She was the epitome of the kind of middle schooler I just couldn’t stand–she endlessly fawned over boys, flipped her long hair over her shoulders and applied lip-gloss every few minutes. Her nails were perfectly manicured, and she petted her designer handbag constantly.
She drove me absolutely bananas.
Before you assume that someone should call the police on me because I sound like a stalker, let me tell you what you’re looking at here:
I did six weeks of classroom observation in college, sitting in on a seventh and eighth grade class full of kids. When you sit that long in a classroom, simply watching teens, you learn a lot about them. And in those six weeks, I learned that this eighth grade girl was the epitome of “The Student I Couldn’t Handle”.
She was boy-crazy. She was obnoxious. She cared more about putting on makeup than paying attention to her classes. She wore her cheerleading outfit every day. I was the opposite, in every way. How could I possibly get along with a kid like this, let alone guide her into a meaningful walk with her Savior?
Fast-forward a few months, and I found myself facing an entire small group of girly-girl, makeup-applying, hair-twirling, boy-crazy cheerleaders.
This time, I couldn’t label these girls as “The Students I Couldn’t Handle” and walk away from the classroom. I made the commitment to be a confirmation small group leader for two years, and this was my small group.
Why did I think I couldn’t handle them? I suppose I felt like I had very little in common with them. I guess I assumed that I couldn’t teach or impart wisdom or even matter to kids who were so different from me.
I was wrong. So, so wrong.
Despite my false assumptions, I became incredibly close to my boy-crazy, purse-toting girls. Together, we shared incredibly profound spiritual moments. We served together, went to theme parks together, drank gallons of coffee together, and painted our nails together. We laughed and cried together. Most importantly, we all grew closer to God together.
As I stood at their confirmation service with tears in my eyes, watching them bow their heads and pray, I couldn’t help but think back to the first time I met them, two years earlier. I had been so concerned that I couldn’t possibly get through to kids who seemed so opposite of me. But God knew best, as He always does.
I think the temptation, as leaders, is to think that we can’t matter to certain kids. We want to try to label ourselves and the students around us. Sometimes we think to ourselves, “I can get along with the sporty kids, but not the drama kids.”
Sure, there’ll be kids with whom you hit it off more easily. We all have the kids who connect with us with no effort. However, just because it seems like we might not mesh with a certain type of student doesn’t actually mean we won’t. And, even if we don’t become best friends with a kid, we can still share the life-saving message of grace with him.
In Matthew, Jesus declares that we are to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). He doesn’t tell us that we have permission to go to the studious, rule-following, goody-goodies but we can skip over the kids who paint their lips black and pierce their eyebrows. He didn’t challenge us to reach out to and share the love of Christ with the kids in pep band and to hold it back from the captain of the football team.
Ultimately, no matter how different we all are, we still share a lot in common–namely, our desire to be known, loved, and appreciated. And, even more fundamentally, we all wallow in our own sin, suffering from mistakes and pains in our lives. We all have a need for a relationship with our Savior.
Students in middle school have an especially deep desire to feel understood and accepted. During these tough years of changing bodies, changing relationships, changing moods, and changing interests, kids appreciate older people in their lives who help them become comfortable in their own skins. They crave talking to others and establishing relationships. No matter how different a teen may seem from you, he or she will still benefit from you taking an interest in their lives–especially something as important as his spiritual life.
In other words, just because we think we’re facing “The Student We Can’t Handle” doesn’t mean that it’s not just as important for us to share Christ with that student.
So the next time you find yourself facing a student who embodies everything you aren’t, remember–we’re called to make disciples of all nations.
Even if it means sharing Christ with the designer purse-toting, manicured, hair-flipping, lip-gloss-covered cheerleaders.
They might just surprise you, after all.