Ten Teenagers In One Room For a Year.

Because I am my mother’s daughter, I frequently choose to do things for no other reason than a patronizing exasperation at how poorly someone else is doing them, and a conviction that I am the only person who can do it better, or at all.

I am of the oh-for-heaven’s-sake-just-

give-me-that-and-let-me-do-it-for-you school of . . . well, everything. Sometimes this is a pretty serious negative – I’m not proud of how often I let people cheat off my homework in high school, for example, or being That Person in the group project who would rather do the whole thing myself than put my name on someone else’s sub-par work. But sometimes it all ends up for the best, because I decide to do something for what starts out as a really snooty and negative reason, and end up continuing to do it for a healthy-normal-person reason, and then everybody wins. ‘Twas thus with youth ministry, which is now one of the great joys of my life.

Without going into the entire, you know, epic saga of the last 5 years, I will just say this: I volunteered to help my sister with Confirmation prep and other high school youth activities at my church in the fall of 2004, when I was newly back in town from my year in New York. I did not sign up to do this out of any particular investment in my faith, in my parish, or even in helping out my sister. I did it because as soon as I met the current youth minister I was pretty solidly convinced she was doing everything wrong, and I didn’t like her. I might have had some good points in that first year – I might have been doing some things right or had some positive instincts – but whatever they were, they were buried under an avalanche of insufferably self-righteous superiority. Did I have any background in youth ministry? No. Had I done this before? No. Did I have any kind of a degree or training? No. But I’m me, so I’m never wrong. (Or thus went my thinking at the time.) I was thousands of times more confident in my abilities then than now, but the humility you need to be good at a job where your purpose is to SERVE others was pretty solidly nonexistent.

Here’s what happened.

1) the youth minister I didn’t like left for another job.
2) I was left in charge.
3) I realized it was a whole lot harder than I had ever given her credit for.
4) We got a new youth minister, and I liked him a lot better. I realized I had been inappropriately dismissive of youth ministers in general.
5) That youth minister left. (Not in a bad way. We’re totes still friends.)
6) I was left in charge.
7) We got a THIRD youth minister. The third time really is a charm. This one clicked, and stuck around.

I figured out pretty fast that people can sniff out insincerity. Yes, maybe some of the people I disdained were insincere and fake; but I was too. Over the past years of my mom’s illness I had to learn some skills I’d never needed before – patience, grace, humility, the gift of being able to ask for help, an acceptance of not being perfect and never having all the answers. Was I kind of a mess? Oh God yeah. But I was infinitely better at my job.

In a nutshell, for those of you who don’t know, here are some of the many facets of a Catholic youth minister’s job:

–Counseling kids with serious family issues
–Designing awesome t-shirts
–Explaining the Bible
–Telling the truth
–Calling kids out (lovingly) on their crap
–English tutoring
–Being honest about the struggles in my own life
–Going to Confession on my own
–Chasing sixth-graders around the playground
–Keeping an incredibly detailed and complex schedule
–Teaching Shakespeare to 8th graders
–Paying attention during Mass
–Reading the “Twilight” books
–Cultivating my skills with Sardines, Extreme Spoons, Apples to Apples, and poker.
–Living a faithful Catholic life even when I’m nowhere near church. (Even on vacation at the beach drinking cocktails with my friends at a bachelor party, I am still a youth minister.)
–Using sarcasm to earn the respect of middle school boys
–Eating a lot of fast food and cheap pizza
–Teaching kids how to find God in everything (at various times my Confirmation class has included finding Catholic truth/teaching/inspiration in “The West Wing,” the poetry of Leonard Cohen, my high school drama teacher, the role of corporate pharmaceutical companies in the global AIDS crisis, Bruce Springsteen, the play “Angels In America,” the New York Times, teen drinking statistics, Walt Whitman, Irish culture, and my friend Daniel Stoltenberg from Whitman.)
–Impersonating Archbishop Vlazny when we rehearse for the Rite of Confirmation. (I’m getting pretty good at it.)
–Becoming a font of arcane saint lore (St. Drogo is the patron saint of unattractive people. You’re welcome.)
–Answering my phone in the middle of the night when a kid’s in trouble
–Making really good mix CDs

My job is demanding. It’s 24/7, even though I only get paid for 15 hours a week. It’s definitely not for everybody. But I love my kids more than anything else on earth. The kids that have come through my Confirmation classes in the last five years are some of my favorite people in the world. They are brilliantly deep, thoughtful, passionate and articulate. They are hysterically funny. They are loving, kind and devoted to their friends and family. They keep me together and make me laugh. They’re the way I reassure myself that the days I’ve spent on this earth are making a difference.

There were ten kids in my class this year. These kids, I’m telling you, there is no one on earth like them. Marcus and Sean, the two boys in the class, these are the kind of boys that you want to miniaturize and carry around in your pocket and whenever people make disparaging comments about high school boys as a species, you’d pull out mini-Marcus and mini-Sean and Disparaging Commenter would lapse into a shamed silence. They are THAT COOL. (I have told them this.) Marcus is sweet and goofy and does this thing where he sneaks up behind people and makes a noise that sounds EXACTLY like a giant barking rabid scary dog right behind you, and it frequently makes people fall out of chairs. His smile is unbelievable. Sean is this big guy, built like a football player, and the most loyal, loving, cuddly human being on the planet. I was told his nickname at school is Panda Bear, which is PERFECTION. He’s the Platonic ideal of Protective Older Brother. We both lost parents in the same year and no joke, this kid has been my rock. And the girls, oh my goodness. Crazy and amazing. CRAMAZING. There’s this volleyball-playing, Britney-Spears-loving duo from St. Mary’s, Rose and Brianna, who are hysterically obsessed with “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” and other things I like to make fun of, but who always have a smile on their faces and baked me a cake on my birthday. They’re friends with Ariana, who is the perfect Portland hipster; she loves Lights and Lady Gaga, she looks you straight in the eye and says exactly what she thinks, and has this loony sense of humor that you have to get used to before you realize how insanely funny she is. She’s also irrationally terrified of antiques, which I find hilarious. Then there’s Maggie, who has a breathtakingly fabulous singing voice and is going to be on Broadway some day and is pretty much made of sunshine and unicorns and puppies and rainbows; and Rachel, whose life over the past year has been full of struggles and frustration but who has more inner toughness and grace than anyone I know. Twelve years younger than me and she gives me better advice sometimes than my therapist. Sweet little Maria has had insane health problems over the past year, and instead of ever once complaining she’s decided she wants to be a doctor, because she knows what it feels like to be a scared kid in a hospital and she wants to do something about it. Maria is the kind of person who could make the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes without ever saying a single word. Jessica is adorable and completely insane – she’ll say something totally random, burst out laughing at her own hilarity, and we won’t be able to get her back to normal for half an hour. She also falls down a lot. She’s got this zany Lucille Ball sparkle, and I want to take her with me everywhere I go for the rest of my life because I would never be bored. And my beautiful Gracie, who honored me beyond measure by picking me as her Confirmation sponsor, makes fun of me all the time and is one of the best piano players I know. She wrote a song for me and Monica and it’s seriously amazing. She’s feisty and smart and sassy and no one on earth is better at hiding during Sardines. No kidding. You’ll walk right past her nine times, with the light on, and miss her completely.

These kids, I can’t even tell you what my life this past year would have been without them. There have been EPIC snowball fights and games of Sardines in the parish office, discussions about everything from whether God exists to how shopping organic fits into Catholic teaching, and many an evening when my face hurt from laughing by the time I got home. (Which is sort of how I think church should always be. If I get to heaven and there’s no laughter or wine in God’s house, I quit for real).

Every day I get to spend with these kids is a reminder of how little I know and how broken I am . . . how little I sometimes feel like I’m possibly able to teach them.

But it’s also a reminder that the world is full of hope, that things are going slowly but in the right direction, that kids are nothing like the world says they are, that people can constantly surprise you. If the future of the Catholic Church is in the hands of those ten kids, the world is going to be all right. And I’ll have done my job.

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One thought on “Ten Teenagers In One Room For a Year.

  1. Like! Like! Like!

    …but, there is merit in doing the whole project yourself to get it done correctly. The times I didn’t insist on doing it myself have resulted in sub-par grades and I’m still bent about it! 😉

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