This week I had the opportunity to witness amazing examples of teen leadership. I’ve read the stories of world-changing teens and seen the absolute potential pulsing in my classrooms, but I haven’t had many opportunities to work with living examples of what’s really possible. This week I did.
I should probably toss on a disclaimer to this post before I get any farther. As I write these words, I’m exhausted. Like, sitting-on-the-couch-staring-off-like-a-zombie-more-than-I’m-actually-looking-at-my-computer dead. My muscles certainly are not working correctly, and my mental state is questionable at best. I apologize now for any incoherency that may work its way into these ramblings. I could detail the many contributing factors that brought me to this point, but I’ll sum it up in the words “teen retreat.”
Over the last four days, I served as adult staff for a Teen Institute retreat, a community-based program focused on building youth leadership, particularly in the area of substance abuse prevention. The program leader happens to be my husband’s best friend, so when we realized we would actually be in town and not working during the retreat dates, we quickly agreed to sign on as chaperons. Between my husband’s camp experience, my teaching experience, and our combined youth group leadership experience, this kind of thing is right up our alley.
What made this trip so awesome was the high concentration of experienced teen leaders in one place. The Maximizer in me was having a field day! I watched older teens (veterans of the program) mentor younger teens (the new recruits) as living examples of positive peer influences on one another. I watched them engage each other in a mission for a better community. They challenged each other to step out of their comfort zones, encouraged each other to deliberately reach out to new friends, and even worked hard to include some of the more awkward participants who could have easily become misfits otherwise. They took initiative when the situation called for it, and even when it didn’t. They were honest and open about tough issues. They were willing to be ridiculous and goofy, instead of acting too cool to be involved. They didn’t just talk about leadership; they lived it.
I think my favorite part, though, was simply the conversations. I’ve always connected well with my students, but this was different. This time I got to be Christine, not Mrs. Roberson. I dressed in t-shirts and jeans instead of my professional blazers and high heels. Combine that with my naturally young looks, and at first many participants thought I was another youth. If they did realize I was adult staff, they grouped me in with the young college-age staff, instead of the handful of us orbiting our thirties. I saw some jaws drop when they eventually learned I’m actually 28 and a teacher.
I enjoyed taking on a different role. Usually, I work hard to establish my authority first, and then afterwards I’m free to allow students to get to know me. This time, they got to know me before they realized I was an authority figure. In other situations that might be a problem, but they were good enough teens that my role as adult staff really didn’t include much need for discipline. Guidance, yes. Focus, yes. Someone to keep track of time and the schedule, yes. I only had to put on my “mean-teacher-face” once to get the results I needed, and even that wasn’t a big deal. For the most part, if I gave instructions, they followed them. The teens kept me active and on my toes both physically and mentally (hence the exhaustion), but they were good.
So instead, I could talk with them. I could sit down next to them at lunch and engage them in conversation. Since many didn’t realize the age difference at first, they spoke to me as a peer. They showed me that they are respectful and articulate out of habit, even in informal situations. They were intelligent, thoughtful, and well-spoken. They saw problems in their world, but instead of whining or complaining, they were plotting courses of action to change things.
More than once, I found myself saying that maturity comes with experience, not age, and those veteran teens demonstrated that beautifully. A sixteen year old who has shouldered responsibility and taken on challenges that make a difference can easily be more mature than some adults I’ve met, if those adults have never learned how to live life on their own or take financial responsibility. These youth were not perfect. They still have more to learn and plenty of room for growth, but they’re open to learning and growing. They have linked up with great mentors, and they’re on the right track. They’ve learned how to problem-solve and try new things. They’ve learned to step up and act, instead of waiting for someone else to act for them. They can change the world, and they’re starting in their own community. That’s awesome.