experiences gave them empathy. Maybe they learned to laugh at themselves. Maybe all that time alone in the cafeteria gave them the time they needed to begin thinking the interesting thoughts that make them who they are today. During the hardest time, remember that this season probably isn’t the best season in your life. But it is preparing you for something amazing.

No One Really Has It All Together

You know that girl that seems to have it all figured out? The boy that has the perfect hair that everyone on campus seems to adore? I promise you they feel as ridiculous as you do. They, too, aren’t fully comfortable in their skin. That seems to be one of the biggest themes of these years – just learning to be comfortable within yourself. And it takes everyone a little time and a whole lot of work.

Recently, I talked to some of my fringe friends from junior high. They were the ones I once envied, because I truly believed that if I could just be them, I would never again feel the pain of being awkward and unwanted. I asked these people how they remembered junior high – what it was like to be the people who had it all figured out.

They had no idea what I was talking about! “Those were the worst years of my life!” one Perfect One said. “I am so embarrassed by how I acted and how I behaved then.” “I hated myself every day.” “I felt so unloved.”

I’ve never seen an actual study on this, but I really do believe that your hormones conspire to trick your brain in junior high. They convince you that you are uglier, more clueless and more awkward than anyone else in the entire city.

And yet, the thing is, that can’t possibly be true, because everyone is feeling the same thing at the same time. You are totally fine. And even if you are having a bad hair or skin day, know that it really doesn’t matter as much as you think. No one is thinking about or watching you too terribly much. They are all too busy worrying about themselves. Seriously.

Don’t Get Too Focused on Yourselves

You’ve been taught to serve others and to do it often. You already know it’s important to give water and clothes and food to people who are homeless. You encourage kids younger than you in your volunteer work at the library and the hospital, and spend time with seniors who are afraid of being forgotten. We’ve talked a lot about doing that because it’s good and it’s right. Much has been given to you, and so much is expected.

You need to know now that there is another reason to do good: serving others can absolutely, positively save your life. Taking our minds off our own challenges and struggles and recognizing how we can make the world a little better is one of the things most worth doing in this world. And as long as we can make a difference – to someone, anyone – we know that we have a reason to be here.

 

Continue to Value and Cling to the Adults that Love You

One of the cruelest and most confusing aspects of these years is that during a time when you could use a kind and supportive word more than ever, you also are feeling an urgent need to pull away from the adults in your life.

You might feel convinced that your parents, your teachers, your aunts and uncles, and your youth group leaders could never possibly understand you. You feel like if you don’t pull away from them during these years, you will never grow, and you will still be living at home when you are 40. But that’s not really true. You need to begin forming your own ideas – that much is true. You need to learn to think and do for yourself, and you need to develop the courage and the moral muscle to do the right thing, even when you know you could probably get away with the wrong choice.

At the same time, the adults in your life really have been where you are now. They didn’t have the same technology, or fashion sense, or taste in music. But human beings have been doing this whole maturing into adulthood thing for a while now. There probably are some things you could learn from the people who have already lived it.

(And besides, those people love you. They believe in you. Honor that. Because as you get older, you will realize that it’s one of the most amazing, inspiring gifts you have ever been given.)

Look for the Other Kids Who Drift Between Groups

There is something stunningly refreshing about people who think for themselves. This is true at any age, but the very best people in the world learn how to do this at a young age. This is why some of the most awesome people you could ever meet can be found on the fringes of social groups. They are the people who resist groupthink and choose their own interests and ideas. Often, they are the kids who are jocks but also really love science. They are the nerds who also can write their own music. The actors that also love baseball. The people who already think for themselves and march to their own beat are your people. It’s both how you’ve been taught to live and how you were created. Find your people. (Yes, even, if there are only two of them. Because two really is enough, particularly since we already told you the popularity contest isn’t one worth entering.)

Really, There is Just This One Goal for Junior High

We hope you earn good grades – or at least the best ones you can. We want you to work hard in whatever you choose to do – whether it’s school or sports or music. We want you to remember to honor the name that you have been given and the family you represent. We hope that you smile a lot this year. And laugh some – at yourself and also with others.

But more than anything, our goal for you in junior high is simply this: be a good person. Speak up for the underdog. Be kind to everyone – including yourself.

The thing I am most proud of in my life at this point is that I have a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old who don’t seem to be jerks. You try to be kind – to each other, to me, and to the people you encounter at school, at church, in sports, and even in the places that we go to try to serve.

To me, the worst thing about seventh and eighth grades was that it felt like every day, the culture of my school community tried to pound that kindness out of me. I felt like I had to learn to be hard. Indifferent Unfeeling. A bit of a smart a$$.

Don’t let this year make you hard. Be brave enough to be kind. And decent. Don’t put down the people who don’t seem to value even themselves. Be helpful – to your peers and to teachers and to younger kids. Recognize how hard this life is for all of us. And be of use, any way you can, to make it just a little bit better.

Thank you for being the people that you are. Let’s do this. Together.

 

 

We Aren’t Fearless Feminists – Yet …

girl power

Fearless Feminist.

My 13-year-old daughter grinned from ear to ear as she waved the white tank top with the black writing scrawled across the front.

“This shirt is everything!” she said loudly. “I have to have it. Can I have it, Mom?”

I immediately agreed that the shirt was an amazing one. I was excited that my junior high girl was so excited about a shirt that addressed equality – a social justice issue – instead of one that celebrated the virtues of shopping or selfies.

Settled on this $22 purchase, we looked around the store a bit longer, trying on beaded bracelets and examining long, fringed necklaces that we sometimes buy but never quite seem to wear.

Then, it was time to head to the register, feminist tank top in hand.

But I stopped.

And I flinched, as I thought about the place that we live – a place that I love dearly and a place that I fought hard to return to after 16 years away. I remembered the anger that many people aimed at the woman who came so close to becoming our first female president. (Just the week before, we had seen a bumper-sticker arguing that the b-#$? should be locked up.)

I recalled the spirited – and sometimes grueling – political battles my son has engaged in at school in the past year, as he’s made the not-so-radical case that derogatory statements about women matter. That sexual assault can’t be ignored. That women do, indeed, have the knowledge and the ability and yes, the right, to chase any and all dreams, including being president.

I couldn’t take another step in the direction of the register.

My girl immediately sensed what I was thinking without me even saying it.

“This shirt – this shirt could get me killed, couldn’t it?” she asked quietly and steadily (this is her way).

“Killed seems extreme,” I said, taking a deep breath. “But yeah. We need to talk about this. We need to think.”

We talked then about where she would wear the shirt and where she wouldn’t. School was out of the question (no tank tops allowed, anyway). Our progressive church was definitely a possibility. The gym was a decent option, partly because my husband or I are usually there with her and could help her navigate any crude comments or threatening body language.

But then, what about stops made after to the grocery store? Walmart? Would we have to be right with her any time she wore the shirt? What about the times when she was away from the protection of her parents and her brother? Did we want to have to engage in such heightened vigilance – all for a shirt that declares fearlessness?

“The word fearless – it seems like it’s too much of a challenge,” my freckled girl said. “I’m afraid that someone might try to really scare me – maybe make me think they were going to attack me or something. They might try to prove I’m not fearless. And maybe I’m not ready for that. Not yet.”

We left the tank top in a crumpled heap in the store.

And as we walked out, we both blinked back tears.

We are feminists – at least if by feminist we mean the radical notion that women are people with the same abilities and intellect and rights as men. But in these times that we live – when politics is so divisive and there seems to be a backlash against messages of equity and equality – we aren’t quite fearless. We are aware – aware of both the good and the bad that exists among us.

A healthy dose of fear might be what it takes to keep my girl (and her brother) safe, even as they continue to learn to respectfully challenge inequity and inequality when they see it.

Maybe having fear is about being savvy and about being smart during times when both are (unfortunately) still needed.

Maybe, too, we are still works in progress.

One day soon, we will both wear those shirts and we will wear them with pride. In part we will do this because we will live in a world more ready for the message, and in part because my girl will be even more experienced and equipped in how to stand up for herself and her ideas.

Until then, we will be feminists, yes. But feminists who recognize we need to keep ourselves safe to continue the work that so needs to be done.

I Miss the Days When Everyone I Love Was Healthy (But the Growth is Coming Now)

I can’t stop hugging my parents these days.

I cling to them, really.

And they, at the same time, are increasingly clinging to me.

It’s especially noticeable when it’s time for our visits to come to an end. We say goodbye. We hug. We linger a bit. We repeat. And then repeat again.

There’s a reason for all of this clinging and lingering, even if none of us says it out loud.

My parents are showing their age. And they are beginning to argue between each other about who is going to pass away first. (Both of them swear the other one is the healthier – and more stubborn – one who will persevere longest.)

We laugh awkwardly at these comments – my parents, my 12 and 13-year-old, my husband and I.

We pretend it’s a comical argument. But of course, it’s not.

Our days together are waning, and even while there is no specific terminal illness or clear cause of the end of life looming, enough has happened in the past year or so to remind us – almost daily – that our time together is short.

Every visit seems increasingly likely to be our last. We don’t speak these things – not directly. But we do talk, in our more reflective moments, about things like burial plots and end-of-life plans. About wills. There is an urgency that has never been there before.

At the same time that I find myself hugging my aging mom and dad, I also find I am clinging to my kids – and they to me. There are things that we, too, aren’t saying. My girl is just one year away from high school, and my boy one year behind her.

Big rites of passage – learner’s permits and college applications and first dates – all loom large on the horizon. I know. They know. And we all, I suppose, are both excited and more than a little terrified about what it all means.

Sometimes, we cling by just sitting together quietly. Other times, we choose to forego a group gathering or other commitment so we can watch a kids’ movie or just sit on the patio talking. Every time they choose to do this, I recognize it for the fleeting gift that it is. I know now that there will be a last time, and that it will come sooner than I would like.

My niece – the youngest in our little patchwork clan of family (some chosen and some born into) is about to turn four. I cling to her, too. I stare in wonder at her strong legs, pumping up and down as she runs and leaps into the swimming pool. I wonder how many years she has to run with such wild abandon, unconcerned about the bit of adorable, kissable pudge at her midsection. I try to coerce her to allow me to hold her for just a little bit. These years are short, too. And they fly by when we aren’t looking.

There’s something else that is really causing me to cling lately: Every darned friend I have has cancer. Every. One.

  1. This is an exaggeration, but only a small one. Cancer, it seems, is everywhere. And it seems to be hitting my healthiest and most generous friends the quickest and hardest. (Maybe this means I will live forever, in all my stubbornness and brokenness and emotional ice cream eating?) I’m angry. I’m hurt. I have let God know this, but he apparently doesn’t see things the same way. So, I’m clinging to my friends. I know how easy it is to lose them. And I know that our last days with them, too, happen when we aren’t quite looking.

These are painful, awful, almost unspeakable lessons. But I also can absolutely feel the growth that all of these changes are bringing. I can all but hear the spirit (I believe it’s God) on my hardest days, whispering, “now you get it. This is life. Live it well.” Sometimes, I almost feel my emotional strength stretching and lengthening on hard days. I swear I am physically taller, even though the measuring stick says otherwise.

I absolutely despise all of the reasons I am growing. I throw mini-tantrums about these hardships in my time with God – and with dear friends, if I am honest. But I know that the lessons are ones that need to be learned and that without the hard days, the good ones wouldn’t be as good.

Here is what I am learning in all of this. It’s possible none of it is particularly profound or wise, but maybe these will be good reminders, just the same:

  • Life is too short to spend your precious free time even remotely accommodating people who don’t love you like crazy and have your best interests in mind. Don’t bother with people who make you feel unwelcome, who you know will whisper and roll their eyes about you the moment you walk away, or who will secretly wish for your demise because they are so unhappy themselves. Why would you even consider having them around?

 

  • Kindness is always needed. Going through some pain myself lately has reminded me how much being kind to others helps to brighten both our days and those of others. So lately, in this blazing summer heat, I’ve been chasing down people to give them drinks. I’ve tried to compliment the random person waiting in line with me. I’ve confessed a challenge to a tired and potentially lonely stranger and just acknowledged, “whew. This life is hard, right?”

 

  • Life is too short to get edgy with people in the service industry. Maybe a waitress can never quite bring me a beverage. Maybe the order is wrong. Perhaps I wasn’t greeted when I entered. Maybe the checkout clerk is on her phone. Still, I greet others. I ask for the beverage again. I make small talk with the checkout clerk, who just might be having a bad day and dealing with aging parents or a stressed out teenager herself. It’s not personal. And viewing it as though it is just steals your time, energy and joy.

 

  • Slash anything unnecessary and unfulfilling out of your schedule when you aren’t at work. I have quit a few volunteer commitments lately. I am not sure, honestly, why I said yes to some of them in the first place. But I have purged activities from my life. If it’s not time spent with a friend, with my parents, with my children or spouse, I am just not sure it’s worth much time.

 

  • I try to do the most good I can at work, while also trying to provide what my family needs financially. My job is a tool for two things – to help meet the needs of the world, and to meet the financial needs of my family. I know that one of the best things I can do for my kids is to have my own finances in order, including a solid plan for retirement. So, I nurture and care for my career. I am trying to learn new things – and to be smart about my plans for the future. I try to make my work count – by doing as much good as possible. This part of my legacy matters, too.

 

  • I’m showing more graciousness and love to my husband. My husband is the easiest guy on earth. It’s mostly a blessing but also a bit of a challenge. One reason it’s a challenge is that it’s easy to bump him down the priorities list in favor of the more demanding folks in my life. And yet, increasingly, I know that he is the one that is, God willing, going to be navigating all these challenges and changes with me.

 

Honestly, there are days when I miss simpler times – when my family and friends were all healthy, when my kids were younger and not making so many big decisions on their own, and when it felt like there was plenty of time. And yet, here we are. Learning. Growing. Being strengthened.

What are you learning in your current season?

Take Pictures with Your Friends – Even When Your Hair is Weird

This is a picture of my friend Kim, who I was lucky enough to get to know while we both worked as teachers in Texas.

image

One of the things that I adore about this picture is that it somehow manages to capture Kim’s essence. She is a strong, smart, kind person with a beautiful spirit. And yet there is something missing from this picture – or at least missing from any of the photos in mycollection.

I’m not there.

And to my knowledge, there isn’t a photo anywhere of just the two of us.

Kim has been gone from us for about two years now. Her death after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer was heartbreaking for so many reasons, but especially because it seemed that Kim still had so much to give and so much to teach the rest of us, including her two teenaged daughters.

Looking at the span of our friendship, Kim and I got to know each other best after her diagnosis. We talked about the range of emotions that she experienced. We talked about what we thought death meant. And how different people might handle her earthly exit. We discussed what it meant to live a full and meaningful life, and whether either of us was managing to do that.

I knew every single time we talked that she might not be with us as long as we hoped and prayed. (And I did pray. Hard. Kim did, too.)

I had a number of opportunities to take a picture of the two of us together. Every time we met up, including on a crazy late-afternoon trip from The Woodlands, Texas to Baylor to hear a guest speaker talk about education, I thought about asking to take a picture of us. But I always found a reason not to do it.

My hair was too poofy.

My hair was too flat.

My skin was weird.

I was wearing my glasses.

I was wearing my contacts.

I might look tired.

I might look like a spazz.

I worried about her, too. She might not like what she was wearing. She might think that I was taking her picture because I didn’t believe she was going to survive.

Always. An. Excuse. And then, heartbreakingly, she was gone. It was too late.

People who know me best think it’s odd that I feel so strongly about having my photo taken. Day to day, I really don’t put an awful lot of time or energy into worrying about how I look. But I think that is what bugs me about photos of myself.

They don’t always capture my essence. A photo can’t show how smart we are, or how kind, or how funny. When we take a photo, we run the risk of being reduced to how we look. And then we count on the viewer of the photo to fill in the gaps.

When I look at photos of my friends and family, I don’t just see what is in the photo. I see them – in all their boundlessly hilarious, brilliant, funny, generous glory. I fill in the gaps. And every one of my friends is beautiful beyond measure. Why can’t I allow myself to view my own photos the same way?

These days, I take a lot of photos of my kids and my three-year-old niece. Photographing children is something I’ve always felt comfortable doing and something I’ve long enjoyed – in part because children don’t worry much about their hair, and in part because children change so quickly that I feel an urgency about photographing them. Capturing them in a particular phase feels urgent.

But with adults, I don’t tend to take photos very much. This is especially true when it comes to pictures of my friends. I often assume that they, like me, are feeling weird about their hair. Their skin. Their clothes. And I assume that I can always wait and take a photo another day, because we don’t change so quickly.

But here is the thing that 43 is teaching me like no age before: like children, our images can be fleeting. Some of us are taken from this earth suddenly. I’ve lost multiple friends to cancer lately. Another to suicide. One to a decades-long battle with addiction. Others are almost unrecognizable to now because they have been ravaged by illness.

I pray hard and wish mightily for the recovery of my sick friends. I cry. I wish that I had better words – in some cases for them, and in other cases for the family members who struggle. But I also wish for photos that capture the essence of our friendship – something that says, “yes. We had some good times. We connected. And the time we spent together was magical. It mattered – to both of us.”

This weekend, I visited with friends I hadn’t seen since we left East Texas two years ago. Kim should have been in that group in body. But instead, she was only there with us in spirit. I made sure I took pictures together with the rest of us. My hair was weird. They probably think theirs was, too. But I will treasure those photos like crazy.

And I will make a point of taking more photos with friends in the future. I also am promising myself that I will do a better job of making time for friendships – for honoring them for the tremendous meaning that they have in my life. Tomorrow is not guaranteed for our family, but also for our friends, too. And losing them hurts terribly.

It’s a lesson that Kim continues to teach me. And I want to do right by her.

Tweens Are (Sometimes) Stinky and Moody and Awkward – And They Need You

hunter triathlon

 

My boy completed his first triathlon this weekend.

When he started training, I thought that the highlight for him would be the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing with his family and friends cheering him on. (Also, possibly, that the t-shirt could serve as a pretty effective chick magnet, although he would never admit that to me.)

It turns out, though, that what Hunter enjoyed the most was the time he spent talking to a brave, unassuming grandmother during his least favorite segment – the run.

Like my boy, this grandmother said she was completing her first triathlon, and she was doing it in honor of her grandson, Ryan LaSource, who died of leukemia in June 2016, when he was just three years old.

My son said they talked throughout a big part of the run/walk. She was tired. He was tired. They both had a little something to prove to themselves. This woman, who I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to myself, apparently kept telling Hunter how amazing she thought he was for trying something so hard when he is only 12. Hunter thought she was pretty amazing, too.

“People who aren’t your family just don’t say that to you very much – that you are amazing,” my son told me after. “This lady, she was just so awesome. I hope she knows it.”

Hunter’s words got me thinking: we don’t tell each other how awesome we are enough. Some days, maybe we are doing something easily regarded as tough – like finishing a triathlon. But others days, our triathlon might just be getting out of bed and trying again after facing failure or loss or heartbreak the day before. Sometimes, maybe our triathlon is being kind when others have been less than kind to us.

I need to tell people they are awesome more. I bet most of us do.

Another thing that Hunter’s experience is teaching me anew is that tweens and teens especially need to hear how great they are – and they need to hear it from adults who aren’t part of their immediate family.

One of the things that surprises me most about my 12 and 13-year-old is how much they need and enjoy the adults in their lives. And I think they especially need adult fans that they meet on their own, apart from our family. (This is where teachers and coaches and librarians and volunteer coordinators come in.)

This can be a challenge, if we are honest.

Most adults are pretty comfortable talking to young children. After all, they are often cute and cuddly and not at all judging our shoes, weight or makeup.

Tweens and teens, for most of us, can be a little terrifying. I think that we assume that they are hipper than us – that we couldn’t possibly have much to say that they would appreciate.

We assume that they aren’t interested in what we say, and that what they really want is the approval and company of their peers.

And yet, at least with my two and their friends, I’m not finding that to be true. I think what I see, instead, is that they long for the companionship and reassurance of other adults – adults who tell them they are awesome when they aren’t beholden to feel that way because of family bonds. They need to hear, from people who already know about being an adult, that they are on the right track – that they are going to be OK.

This age is brutal, if we are honest. There are the hormones, messing with emotions and throwing the actual chemical balance of the brain off kilter. They have to deal with throngs of other equally off kilter, confused, moody young people, all within the puzzling confines of school systems and sports teams, and even through near-constant texting and social media exchanges (which parents should work to limit, although that’s a post for another day.) Even the most seemingly confident, attractive and talented young people are, deep down, a bit of an emotional, confused, moody mess.

It’s absolutely the worst possible time for the adults in their lives to step back and leave them to their own devices. It’s also the absolute worst time for their community of adults to retreat, assuming that they no longer have anything to contribute.

Teens and tweens can be uncomfortable in their interactions, and they can make us feel that way, too. For some of us, we might still have our own pubescent issues lurking just below the surface, unresolved.

I don’t know if the grandmother who talked to Hunter during his triathlon had any initial discomfort when she started talking to my boy. But I know that her words and example made a huge impact on him – and are something that he will never forget.

While I am trying to be the best parent I can be, I hope that other adults also will push through any discomfort, give an encouraging word, share a story or an insight. And me, I will be pushing to do the same with the young people I am lucky enough to know.

How do we honor Kingston Frazier?

kingston-frazier-new

I can’t stop thinking about Kingston Frazier, the toothy six-year-old boy who was shot to death Thursday after his mom’s car was stolen from a grocery store parking lot in Jackson, Mississippi.

Admittedly, one of the reasons the story is hitting me so hard is that it strikes close to home. Kingston’s lifeless body was found uncomfortably close to my home in Madison County.

Kingston was supposed to be at his kindergarten graduation late last week, celebrating with his classmates and their families.

I can picture the event in my mind. Lots of smiles. Family members taking silly selfies after wiping away the bittersweet and not quite rational tears that so often come with such milestones.

Instead, there were different tears – the hysterical, gut-wrenching, sobbing, wailing tears of a mother who was so devastated at the loss of her son that she was unable to even walk when she heard the news.

I wonder, too, about Kingston’s classmates. I can imagine their questions, and I can picture his teacher trying so very hard to explain what happened in a way that was as soothing as possible.

But my imagination doesn’t stop there.

I also picture the wails that surely must have come from the mothers of the three suspects in Kingston’s death. And just as I can’t imagine for the life of me how Kingston’s mother will survive, I can’t imagine how the mothers of these three young men will make it, either.

Immediately after the suspects were publically identified, I heard and saw the hot, raging anger directed at these young men. They were called animals. Excrement. Devils.

And yes, what happened in that car was beyond sickening. Evil. Vile. Just knowing that my children live on the same planet as these killers makes me sick.

But I can’t see those young men as subhuman, either.

As an educator, I see the faces of some of my former students when I look at the mugshots of the accused killers.

I picture, too, some of the young men I grew up with – ones who might have been known to sell drugs and burglarize cars and houses, but who also were at times the first to toss me a dollar for a soda or a snack when I didn’t have the cash, the ones that sometimes spoke up for me when someone from the other side of town bullied this awkward, dorky, southside nerd in the hallways.

It’s complicated.

As far as I know, none of these former classmates of mine committed a crime quite as heinous as the brutal slaying of Kingston. But they did some bad things. Scary things. Arguably evil things.

I think, too, about the fact that these three young men are all part of my community. They are products of the same school system that serves my children. In fact, my children have been taught by some of the same teachers as the suspects. I bet they have done some of the same school projects, studied some of the same lessons.

I imagine that these young men have been to the same libraries, the same shopping centers, the same fast food restaurants and parks that we regularly visit.

And so I wonder what could have happened differently. I am curious about the support that was available to these young men. I wonder how they got so horrifically hardened at such a young age. I wonder, especially, about one of the young men, who was apparently a very talented athlete.

I wonder, too, why it is that I was spared the experiences that could make a person so hard.

I say a prayer of relief that when my own boy, who is just five years shy of the age of the youngest of the accused, looked at me after hearing the news of what happened to Kingston and, with tears in his eyes, he took my hand and said, “Oh mom. It’s so upsetting. I could never do anything like that.”

I keep thinking that just over a decade ago, these young men were kids graduating from kindergarten themselves, making silly faces and flashing happy smiles as they crossed the threshold to kindergarten. I imagine there were cupcakes. And photographs. And families wiping away crazy, happy, bittersweet tears.

What was the tipping point – the event or the experience or the influence that tipped them from smiling kindergartners to the kinds of people who steal a junky banged up car and, when they discover a little boy sleeping in the back seat, mercilessly gun him down?

And as a community, what could we have done to counter that tipping point? Could a mentor at church have helped? A school counselor? A psychiatrist? A drug rehab facility?

I don’t know the answers to those questions.

And I know that we absolutely can’t let the horrific loss of Kingston get muddied in those questions.

How do we honor Kingston now?

Many are quick to say that what we owe Kingston is ensuring that his killers are brought to justice. I don’t disagree with the cry for justice. We can’t be a community or a society that allows such a heinous act to go unpunished.

And yet, I am hoping that we also are a community that will also try to do a better job of answering some of the questions about these three accused killers and how they got this way. I hope we will do a better job of identifying young men – and women – in crisis. I hope that we think about what we can do to reach young men in similar situations before they get so angry and hard, and arguably evil.

What can we do?

Research tells us that strong connections to healthy, caring adults is important. We also know that young people who have a sense that their positive actions will yield positive results are less likely to commit crimes and more likely to become healthy, productive citizens.

We know, too, that early intervention for drug and alcohol abuse can help. So can access to mental health services. I believe that a warm, caring, supportive school environment where students learn what they need to know to be productive adults also matters an awful lot.

None of this is easy. None of it is tidy. There are other issues here, too – issues of race and class and equity and segregation. We wonder if these young men’s family lives might be to blame for how cold-blooded they have become. And we wonder if we as a society can possibly do much of anything to counteract what may have happened in those first years of life.

But just as a decent society can’t allow the murder of a little boy on the brink of his kindergarten graduation to go unpunished, I don’t think we can afford to be a society that lets questions about how Kingston’s killers became the way they are go unanswered, either.

We might want to admit it, but for many of us, it will be tempting – and even easy – to forget Kingston Frazier. Most of us, if we don’t make a point of it, won’t have natural opportunities to meet face-to-face with our highest risk students.

Many of us don’t see tweens and teens at all.

We will be distracted by our own business and get busy – with homework and doctor’s visits and making dinner (always with the making of dinner!) and paying bills.

I hope we won’t let that happen. I hope we will take the harder path. And I hope that one day, we can look back and say that in Kingston’s death, at least our community found a new way to live.

 

Thirteen Reasons Why (Not)

 

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Parents and kids alike have been talking a lot lately about the hit Netflix hit show Thirteen Reasons Why, which is based on a book of the same name by Jay Asher.

I will confess that I read the book a few years back, but haven’t brought myself to watch the TV series. When I read the book, my own kids were younger and the subject wasn’t quite as raw to me because my own kids weren’t in the middle of the social and hormonal drama that often defines junior high and high school. Also, the fact that my daughter shares a name with the character who commits suicide doesn’t exactly make it easier for this worrier of a mom to stomach.

I am not arrogant enough to tell you whether watching the show or reading the book is right for you and your family – a question that has already been debated heavily in churches and schools, in the media and on social media. The truth is, I’m not sure I can fully know what is best for my own four-member family unit – much less for yours.

And yet, the book does have me thinking a lot about suicide – and especially the realities that can lead our young people to end their lives.

I’ve had multiple friends and colleagues commit suicide through the years  – starting when I was in junior high, continuing into young adulthood and as recently as last year. Every single time, the act absolutely knocked me to my knees. In some cases, the signs of the looming death were obvious. Other times – especially with younger people – the signs were not at all clear, even to family and close friends.

One of the things that absolutely terrifies me as a mom and an educator is knowing that increasingly younger and younger people are choosing to commit suicide. We are even beginning to see suicidal thoughts – and successful attempts – among students who haven’t reached third grade.

The book Thirteen Reasons Why – and I assume the show, also – does a good job of explaining why a fictional young person chose to take their own life. The reasons are outlined in extensive, gory, heartbreaking detail.

But it’s left me asking the inverse of the original question: What are Thirteen Reasons Why Not? Here is my (potentially feeble) attempt at offering up those 13 reasons. I hope that you will add your own. And maybe, just maybe, someone might be helped along the way.

1)      It gets better.

I know this has already been said — a lot. But if I could work just one miracle for our nation’s struggling young people, I think it would be to help every single one of them truly understand this reality. America has an unhealthy love affair with high school that I never fully understood – even as a kid myself. I promise you, prom is not the best night of your life. Neither is homecoming or Beta club or the football playoffs. In fact, if you are an adult and you peaked at prom or even in the football playoffs, you likely need to seriously reassess how you are spending your days.

Being a teenager is awkward – even for the luckiest among us. Everyone hates their hips and their skin. No one is entirely comfortable in their bodies. Almost everyone would rather be someone else.

My advice for high schoolers is to lower your expectations. Try to collect a few happy memories with fun, smart, kind people – the sorts of people that you would be lucky to carry into your adult life. But know that you might not find those people until a little later. And that’s ok, too. No one’s high school life is a Disney musical, all singing and choreographed dance moves. If it was, how would any of us ever develop any sort of resilience or character?

2)      And then it gets better (again).

Young adulthood can be challenging, but also a huge relief, because you at least are more in control of your choices. You get to choose who you spend your time with, what – and if – you study, and where you want to go. Odds are good your hormones have reached some sort of shaky ceasefire within your body. Maybe the angry acne that tormented you in your teens is calming down at least a tiny bit. By your 30s, life has the potential to get even better. You have more say than ever about what you do and who you do it with. You are no longer forced to sit side-by-side with the bullies of your youth. And in many cases, you have had the luxury of seeing karma take some of those bullies down a notch or two.

3)      You can find your people.

If you are 14 and really love folk rock from the 1960s or studying molecular biology and you don’t attend a sprawling comprehensive high school, odds are good you struggle to find your people. As you get older, with some planning, you can construct a life with more opportunities for cultural exposure, done with other people who share your interests and values. Even if you are short on cash, the internet can probably bring these people right into your living room now.

4)      You Have Vitamin D and Endorphins.

When all else fails me and my mood falters, I have found that one of the best things I can do is get some exercise outside. A long walk, shooting some hoops or practicing tennis often makes me feel better – and I promise you I’m not a jock. Sometimes, just sitting on the front steps and getting some sunlight reminds me that the world really is a beautiful place.

5)      Someone Cares.

I know it’s easy as a young person to feel as though no one really cares. Sometimes, life seems to go out of our way to remind us how lonely we really are. It can be especially hard to feel good about your life if your parents are so busy dealing with their own struggles that they aren’t emotionally equipped to help you with yours.

But as an educator and as a parent, I really and truly have never seen a young person who did not have someone who cared. Maybe it was a teacher, or a neighbor, or a pastor, or a sibling. Someone really does care. Just the fact that you are a member of a community – in your town, in your school, maybe in your place of worship or a school club – gives you a natural connection to others. Use that. Growth that. Even when it’s scary and even when it hurts.

6)      Your potential is boundless.

One of the cruelest – and truest – things about life is that in our youth we aren’t able to fully see our potential. We look at ourselves in the mirror and we see the flaws. We see the things that we want to improve – maybe the things that others have teased us about. And yet I can honestly say I have never, ever seen a young person who did not absolutely scream potential. If you are young, living and breathing, you have tremendous potential – potential to learn and grow and become more than you are now. Don’t squander that.

7)      You really are beautiful – inside and out.

Lately, my own kids have been asking to see more pictures of me when I was their age. But since I came of age before the iPhone, I don’t have a ton of photos to share. And yet, when I do come across a photo and study it, I find myself astounded. Because – even with my weird, not quite matching clothes and lousy skin and frizzy hair, I was totally beautiful. I promise that you are beautiful, too. And that beauty comes from your looks, your youth, and also from the promise of who you are becoming each day.

8)      There is help available.

Maybe you have an awesome school counselor or a professional counselor who is working with you. I hope that you do. But if not, someone from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available to talk. Call 1-800-273-TALK.

9)      Suicide is a lousy form of revenge.

One of the criticisms of 13 Reasons Why is that it paints suicide as the ultimate form of revenge against people who might have made your life miserable. But here is the thing I have noticed about suicide: In six months, only your loved ones will remember and miss you. Suicide isn’t going to make mean people nice, and it’s not going to make them remember you more fondly. Your tormentors will have moved on to someone else. And you will still be dead.

10)  The world is bigger than where you are now.

One thing I have seen in loved ones is that despair and sadness and depression can trick us into believing that our worlds are very small. As we deal with our problems, we interact less and less with others. We go fewer places. We see less to be excited about. But the world is a huge, sprawling, fascinating place. Push yourself to enjoy it and learn about it- and share it with others. Even on dark days, there is much beauty to embrace.

11)  Oreos. And Pringles. And Ice Cream

I know that obesity and diabetes aren’t going to do anything for anyone. But a scoop of ice cream or a simple piece of chocolate or a cookie, in moderation, sure can make life seem a little more worth living. Indulge a little.

12)  There are many things left to learn and master. 

Despair cruelly tells us that life is boring – that there is nothing left to enjoy. Do you know how to play guitar? Speak Mandarin? Repair a carburetor? Do you know every 1990s rap song that ever was on the Top 100 charts? Find something that excites you and learn it. Odds are good that no matter what you want to know, you can learn almost everything you need to know just from researching online.

13)  Suicide becomes your legacy.

When we are gone, one of the things that lives on is the memories of us. We all will be remembered in some way by others. We might be remembered as a really generous friend, or a dutiful son or daughter. We might be freakishly good at a video game or we might know a lot about history or a sport. But when a suicide happens, the decision to commit suicide often has the effect of overtaking our legacy. We aren’t as likely to be remembered for the kind things we did, or how much we knew about a given topic, or even the color of our eyes. We are remembered for the ugly, incredibly final decision to end our life.

 

 

Mother’s Day is Coming (And I’m Terrified)

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Mother’s Day is this weekend, and I will admit I am already feeling more than a little jittery about the whole thing.

In my own little family, the past few Mother’s Days have been one horror show after another. One year, a stomach bug hit three of us mid-day. Another year, my oldest child was recovering from a nasty concussion. Last year, one of my children had a harrowing emergency surgery on what was supposed to be my big day. Another time, there was a nasty case of conjunctivitis that just refused to die a final death.

My husband is irrationally apologetic about this series of bad luck. He, kindly, as the father of my children, feels a certain responsibility to make the day extra-special. (He’s a good one.)

And yet the truth is, I have had a cursed relationship with this day since well before I became a mother. And maybe you have, too.

Pain for myself, pain for others

After two miscarriages, I know what it’s like to live through Mother’s Day gripped with fear that I would never be a mother.

I also know the pain my own mom endured each year on the holiday, when talk always, somehow, seemed to turn to discussions of labor and delivery – an experience that she did not know and never would.

I’ve also spent the day wondering about my biological mother – worried that she was feeling pain or guilt for her decision to give me up for adoption when she was just 19 and recognized that she wasn’t fully equipped to give me the life she felt I both needed and deserved. At the same time, I also worried that my mom wasn’t wondering about me – that she wasn’t alive or maybe that she was but never thought about me at all.

This is the first Mother’s Day where I know how to reach my biological mother. I know a bit more now about how she feels. I thought this would help, somehow – being able to know that she is OK and that she knows I have a good life. It helps, a little, but my heart continues to break for the pain I now know she has shouldered through the decades.

I think about my friends who are without their mother for the first time this year. No matter how old their mothers were when they passed away, there is a tremendous sense of loss – sometimes for the loss of what was, and sometimes for the mourning of things that never were.

Relationships Lost

Several of my friends have moms who are with them in body only – their minds and spirits mostly lost, long ago, to the ravages of Alzheimer’s, addiction or mental illnesses. These friends often don’t know how to speak about their mothers – or how to explain their relationship with this day, which is supposed to be chock full of love, admiration, chocolate, sappy sayings, flowers, greeting cards, and mani-pedis (or at least that’s what the marketing folks tell us).

Someone I know recently lost their adult child quite suddenly, in the middle of a weekend that was intended to be one of mighty celebration. It’s a tragedy that is so horrific I almost feel I can’t speak the details of it aloud. I have no idea how she will survive this Mother’s Day, or almost any day, really. I have no words to salve that sort of pain. (And at the same time, I know that, astoundingly, inexplicably, she will survive. We women tend to do that.)

Other mothers I know have children that aren’t with them for one reason or another. Some are separated by distance – sometimes geographical, sometimes emotional. Things happen. Life is hard and tends to gunk us up inside. Relationships suffer along the way.

Most of us know the pain of being disappointed in and hurt by our mothers or by other mother-like figures in our lives. It’s a pain that is hard to get over – a primal sort of wound.

You are Not Alone

So this weekend, as my little family tries to shatter this Mother’s Day curse – not just for me but for all of us – I will choose to keep expectations low. I will be thankful for the goodness of the last year. I will enjoy my children and husband for who they are now, in all of their beauty and honesty and glaring imperfection. We will keep things simple.

I will remember those who are hurting, and I will accept, as best I can, that life is breathtakingly beautiful, but also far more ugly and complex than any Hallmark card – or Instagram photo – can possibly express.

I hope it’s a good day – or at least a tolerable one – for ALL of us.

But if it’s not, know, at least, that you are most definitely not alone.

 

 

 

 

Is social media making us more lonely?

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What social media seems to offer, on the surface, is a steady, round-the-clock escape from loneliness.

Facebook, particularly, is a tool that we can pick up at any time and use to connect with others. Even at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday, someone we know is likely to be online, posting and commenting, liking, replying, and poking (whatever the heck that means).

We experience these interactions – with our neighbor from third grade or our Biology I lab partner, or our favorite co-worker from our second job, and the stabs of loneliness fade.

Sounds like utopia, right?

But despite all our efforts to avoid it, discomfort can actually be a good thing. When we feel emotional pain, it’s a sign that we need to make changes. ASocial-Media-Marketing-Strategyvoiding it can even be dangerous.

Inward and Outward

I’ve moved several times through the years, both as a single person and with family. Most of these moves happened before social media was widespread. Each move was somehow simultaneously exhilarating and heartbreaking.

Loneliness was a big part of my discomfort.

And through that echoing loneliness, I did two things: first, I looked inward, and then, I pushed outward.

Looking inward, and being a spiritual person, loneliness pushed me to do my own internal work. I prayed and thought more about my purpose. I processed why I was lonely and what it meant.

I taught myself to be more comfortable being alone, and to really understand the crazy, quirky, messy person that I am. I learned to enjoy museums, movie theaters, restaurants, and festivals by myself. This is a gift to myself that I continue to enjoy, and it’s one I have tried to encourage my children to develop, too.

Inevitably, after I turn inward, loneliness next has the effect of pushing me to reach out and make stronger, healthier connections and to build my community.

An Introvert’s Struggle

A disclaimer is probably needed here: I am a classic introvert. I absolutely adore meaningful, deep conversations and find them energizing.

But I loathe the small talk and getting-to-know-you exercises of an early friendship. The older I get, the more I find that I despise having to tell my story over and over. I get frustrated when people try to put me in a box, especially if that box is inaccurately labeled.

Reaching out to others can be messy, weird, and exhausting, and there are definitely risks involved.

Inviting someone to invest their time meeting face-to-face with you can be awkward, especially if the friendship is a new one. We also run the risk of getting together and realizing there really isn’t a strong connection, and having to manage the disappointment and all around weirdness of that.

This is probably why, looking back, some of the most meaningful connections I’ve made in my life have come because I got really uncomfortable.

Sitting with Loneliness

Earlier this week, I had an experience that made me feel isolated. It was the first time I’ve felt that way in a long time – possibly even since we made our move back to Mississippi almost two years ago.

I was tempted to immediately distract myself with social media – to push the pain away. But instead, I chose to fully feel and accept the punches to the gut that loneliness can throw. I squirmed in my seat. I got a little angry. I even shed a few hot tears.

I sat with this feeling until it faded – or at least became tolerable.

Today, I’ve made some simple efforts to reach out and to enrich some old and new connections. (Ironically, I used social media to do the initial reaching out, but texting or calling or knocking on doors would have been just as effective.)

I’ll still be on social media plenty. But I will be using it more to make real, face-to-face connections, instead of being lulled into thinking that I don’t have that need.

Is it More Blessed to Receive than Give? (Maybe?)

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Ask me if it’s important to serve others – especially those who are most in need – and you will get an enthusiastic “yes.” (I might even throw in an awkward fist pump or a half clap if I’m still riding my morning caffeine high.)

This is especially true if we are talking about giving our time to help highly vulnerable populations – like children and families who are homeless, migratory, or living in extreme poverty.

But ask me if I believe that I should allow others to serve me, and I will absolutely agonize over my answer.

Realistically, I know that in order for the whole giving and receiving formula to work, we have to have both people willing to serve and people willing to accept acts of service.

This week, as we struggled with the day-to- day logistics of caring for an active 13-year- old who is on crutches, my husband and I were forced to realize we needed help. While we could figure out how to transport her to school in the morning, it was far more difficult to get away from work in time to pick her up from school each day.

As our stress levels spiked, I sensed the lesson I was being pushed to learn: “ask for help. There are people who would consider it a gift to help you – and to get to know your kids better. Don’t deny them that.” One part of my brain recognized that this might be true – that there are plenty of people who, like me, love getting to know young people and connecting with families.

And yet, I quickly canceled out that message. “I don’t want to be so reliant. I want to fix this problem using the resources I have. I don’t want people to think I can’t take care of my own responsibilities. These are my kids. It’s my responsibility to give them everything they need.”

So instead of just asking for help like a normal person, I posted on our neighborhood social media, looking for a college student or other adult who might be interested in getting paid to drive my daughter home from school each day.

Immediately after I made the post, people were responding on the page – and also texting and private messaging me – that they didn’t realize my need and would be happy to help, as long as I didn’t insist on actually paying them.

Walking into work with my phone buzzing with messages offering immediate assistance, I couldn’t help but get teary eyed.

For someone who insisted they didn’t need unpaid help, I sure was mighty thankful to get it.

We now have a plan for the remaining 2.5 weeks of school that will get my girl (and her 981,407-pound backpack!) to and from school safely.

A part of me still feels compelled to apologize to the people who will be helping. I can’t seem to stop saying – and thinking – things like, “I’m sorry.” “Thanks so much – I really wish we didn’t need this.” “We definitely owe you a favor in return one day.” “We need to have Matt make you guys a nice dinner really soon.”

Deep down, it’s eating at me – this feeling that I am incurring a debt. Or that I’m being needy. I worry I will take more than is intended. Or maybe I will be a less appealing friend, somehow, because of my need. The friendship bank ledger will be thrown out of balance.

My daughter – who unfortunately seems to have inherited my obsession with emotional bank ledgers – is saying the same things, “That’s so nice. We should get them something to thank them really soon.” “I feel bad that people have to stop their lives to come and pick me up.” “We really do need to repay their favor.”

Even though we are trying, I know we will continue to struggle with accepting this generosity. But when we do struggle – and when we are tempted to apologize profusely for having a need that we certainly didn’t plan – we will try our best to stop and remember the times we have helped others.

We will recall these times, not because we think those acts of service make us more worthy of today’s extra support, but to remember how much being able to help others has enriched our lives. We are better, happier, more connected people because of the acts of service that we have done.

We also will work very hard to remember that when we choose to accept help, we are choosing to have relationships with others – and to allow those relationships to blossom. In accepting what others give, we will be saying yes to connection and community, while resisting isolation.

We will do our best to smile, accept the assistance, and hope that the people who are helping feel that same sense of joy, connection and meaning that we have.

Then, because we are still works in progress, we we will probably insist on cooking them a nice dinner to say thank-you just one more time.