Most of us were weird in junior high. Or mean. Or obnoxious. Or just weird. Junior high is a time where nothing about ourselves seems to make sense. Physically, emotionally, academically... strange stuff is happening; it ain't pretty.
Junior high is all about pack mentality. There's safety in numbers. Find your group. Follow the leader. Do your best to just blend in. In a way, it's not all that different than what you should do on the first day of prison. Unlike prison though, you don't have to shank someone in the yard the first day. You only have to find the one kid who's weirder than you feel. An emotional and mental shank, if you will.
And that idea -- that idea about being like everyone else, the idea about not standing out, the idea about not rocking the boat -- that's what makes it so hard to teach kids about kindness to others, especially those that are different.
That's why I liked this video so much.
It reminded me of one of my favorite camp stories. I worked for 8 summers at a camp that mainstreamed children with special needs into cabins of "normal" campers. There was a family who came to camp. The parents were older, with grown children, and they had then adopted 3 children with special needs. The oldest of these kids was Sean, a young man with cerebral palsy. He was in a wheelchair and difficult to understand, but Sean was blessed with the biggest and brightest smile in 4 counties. Wherever he went, he brought sunshine with him. He was loved by every member of our staff. In his last summer at camp, Sean was put in a cabin of uber-popular teenage boys who would be staying for 2 weeks. Sean would only be there for one.
Although I knew that Sean's counselors would take care of him, I worried that these boys (who could be rough and loud and, let's be honest, a little obnoxious) would either A) overwhelm and intimidate him or 2) completely ignore him. I crossed my fingers, hoped for the best, and kept my eyes peeled.
I knew things were going okay; I hadn't been called for any major problems with them so that took care of concern A. I wasn't so sure about the second. It wasn't until the boys figured out that not only was Sean going home while they would stay another week, he also probably would not be back the following summer. They came to us at lunch, asking if they could throw a goodbye party for Sean after Free Swim. They planned to let Sean go early with his counselor, and they would get ready. The boys -- these rowdy, self-absorbed, uber-popular knuckleheads -- gave up their favorite activity to decorate their cabin with streamers and banners and homemade cards. When he and his counselor pulled up on the golf cart, the boys were lined up on the front porch to welcome him back, hooting and yelling and dancing around. Sean was so excited, clapping and swaying, that he almost fell out of the golf cart, and his smile could have powered all the lights in Fort Worth AND Dallas in that moment.
In that moment, though, Sean's smile had nothing on the smiles of those 9 other boys. When I saw that kid at the end of the video, describing how that play changed him, how it made him want to be kinder and more helpful to others, I saw my rowdy boys in his face.
In my circle of camp friends, it is well-known that I had not wanted that Unit Coordinator job with those god-awful teenagers that summer. I had been a little-kid counselor, and I had kicked and screamed about taking that job. I was an elementary education major until that summer, and when I think about memories like that, it's no wonder that I switched the following semester.
Throwing that party for Sean didn't mean those boys were any less rowdy or any less of knuckleheads. It didn't mean that they never caused me trouble again or never made another mistake. It didn't even guarantee that they would see the importance of their own actions. But it did mean that, for a few minutes at least, they were a lot less selfish and a little bit more grown-up.
Those moments don't happen often for teenage boys, but when they do, it's important to stop, think about all those sympathetic head nods, and know, "better me than you".